The book as a book
(For anyone not familiar with this best-seller, a Navy Seal has written a first-person description of the raid which killed Osama bi Laden.)
Owen and his credentialed co-writer effectively convey the dreariness of training and the excitement of close combat. Opening with a chapter which describes the pending crash of one of the helicopters assigned to the mission then using several flashback chapters before returning to the battle is effective plotting. To a degree, No Easy Day reads like a novel. The author acknowledges that he must rely on memory to reconstruct conversations. (Gratefully, he avoids excessive use of the f-word which so many writers use when seeking to convey realism.) His scenic descriptions are evocative. Alert: Those readers who skim or skip the details of Seals training won't experience the full understanding and excitement of the concluding action chapters.
Although Owen writes in the first person, it is easy to discern that he is representing his team when he describes, boasts or complains, endures the physical and mental/emotional dimensions of Navy Seals training. In a television interview, for which his features and voice were disguised, that same sense of 3rd person narrative came through. He does write "we" and "us" and "our" often.
For the purposes of this book review, I suspend judgment re any breach of protocol Owen may be charged with. Breach or not, Owen has delivered an outstanding public service. The book differs from the official account, which maintains that bin Laden was killed after reaching for a weapon.
Is the book a political attack on the President, coming out as it does in the middle of the presidential campaign? Owen says that his intention was always to publish on September 11. Some will say, however, that Owen's "This book will finally give credit to those who earned it" is a slam at Obama. And critics can cite these two paragraphs on page 193 as showing political intent:
"And we'll get Obama reelected for sure," Walt said. "I can see him now, talking about how he killed Bin Laden."
We had seen it before when he took credit for the Captain Phillips rescue. Although we applauded the decision-making in this case, there was no doubt in anybody's mind that he would take all the political credit for this too.
I'll leave it there.
A combat veteran's view
A family member, discussing the "Saving Private Ryan" movie, complained that the scope was too narrow, that the "big picture" was missing. I replied that under fire, your universe ends with your line-of-sight: that house, that hill, that bunker.
Reading No Easy Day, I repeatedly felt hemmed in, almost claustrophobic, by the necessary limited geographic scope of the mission. By comparison, my battle experiences were comfortably spacious, for the most part. Hell, there were days when we could see the distant horizon while we were fighting.
Our training wasn't, and didn't need to be, as rigorous and detailed as what the Navy Seals go through. If a house seemed a threat, we simply neutralized it before closing in. I remember having time to feel sad about the damage our grenades had done to the contents of a china cabinet. Owen's team of Seals needed to be much more skillful to operate in their physically smaller combat arena -- one house, for example, not a village street with 20 houses.
Is a Navy Seal a better fighter than an infantry soldier or a Marine storming a beach or a combat pilot? Not at all, so I found it a little off-putting that Owen did the NCIS-bit: You know, not a bad guy in the bunch, never leave a man behind, and all that.
The Seals practice of routinely killing wounded "fighters" (Owen never calls them the "enemy.") came as a bit of a shock until I remembered that WWII vets who fought in the Pacific reported having to kill wounded enemies after losing buddies who went to examine a wounded Japanese only to be greeted with an exploding grenade. That made it easier to appreciate why Owen so matter-of-factly describes combat behavior which would be considered morally questionable by civilians and by some who have served in the military but have never been under fire.
But, the book contains no false bravado. Just reportorial description. And the last several chapters which detail the final attack are compelling reading, hard to set aside.
Frank Versagi is the editor of Versagi Voice.