Owen’s account of the raid fits almost exactly with my own understanding of the operation, based on being the only outside observer allowed inside the bin Laden compound before it was demolished and interviewing dozens of American officials familiar with the details of the operation, as well as interviews with Pakistani officials who investigated the aftermath of the raid.
The only surprising thing, perhaps, given the code of silence that exists among the men of SEAL Team 6 — a small, tightknit covert unit that prides itself on being the “quiet professionals” — is how soon this tell-all book was published. After all, it’s been only a little over a year since bin Laden’s body was dumped from the deck of the USS Carl Vinson as it cruised off the coast of Pakistan.
The title of Owen’s book comes from a piece of Navy SEAL lore that “the only easy day was yesterday.” “No Easy Day” joins a growing shelf of best-selling SEAL memoirs that detail just how true that piece of lore is. Last year in “The Heart and the Fist,” Eric Greitens, a Rhodes scholar and SEAL, eloquently outlined the notoriously tough training regime that every SEAL must go through. Marcus Luttrell’s 2007 book, “Lone Survivor,” gave a visceral account of how he barely escaped the debacle of Operation Redwing in Afghanistan two years earlier, when he was the only one of four SEALs to survive a brutal firefight with the Taliban. The ensuing rescue operation cost the lives of 16 other servicemen.
How does “No Easy Day” stack up with these other SEAL memoirs? Owen and his co-author, Kevin Maurer — who has written extensively on special operations — ably navigate the reader through the secretive world of the SEALs, as well as Owen’s graduation into SEAL Team 6, an elite group within the SEAL elite that, along with the Army’s Delta Force, is arguably the most effective fighting unit in the world.
Owen describes his life growing up in the Alaskan outback, where he learned to handle guns and hunt from a young age — valuable skills for his future line of work. And he does a nice job of detailing the grueling deployments and uncertainties of warfare in the streets of Baghdad and the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, where it is luck as much as skill that keeps you alive.
Sometimes the metaphors in “No Easy Day” get too down-home and obscure — heavy weapons strafing an Afghan ridgeline that looks like a “Bloomin’ Onion at Outback Steakhouse” will no doubt puzzle many readers. But generally the writing is fast-paced, and Owen and Maurer tell some good yarns in a conversational style. They also neatly capture the camaraderie, the pranks, the constant training and the evident love that the men of SEAL Team 6 have for their jobs.
Of course, the readers who are lining up to buy “No Easy Day” are not doing so to read just another SEAL memoir. They want to know exactly what happened the night bin Laden was killed and what it felt like to be on that mission.
Owen and Maurer do not disappoint. They take the reader on a roller-coaster ride, opening the book with Owen on the Black Hawk helicopter that crashed within the first seconds of the SEAL team’s arrival at bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
The heart of the book is the four weeks or so leading up to that moment and the 40 minutes that followed it as the SEALs recovered from what could have been a crippling blow to the mission.
Owen says that the plan was for one Black Hawk to hover over bin Laden’s third-floor bedroom at the compound. Some SEALs would then fast-rope onto the roof of the bedroom and surprise al-Qaeda’s leader while he slept. The SEALs practiced this on a replica of bin Laden’s residence made from plywood, shipping containers and chain-link fencing that was assembled in the pine forests of North Carolina, but they had no intelligence about what the interiors of the compound would look like.
At one point, the SEALs asked a lawyer who was attending the rehearsals if the bin Laden operation was an assassination mission. The lawyer replied that “if he is naked with his hands up, you’re not going to engage him. . . . You will detain him.”
Owen has, of course, only a grunt’s-eye view of the bin Laden operation. There is little in the book about the decision making at the White House as the president considered the multiple courses of action at bin Laden’s presumed hideout. Nor is there much about how the intelligence picture that indicated bin Laden might be living at the Abbottabad compound developed. But there is an intriguing cameo appearance by a CIA analyst, “Jen,” who had been recruited out of college and had been on the bin Laden “account” for the past five years. Despite the circumstantial nature of the intelligence case that bin Laden was living in Abbottabad, Jen told Owen she was “one hundred percent” certain that al-Qaeda’s leader was hiding there.
The kill shot
After landing in the compound in the controlled helicopter crash, the SEALs were 15 minutes into the mission and hadn’t yet found bin Laden. Then the “point man” spotted a man poking his head out a room on the third floor. He shot at him. The SEALs moved slowly toward this room and inside found a man lying on the floor in his death throes. Owen and another SEAL finished him off with a few more rounds.
This contradicts previous accounts that bin Laden was shot by the SEALs inside his bedroom. This version of events indicates that there was little real effort to capture bin Laden, despite the admonition of the lawyer to the SEALs that detaining bin Laden was definitely an option.
The raid commander “Jay” called his boss, Adm. William McRaven, on satellite radio, saying, “For God and country. I pass Geronimo. . . . Geronimo EKIA.”
“Geronimo” was the code name for bin Laden, and “EKIA” stands for “enemy killed in action.”
Owen found bin Laden’s guns in his bedroom, an AK-47 and a Makarov pistol. The chambers of both guns were empty. “He hadn’t even prepared a defense,” Owen reflects.
Finally, the SEAL team arrived back in Afghanistan, and Owen and some of his fellow SEALs who didn’t seem to be big fans of President Obama watched his news conference about the successful mission.
“We’d expected him to give away details,” he writes. “If he had, we could have talked some smack. But I didn’t think his speech was bad at all. If anything, it was kind of anticlimactic.”
Owen’s account, however, is devastating to that of Chuck Pfarrer, a SEAL who retired more than two decades ago and who published “SEAL Target Geronimo,” a New York Times bestseller, in November. In Pfarrer’s account of the raid, which he says was based on talking to the SEAL team members on the operation, they did fast-rope successfully onto the roof of bin Laden’s bedroom and within two minutes of the raid beginning they had killed him. The helicopter crash came much later in the raid in Pfarrer’s telling.
Special Operations Command, which almost never comments on operations, issued an unusual on-the-record statement that Pfarrer’s account was a “fabrication” and that he had never spoken to the SEALs on the raid.
Pfarrer’s book is being reissued on Sept. 11 in paperback. Don’t waste your money on it. Buy Owen’s book to find out what really happened that night in Abbottabad.
Bergen is the author of “Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden From 9/11 to Abbottabad.”