Updated: December 3, 2012 21:57 IST

Lifting the veil of secrecy

Swaran Singh
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Intimidating details on U.S. anti-terror operations till the killing of bin Laden served without sugar-coating

The book No Easy Day had become controversial even before it hit the stands. Starting from early September this year there were reports of Pentagon planning to prosecute this breach of oath of secrecy by the author — a former member of the counter-terrorism team of U.S. Navy SEALs that killed Osama bin Laden in his Abbottabad hideout in Pakistan on the night of May 1, 2011. But the fact that Osama bin Laden, and a whole range of terrorist attacks that were attributed to him, had dominated the global media headlines for the last 10 years made such speculations of official censor only counterproductive, making this book extremely visible as also subject to serious scrutiny by several well-known reviewers. Surprisingly, most reviews end up supporting the book from various perspectives like its necessity, its authenticity, judiciousness, discretion, and its engaging detail; even its display of proverbial disdain of military men for national politicians and even their top brass.

The author’s personal trigger for choosing to take this plunge of writing this book came from his frustration about the killing of bin Laden becoming such a hit with the world media and yet most narratives remaining based on speculations, half-truths and verbose platitudes without any access to facts. Worse, the official narratives seemed to twist facts to suit their political objectives while men who lay down lives to defend U.S. interest continued to go unnoticed. The author believes that if his Commander-in-Chief (President) is willing to speak to the media, so shall he as the leader of Team A in the U.S. mission that killed bin Laden. In doing this he of course took extreme caution by adopting a pen name of Mark Owen, changing all other names and being vague about details that could be misused by U.S. enemies, taking the help of a seasoned and embedded Special Operations journalist and author Kevin Maurer and finally showing their manuscript to a former Special Operations attorney.

At the end of his book, he lists ‘real’ names of his colleagues who laid their lives in various U.S. counter-terrorism operations since September 11, 2001 and pledges a majority of the proceeds from sales of this book to veterans’ organisations. This may not lend him the halo of a superhero yet the book leaves a strong impression about his courage of convictions. For a debutant author, even his worst critics have only issues with his style and not his substance.

The story begins to weave around the gruelling nature of U.S. Special Forces training. It goes much beyond physical fitness and endurance. The guys who cannot process information fast and take split second decisions under extreme stress are washed out and men who can achieve the impossible make the selection. These are no ordinary men. This is followed by a series of nerve-wracking narratives of various counter-terrorism operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan in which the author was part since the late 1990s. Readers begin to sense an excess of self-pride and use of extreme violence is writ large in the way these Special Forces deal with their enemies both before and even after they are neutralised. All this oozes, not just strong pride, but prejudice; especially so, if the reader is unfamiliar with the rough masculine traditions and rituals of Special Forces around the world.

The story of US Navy’s counter-terrorism units begins in the backdrop of disastrous Operation Eagle Claw in 1980. This mission had lost two helicopters and several able men on its way and failed to rescue 52 Americans hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. It cost President Jimmy Carter his re-election. In comparison, by killing bin Laden, the SEAL team believed, they had ensured the re-election of President Barack Obama in May 2011 itself. After their fiasco in Tehran, the U.S. Navy began to develop forces capable of successfully executing these kinds of specialised operations and created a maritime counter-terrorism unit called SEAL Team Six. In 1987, this team came to be called DEVGRU based in Virginia Beach and became part of several high-profile missions like capture of President Manuel Noriega of Panama in 1989, rescue of Sgt Jessica Lynch in Iraq in 2003, and Captain Richard Phillips rescue in Indian Ocean in 2009. But never before had the public any access to how exactly these operations were conducted.

Operation Abbottabad

It is instructive how these battle-hardened men conduct their business under such stressful conditions. For instance, narrating one patrol raid in an Iraqi village on the Syrian border, he writes: “I grabbed him by his right arm and yanked him up pushing the blankets away to make sure he didn’t have a weapon… I then pushed the man to his knees and shoved his head into the corner. He tried to talk, but I pressed his face against the wall, muffling his voice.” In another night raid in Baghdad, he narrates how when their team landed on the wrong roof top and the ground team came under fire injuring a soldier, the team leader called for the backup team of main battle tanks and ordered one tank after another to decimate the building, holding four terrorists, till their ammunitions were exhausted. The narrative gets even more intimidating in the second half of the book devoted entirely to their mission to kill bin Laden, though it says nothing on what was done to bin Laden’s mortal remains.

While describing their exit from Abbottabad with the body of bin Laden which was dragged downstairs from the third floor by its feet and then thrown onto to the deck of helicopter he tells how, given shortage of space, “Walt had to sit on Bin Laden’s body, which was lying at my feet in the center of the cabin.” Later, on reaching Jalalabad, when the Admiral wanted to confirm that the dead man brought in was bin Laden, he writes: “I grabbed the bottom of the body bag and pulled it off the truck. It flopped on the cement floor like a dead fish.” He continues, “I grabbed his [bin Laden’s] beard and pulled his head to each side so that the admiral could see his profile.” He believes he is in the dirty business of war and he successfully brings out this side of the story into the public realm. Apart from a few places where it becomes pompous and repetitive it gradually becomes extremely engaging.

As a young man, the author recalls, he was once inspired by Gene Wentz’s Men in Green that chronicles SEAL missions in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. This book is written by him with the aim to inspire some young man like him who may like to become a SEAL. But the book is bound to inspire not just junior high school boys but may be followed by several such revealing stories on the hidden facets of U.S. military operations worldwide.

NO EASY DAY — The Only First-Hand Account of the Navy SEAL Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden: Mark Owen with Kevin Maurer; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 499.

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