Dec/Jan 2013

SEAL of Approval

How celebrity culture coaxed forth the inside story of the bin Laden raid.

Kerry Howley


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Navy SEALs during parachute training.

After giving the order for twenty-four Navy SEALs to descend upon a compound in Abbottabad in April of 2011, President Barack Obama attended the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where he addressed many of the same people the White House would rely upon to propagate its version of the raid. This was a version of events that exaggerated both American heroism and Al Qaeda cowardice, and it began to unravel nearly as quickly as journalists delivered it to the public. We learned that four helicopters had landed and then that it was two, that the Navy SEALs had been on a kill mission and then that they had the option to take bin Laden alive, that the woman who was killed at the compound “was used as a shield” and then that she was just “caught in the crossfire.” We learned that bin Laden “resisted,” and then later that he had been unarmed. “Resistance,” clarified White House spokesman Jay Carney, “does not require a firearm.” The details seemed to matter less sixteen months later, as the episode had been condensed into precisely one half of a campaign slogan. “Bin Laden is dead,” Vice President Joe Biden bellowed at the Democratic National Convention, “and GM is alive.”

The bin Laden raid redounded to the greater glory of the Navy SEALs, but until recently there were no particular SEALs on whom to lavish admiration. No one knew their names, what they looked like, or where they lived. The raid’s most iconic image was in fact that of Hillary Clinton watching it. A piece in the New Yorker, taken to be the definitive account of the raid, was written without the author, Nicholas Schmidle, speaking to any of the SEALs who were present. They were a mystery, and a romantic one. The Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow was making a movie. Newsweek called SEALs “the coolest guys in the world . . . America’s quietest killers, working anonymously and without public recognition.” With the help of a former soldier, a handy ABC News guide gave tips on covert SEAL spotting: “They have gazelle legs,” he told ABC, “no waist and a huge upper-body configuration.”

That was before a Navy SEAL calling himself “Mark Owen” was spotted during an interview on 60 Minutes. Before he published the book No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden (Dutton, $27), which spent its first weeks in publication at the top of the best-seller list, and before he drew the condemnation of the Pentagon, which says it may prosecute Owen for violating the nondisclosure agreement all SEALs are required to sign. “The people that presented some of the details of the operation were authorized to do so by the president of the United States,” explained Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. “In this case, that was not the case.” It was useful to promote Navy SEALs, in the abstract, as celebrities. It was dangerous for an actual SEAL to inhabit that celebrity.

The story this SEAL tells is not a romantic one. Bin Laden was shot in the head while peeking out of a door, then shot many more times in the chest. He was unprepared, the guns in his room hidden and unloaded. He died in his bed. To pose the corpse for the requisite photos before stuffing it in a body bag, Owen pulled bin Laden’s beard this way and that, yanking the head into position. Another SEAL pushed a spring-loaded syringe into bin Laden’s thigh in an attempt to get a blood-marrow sample, and when that syringe didn’t work, borrowed Owen’s syringe. “Walt jabbed it several times into Bin Laden’s thigh,” Owen reports, “but the needle didn’t fire.” Wandering into the bathroom, Owen found Just for Men hair dye, which he took to be the reason for bin Laden’s surprisingly youthful appearance.

Owen and his coauthor, journalist Kevin Maurer, describe the raid without much emotion. The pair, indeed, are moved to far greater transports by the specs of military hardware—in one scene, Owen giddily inventories all the combat gear he receives upon promotion to the United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group, the detachment that carried out the killing of bin Laden. (In the loving description of sixty-five-thousand-dollar night-vision goggles, M4 assault rifles, and “a suppressed Heckler & Koch HK416 with ten-inch barrel and an EOTech optical red dot sight with a 3X magnifier,” No Easy Day reminded me of the book it replaced on the top of USA Today’s best-seller list, the sadomasochistic novel Fifty Shades of Grey, in which a kinky billionaire lavishes designer clothes upon an ordinary girl.) By far the most emotionally resonant scene in No Easy Day occurs after Owen gets home, when he is flipping through television channels and watching other people tell the story of the raid that he helped to conduct. “Every show was airing something related to the mission,” he writes.

