In “No Easy Day,” retired Navy SEAL Matthew Bissonnette recalls skimming the nighttime rooftops of Baghdad on a helicopter skid, parachuting into the Indian Ocean and following a foot-wide goat trail along the ridge of a mountain in Afghanistan.
Most notably, he recounts following another commando up a staircase in Abbottabad, Pakistan, during Operation Neptune Spear in May 2011, wearing $65,000 night-vision goggles. The point man fired the bullets that killed Osama bin Laden. Bissonnette and a third SEAL then pumped additional shots into the corpse just to be sure.
You can sympathize when Bissonnette says he didn’t have time to mulch the lawn at his Virginia home -- “It was easier to pay for it,” he writes.
It’s personal touches like this, along with Bissonnette’s insider knowledge of the SEALS’ role in the war on terror, that make this book worth reading. To be sure, the author acknowledges that quotes and dialogue are based on his best recollection, not on notes he took at the time, so a reader should be skeptical. And there is no index.
Still, Bissonnette (writing under the pseudonym Mark Owen) has produced a low-key yet exciting memoir of the war on terror from the perspective of one of its elite practitioners.
He was until April a member of SEAL Team Six -- or, as it’s formally known, the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or Devgru. It’s one of several Special Mission Units at the president’s disposal for the most difficult assignments.
The group is so secret the Navy rarely mentions its name. When 17 members died in August 2011 after their chopper was shot down, the Navy identified them only as members of an “East Coast-based Naval Special Warfare Unit.”
So you can imagine the Pentagon’s nervousness when news of the book broke last month. The Pentagon and Bissonnette’s attorney traded letters over whether the retired commando violated a 2007 non-disclosure agreement.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said Tuesday that defense officials believe the book contains classified information.
Forget the back-and-forth about bin Laden’s final moments and the artificial debate over whether Bissonnette’s version of the raid contradicts the initial White House version, which said bin Laden was armed and was shielded by one of his wives.
None of this was accurate, which the White House has long since acknowledged.
The book’s real value is the portrait it paints of the raid -- the rehearsal, execution and postscript.
Two things stand out:
First, Bissonnette took great pains not to disclose any details of the operation’s most sensitive features. He could have wowed readers by describing the high-tech Black Hawk that ferried the raiders to Pakistan. He did not.
The same goes for the drone that reportedly beamed pictures to the White House that night. The only detail he mentions was that it transmitted “grainy black-and-white video.”
Bissonnette had first-hand knowledge of the chopper: Wearing 60 pounds of gear, he was riding in it with his fellow SEALS when it started to plunge out of control over the bin Laden compound.
The episode was so jarring to the normally in-control Bissonnette -- he’d never been in a crash -- that he made it the book’s prologue.
Second, the Pentagon and White House owe a great deal to a 50-year-old Army pilot Bissonnette calls Teddy, who executed a hard but controlled landing of the Black Hawk, essentially saving the mission. Teddy was fighting a vortex caused by unexpectedly warm air and the effect of the high wall surrounding the compound.
“My heart went to my mouth when the helicopter landed in the courtyard because I knew that wasn’t part of the plan,” then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates told “60 Minutes” in May 2011. “But these guys were just amazing.”
(Gates was a CIA official in 1980 when President Jimmy Carter sent U.S. forces to try to rescue 53 Americans being held hostage in Iran. The operation was aborted after a collision between a helicopter and a military transport plane killed eight servicemen, contributing to Carter’s re-election defeat.)
Bissonnette says this of the pilot: “I know for a fact he kept the mission on track by ditching the way he did. Everybody focused on who pulled the trigger but it was a lot harder to land a crashing helicopter than it was for any of us to pull the trigger.
“One wrong move and we all would have been in a pile of debris in the courtyard. Teddy saved all of our lives.”
Bissonnette breaks up the tension with tales such as one about the “staff of power,” a 12-inch sex toy found during combat practice at an abandoned Miami hotel. The device ended up in various places, such as strapped to the author’s steering wheel, coiled in someone’s gas mask and jammed into a bin of children’s cookies.
“To this day, I still can’t eat animal crackers,” Bissonnette says.
“No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama bin Laden,” by Mark Owen with Kevin Maurer, is published by Dutton in the U.S. and Michael Joseph in the U.K. (316 pages, $26.95, 18.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Tony Capaccio is the Pentagon reporter for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Tony Capaccio in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org