OPEN BOOK: "No Easy Day" is about a lot more than Osama Bin Laden
By Sara Nelson
I am not a fan of publishing embargoes, the system by which publishers withhold “special” books from readers until an arbitrarily chosen date so as to “control” the noise and discussion around that book. Purveyors of this all-too-common practice will tell you that they do it for pragmatic reasons: because the book is about to be excerpted or the author interviewed in a major media outlet -- and that the embargo is part of the deal. Some will also admit that embargoes are a way of heightening interest; the withheld book becomes the one everybody is talking about, the one you can’t wait to get your hands on. The thing is: embargoes often backfire. More often than not, the withheld book, when finally revealed, is a disappointment, its few and feeble “gems” ultimately disappointments to our fevered, embargo-fueled desires.
Such is not the case with No Easy Day by Mark Owen, with Kevin Maurer. The title, which (as you surely know by now) is billed as a book about how an elite group of Navy SEALS killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan on May 2, 2011. As could have been predicted, some news outlets obtained early copies of the book, which goes on sale today. (Note: there are reporters out there who spend inordinate amounts of time tracking down supposedly “unavailable copies;” it may be the one growth industry within journalism.) And many, many reporters jumped on the revelations: about whether Bin Laden was armed or unarmed when the SEALS found him, about how they got confirmation that it was, in fact, Bin Laden that they’d just killed; about--and this is the biggie--whether “Mark Owen” (a pseudonym) compromised American intelligence by writing this book in the first place.
Those things are important, sure. But what just about nobody has yet said about this book is that the first 2/3 of it aren’t even about Bin Laden--and that it’s largely that 2/3 that makes No Easy Day a fascinating read.
OK, so I’m not an aficionado of the genre: I’ve never seen Delta Force or read any of the other books about Navy Seals. I’m not, exactly, the audience for “gear porn,” as Jonathan Segura so wryly puts it in a recent post on Publishers Weekly. In fact, I’m the mother of a MAM (military aged man in SEAL parlance); we’re not generally the ones who love to read about anybody’s children putting themselves in serious harm’s way--even for love of country, let alone the pure thrill of it.But as a MOMAM, I was fascinated by what other reviewers might consider the fluffy stuff, Owen’s throat-clearing, his filler. To me, the behind-the-scenes, before-the-raid passages are the most interesting, because they tell us about who our hero is and how he got to be that way. On his childhood in rural Alaska: “My parents never let me play with toy guns because by the time I was finished with elementary school I was carrying a .22 rifle;” on how he felt when he was about to launch his first mission: excited (“I’d been waiting for this moment since I was a kid reading about ambushes in the Mekong Delta”); on how the guys dealt with their tensions before going on missions: there’s an anecdote about hanging a bra, stolen from a victim’s home, on a buddy’s backpack and there’s an overlong particularly puerile passage about how the guys slipped a sex toy into each other’s bag of gear, just to get a reaction.
But I’m hardly a prude--and I honestly think these small revelations go a long way toward educating us about who the SEALS are, and how they think. No matter one’s feelings about war, there’s no doubt that these guys are superior in their very physicality, not to mention their willingness to take on danger at least partly out of a sense of duty. (And even an MOMAM can find herself both shocked and thrilled by violence: i.e. the cold-blooded description of the murder of Bin Laden’s son Khalid. They shot him in the face.)
In places, Owen goes out of his way to try to sound like a “regular guy.” He worries, for example, about his parents reading about the raid on Bin Laden; he’d only been able to tell them he was going to be out of cell phone reach, not anything more detailed about where he was going or what he was doing. Curiously, however, while he alludes to the fact that some of the other guys have families of their own, he never mentions a wife or children and almost always uses the coverall “friends and family.” He clearly loves his fellow SEALS but in time-honored, 50s-movie cliché, he can only show his feelings through pranks and trash talk.
But the message that comes through, over and over again, is that SEALS are not “regular” guys at all, if by regular we mean conventional thirtysomethings with the usual fears and goals and annoyances and joys: they’re just plain not built that way. A “gun geek” whose parents were missionaries, Owen grew up with a sense of adventure “not found in most people” and a conspicuous lack of fear. His physical fitness--and training--rivals that of an Olympic athlete and he’s plenty intelligent; still, he leaves the strategizing to the CIA, particularly to an operative named Jen, just about the only woman in the narrative. He’s also not political, though he does mildly slap Obama, who, he says, promised the guys a beer at the White House and never delivered.
But for all that, Owen emerges as a bit of a cartoon character. And while his detailed descriptions of strategy and gear and raids make the book a gamer’s delight, he says he wrote it not just about himself, but about “the team.” His goal, he says, is to inspire kids the way he was inspired, to work hard, fight for country and be the best. My guess is his book will succeed in that at least. In addition to whatever else it may be, No Easy Day is a product of our hero-worshipping culture. It both celebrates and breeds a particular kind of man and a particular kind of brotherhood.