I was aiming for an upbeat post this week, a break from financial tomfoolery and doomed teen romance. Maybe a fast-paced psychological thriller, or some indulgent chick lit buried at the bottom of my shelves. …Or maybe I could just decide to read about the death of Osama Bin Laden and screw all that.
I picked up No Easy Day—the Pentagon-condemned military memoir by Navy SEAL and Bin Laden mission participant Matt Bissonnette—out of, well, sheer curiosity. So rarely are we afforded the privilege of transparency when it comes to the military that it seemed an awful waste not to take advantage of this book’s release. Moreover, the Pentagon’s overwrought reaction to the whole thing made it sound as though Great and Powerful Secrets were contained within.
If I’m being perfectly honest—with you all, with myself—I found No Easy Day less interesting than I probably should have. Bissonnette (who wrote the book under the pen name Mark Owen) is clearly an experienced and talented SEAL, but a professional storyteller he is not. The book, which skips around between the Bin Laden mission, preceding missions, a bit of military history and Bissonnette’s own experiences in training and combat, is straightforward and matter-of-fact, filled with the kind of practical detail that would be entirely mundane if it weren’t related to wildly important foreign policy decisions, and some of the most secretive and technologically advanced military missions in recent history. It’s sort of like Sookie Stackhouse (the narrator, not the TV iteration) quit her job at Merlotte’s, became a Navy SEAL and then wrote a book about it. While No Easy Day provides a wealth of information about the preparation that went into Operation Neptune Spear (seriously), it also provides a substantial amount of background on things like…what Navy SEALs wear, how they pack their gear, the intricacies of helicopter rides, the use of hammocks, and so forth.
Of course, the book’s rather humdrum tone itself says a great deal. One of the most striking parts of One Easy Day—and despite its lack of narrative fanfare, the book can be striking—is how far removed Bisonnette and his colleagues seem from political machinations. To the SEALs, this is simply everyday life. Moreover, moments of Bisonnette’s experience that I would associate with some sort of profound confronting of my own morality, he works through with little introspection. (To be honest, my biggest takeaway from this book was not that Bin Laden may have been killed without first wielding an automatic weapon at his captors, but that I would truly and completely suck at being in the military. Like, so very much.)
At the same time, I found Bisonnette’s casual attitude towards deployment rather depressing. I have the utmost respect for members of the military, and I certainly understand that we would, by virtue of our entirely different job descriptions and life experiences, have different perceptions of what is normal. But it’s still hard for me to fathom a normal like the following (kind of a long excerpt; bear with me.)
“I guided the man into the center of the room and secured his hands together with flex-cuffs—plastic handcuffs—and slid a hood over his head. My teammate watched the women while I quickly searched the man’s pockets. I then pushed the man to his knees and shoved his head into the corner. He tried to talk, but I pressed his face against the wall, muffing his voice.
Our troop chief, who was running the mission, popped his head in the door.
‘What do you have?’ he said.
‘One MAM,’ I said, which is shorthand for ‘military-aged male.’ ‘Still need to search the room.’
I walked to the far corner of the room, next to the mattresses, and saw the brown stock of an AK-47. Resting on a pile of small plastic bags was a green chest rack, used to carry extra magazines, and a grenade.
‘Got an AK over here,’ I said. ‘Chest rack. Grenade. FUCK!’ I was pissed we hadn’t seen the weapons earlier.
My teammate who covered the women hadn’t seem them either when we came into the room.
The man I found in the room was definitely a fighter and a smart one too. He hid his gun, chest rack, and hand grenades just out of reach and well enough for us not to see them on our initial entry into the room.
Everything inside me wanted to shoot this guy right there on the spot. He knew the rules we had to follow and he was using them against us. We couldn’t shoot him unless he posed a threat. If he had any balls, he would have lit us up coming through the door. He knew we were in the house. The man must have heard us come in and thought he could hide with the women.
With the house secure, I led the man to another room to question him. The room’s floor was covered in rugs, and sleeping mats were piled in a heap in the center of the room. A TV on the floor was on, but the screen was just static. Our interpreter stood next to the man as I pulled the hood off. His face was sweaty and his eyes were big as he tried to adjust to the light.
‘Ask him why he had grenades and a chest rack,’ I told the interpreter.
‘I’m a guest here,’ the man said.
‘Why were you sleeping with the women and children? Guests don’t sleep next to the women.’
‘One of them is my wife,’ he said.
‘But I thought you were a guest here,’ I said.
The questioning went on like that for about a half hour. He never got his story straight and the next morning we turned him over to the Marines.
It was frustrating because missions were like this day after day. It was a catch and release system. We’d roll them up and in a few weeks the fighters would be back on the street. I was confident the fighter we found in the bedroom would be released soon. The only way to permanently take them off the street was if they were dead.”
No Easy Day is full of passages like this, where I found myself thinking about a thousand different thoughts that ultimately boiled down to “Jesus, war is stupid.” Not because I don’t think these men are incredibly brave, or because I don’t sympathize with their frustrations, but because I feel like it should depress any civilized person that there’s a faction of our society whose job performance hinges on their ability to successfully eliminate other people. Regardless of politics, or even broad ethical positions, it’s just kind of a bummer.
No Easy Day is an easy book to read, in the sense that it’s written tactically, without much flourish. But it can be a difficult book to swallow. These are some of the most respected defenders of our national security, protectors of our country, and yet I find in their careers something wholly depressing about humanity. Bissonnette’s retelling of the Bin Laden mission (worth reading the book for on its own, strictly from a standpoint of historical interest) has a similar dichotomy: On the one hand, yayyy, we finally killed him! On the other hand, sigh, it always comes down to killing. At the very least, the author does a great job of impressing upon readers the sheer magnitude of preparation that went into the mission, and the myriad ways in which the anticipated procedure could (and in some cases did) go wrong. These people do the incredible every day; I can barely motivate myself to get to the gym.
I suppose the only lingering question here is whether I agree with Bissonnette’s decision to write the book in the first place, thereby disclosing military strategy (if not actual secrets) and inadvertently drawing praise for something meant to be conducted anonymously. To that I say, meh. No Easy Day does nothing, in my opinion, to diminish the reputation of the military, and if anything might serve to dispute any lingering misconception that the armed forces are full of people just itching to torture prisoners. I can’t deny that Bissonnette feels a certain desensitized urge for retribution—understandable, for anyone who’s lost comrades in action—but he never delights in the violence of it.
As of this writing, No Easy Day is a No. 1 bestseller, and that gives me some modicum of faith, that people are interested in hearing a version of the story not filtered through politicians or the media. Bissonnette may not be the best writer in the world, but his account feels fair, and removed from political bias; considering we’re just over a month away from the election, this is a refreshing break from Bin Laden as partisan talking point. Read this book if you simply want a better understanding of what happened that day, or what it’s like to be a Navy SEAL, or how you’re probably wasting your life by comparison. Read it to feel informed, not to feel like you’re right.
PHEW. Okay, now here’s a photo of a dog wearing sunglasses.
TITLE: No Easy Day
AUTHOR: Mark Owen (Matt Bissonnette)
ALSO WROTE: n/a
SORTA LIKE: The Red Circle, Lone Survivor
FIRST LINE: “When I was in junior high school in Alaska, we were assigned a book report.”