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BOOK REVIEW: ‘No Easy Day’

- - Wednesday, September 12, 2012

By Mark Owen with Kevin Maurer
Dutton, $26.95, 336 pages

The Pentagon has already reviewed this book. When we don't like a book, most of us in the business of literary criticism give it a bad review and suggest that people not buy it. The Pentagon's reviewers have threatened to prosecute the author. That has made book reviewing a full contact sport. Unfortunately, it will also increase sales; that is poor strategy on the part of the bureaucrats.

"No Easy Day" is the story of the raid by members of Navy SEAL Team 6 to kill Osama bin Laden in May 2011. The author is a former SEAL and was on the mission. The author's pen name is Mark Owen. Although his real name has been revealed by leaks, I'll use the pen name in the review because Mr. Owen claims to have delivered the coup de grace to bin Laden after the terrorist was shot in the head by another SEAL. That will likely make Mr. Owen or his family a terror target. I'll honor his request for anonymity, even if others have not.

The author and his co-writer have done what they set out to do. They give a feel for the sights, sounds and emotions of the raid and how the special operations forces of the United States train for and plan such operations. The first portion of the book deals with how the author became a member of the elite SEAL Team 6 (formally known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group). Team 6 is the elite of the elite; it is assigned to high-profile missions such as the bin Laden takedown. To become a member of SEAL Team 6, one has to first qualify as a SEAL. That is no mean feat in itself.

Once chosen, candidates have to go through a nine-month process of screening and training known as Green Team. This training pushes the candidates to their physical and mental limits in order to produce individuals who, while being extremely competitive, can work seamlessly as a team and respond to unexpected combat situations with a minimum disruption to unit cohesion. This was critical in the bin Laden raid in Pakistan.

The second half of the book details the preparation for the raid, the raid itself and the aftermath. The real controversy over the book is not its literary merits -- it is in whether or not it should have been written at all. The Pentagon claims that military secrets were revealed. It is almost impossible for a reader to determine if that is true because the classification system has been abused so badly in recent decades that it is difficult to assess what has been classified because it protects national security and what is merely embarrassing to decision-makers.

With two possible exceptions, I see nothing in the book that reveals anything that has not yet been leaked to writers who have done previous accounts. I had not read before that the rules of engagement would allow bin Laden to be taken alive if he gave clear signs of surrender. He appeared to be resisting when he was shot, but it now appears he was merely disoriented. The author makes it clear that bin Laden died badly. Like Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi before him, he expired passively, not in the display of heroic martyrdom that all three promised.

My problem with this book is not whether it reveals classified tidbits. Rather, it is the fact that open-source information about special operations set out in this way puts our troops and their missions in danger. The book will be a best-seller and someone eventually would have written one, but it is a violation of confidence. Our adversaries can and do read. I teach a class on adversary thinking at the graduate level. With this book, those like it and leaks by high-level government officials, I could prepare some very nasty baited trap ambushes for future American special operations.

In this way, government officials who leak details about special operations are irresponsible if not criminally negligent. Prosecuting the author in this case, however, would be a slippery slope. A smart defense lawyer would subpoena a variety of very high-level congressional and administration officials regarding their involvement in revealing national security information; that would be toxic in an election year.

To make it clearer what is and isn't acceptable in the future, the Pentagon needs to tighten its rules on publication, which are much looser than those of the CIA.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps colonel who teaches a graduate class in red teaming at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.