BOOK REVIEW: ‘Killing Geronimo: The Hunt for Osama bin Laden’

KILLING GERONIMO: THE HUNT FOR OSAMA BIN LADEN

By Darren Davis, Jerome Maida and Stefano Cardoselli

Gallery Books, $15, 96 pages

“Killing Geronimo: The Hunt for Osama bin Laden” is useful but not stirring stuff. The shortage of shock and awe has to do with the constraints of non-fiction and the short page counts of comic books.

The graphic novel by writers Darren Davis and Jerome Maida and illustrator Stefano Cardoselli is preceded by a disclaimer explaining that the book “is based on true events, with actions and dialogue depicted as accurately as possible based on the information that is now known.”

The book is crowded with a great deal of exposition on nearly every page. Some of the stuff in speech bubbles, including lengthy excerpts of speeches by George W. Bush and Barack Obama, is not the sort of dialogue most readers have come to expect from comics. Because of this, “Killing Geronimo” is best classified as an illustrated story in comic book form. The closest fit, genre-wise, would be the fairly recent best-selling graphic novelizations of government reports, such as the official timeline assembled by the 9/11 Commission.

For bin Laden drama, people can watch Kathryn Bigelow’s new movie “Zero Dark Thirty” — but for a good, short summary of what we know about the story, this book will do nicely. Political words have a tendency to go stale, but “Killing Geronimo” lends a freshness to many of Mr. Bush’s remarks. When readers see Mr. Bush talk to the camera from the Oval Office in uniform blue tones, we are in the moment again.

We see Mr. Bush first introduce many of us to Osama bin Laden. We see him commit us to war against the man, his terror networks and any country that would shelter them. And we see him abruptly shift away from bin Laden toward other concerns. “I just don’t spend much time thinking about him, to be honest with you,” he says in a news conference. On that last point, the authors go to great lengths to let the president make his own case. In his opinion, and in his uninterrupted words, “The idea of focusing on one person is — really indicates to me people don’t understand the scope of the mission. Terror is bigger than one person, and he’s a person who has been marginalized.”

Whether this change in focus hampered the hunt for bin Laden is a matter of hot debate. The authors try very hard not to be judgmental, but it’s hard to experience their account of the battle of Tora Bora and not think it was a huge, indeed historic mistake. In that conflict in the mountains of Afghanistan in December of 2001, U.S. special forces knew roughly where bin Laden was but saw multiple plans for smoking him out shot down by top brass, possibly even by the White House. They were handcuffed by a mandate to work closely with Afghan warlords and give the body and credit for bin Laden’s kill to the locals. At one point, a small contingent of Delta Force was probably within a few thousand yards of bin Laden’s cave. They were ordered not to engage without Afghan allies present.

When U.S. soldiers engaged the enemy along with the Afghans, everything went awry. The locals negotiated a fake truce with al Qaeda forces, literally pointing guns at their American allies when they refused to stand down. Even so, we almost got him. A quick-thinking commander, unwilling to let this chance to get the man behind 9/11 slip away, called in a massive airstrike. Several hours of aerial bombardment wounded bin Laden and killed a lot of his allies. Yet he still managed to slip away, with the help of a local family.

When it got a second crack at bin Laden almost a full decade later, the U.S. government proved it had learned from past mistakes. There was no cooperating with local powers this time, no reliance on foreign militia, and little in the way of subterfuge after the fact. The CIA zeroed in on the target, Mr. Obama gave the green light, and enough U.S. special forces were helicoptered in to put a couple of bullets in bin Laden and take his body with them. Then the president took to the airwaves to inform Americans that our long national nightmare was finally over.

Jeremy Lott is editor of Real Clear Books.

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