Most of it was speculation. They reported that we were in a forty-minute firefight. Then I saw that we’d taken fire while we were outside the gate. Then, Bin Laden had a weapon and attempted to defend himself before we shot him. And of course it was reported, in Bin Laden’s last seconds, he had enough time to look into our eyes and see that it was Americans coming to get him. The raid was being reported like a bad action movie. At first, it was funny because it was so wrong.

A day after Owen published his account of the raid, Fox News identified him as the thirty-six-year-old, highly decorated former navy commando Matt Bissonnette. The Department of Defense was not amused. “As the commander of the United States Special Operations Command,” wrote Admiral William McRaven in an internal e-mail later made public, “I am becoming increasingly concerned about how former members of the Special Operations community are using their ‘celebrity’ status to advance their personal or professional agendas.”

Here McRaven, who is credited with organizing the raid, was going beyond questions of legality to raise the rather more complex issue of military culture; even if Bissonnette had not divulged military secrets, and even if it was only himself he was putting in danger of retaliation, he had broken a code of silence. McRaven pointedly praised those who “serve quietly and respectfully,” and he lamented the way those neither quiet nor respectful deign to represent the entire Special Operations community. Curiously enough, McRaven’s depiction of quiet, code-honoring SEALs watching others misrepresent their experience sounds very much like Bissonnette flipping through channels, watching others botch the details of the experience through which he had lived. As the community of those who did not write memoirs or give interviews or otherwise self-promote grew smaller, each “quiet and respectful” SEAL found himself surrounded by more and more stories that did not precisely mirror his experience.

McRaven does not mention in this e-mail that he is himself the author of a book called Spec Ops (Presidio Press, 1997), which on its back cover promises to divulge “secrets of the trade.” This last detail was wryly noted by four former servicemen—two Rangers, a Recon Marine, and a SEAL—in their strange, puckish, unevenly edited set of musings titled No Easy Op (Sofrep Kindle book, 2012). They composed their collaborative essay in response to No Easy Day, and made news for the accusation that Matt Bissonnette broke the code of silence because his fellow SEALs turned on him. But the most compelling accusations in No Easy Op concern the military culture that might lead a man to talk—a culture that the authors say separates the Navy SEALs from the army’s elite Special Operations unit. The authors contend that veterans of Special Forces do not have the burning need to publish their memoirs—or at least not to the extent that SEALs would seem to. “Dozens of SEALs have written their memoirs from this current war while only a handful of Special Forces soldiers have done so,” they write. “A cursory look at Amazon’s Top Twenty books in the intelligence and espionage genres reveals seven nonfiction books by and about SEALs, one SAS memoir, and one fact-based self-published novel by a former Green Beret.”

The authors largely defend Bissonnette against his detractors, but they attribute the glut of SEAL books to a kind of moral weakness in the navy. In an army accustomed to taking fire, they claim, big talkers are “put in their place very quickly.” By contrast, in the dull gray floating fortresses of the navy, “pretty much any type of ground combat element is going to appear as the coolest, most badass thing that has ever happened in the history of the U.S. Military.” The SEALs are “the only ‘cool’ thing in the Navy,” and a resultant “culture of boasting and arrogance continues to haunt the SEALs and the way the larger military community perceives them.”

All that reeks of “boasting” in Bissonnette’s book is the fact of its existence—but that is no small thing, as Bissonnette’s efforts to anticipate and disarm the various military responses to No Easy Day have made abundantly clear. At every turn in this text, Bissonnette must reintroduce the idea that he is uninterested in self-promotion. He served for “something greater” than himself; he wrote so that his fellow SEALs could have their stories told; his “experiences are universal.” Each deflection merely serves to revive the awkward question of the writer’s motivation; and though the need to tell one’s story is deeply human, it is a kind of neediness all the same. In No Easy Day we see SEALs train to execute all manner of superhuman athletic feats. Nowhere do we see them train to undertake the burden of anonymity in a culture that calls them “the coolest guys in the world,” writes them into feature films, and turns their kills into campaign slogans. For this SEAL, it seems, that burden was too much to bear.

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