No Easy Day: the Autobiography of a Navy SEAL has been one of the most controversial and talked about books published this year because it is the first account of the mission that killed Osama bin Laden to have been written by one of the SEALs who took part in the raid. The book was written under the pseudonym Mark Owen in order to protect the author’s identity, but Fox News recently leaked the author’s real name, Matt Bissonnette, a former member of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU) that is better known by its former name of SEAL Team Six.
No Easy Day won’t win any literary awards, but it is filled with action-packed detail that makes for an exciting read. It claims to be the firsthand account of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, but it is more than that because it covers Mr. Bissonnette’s entire career as a member of SEAL Team Six.
Mr. Bissonnette’s story is fascinating because it sheds detail on the lives of U.S. Special Forces operators during the decade of the War on Terror. These highly trained warriors were involved everywhere there was action, from fighting insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq to hunting pirates off the Somali coast. No Easy Day recounts many high profile missions that Mr. Bissonnette participated in such as the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips from the pirates who had seized the container ship Maersk Alabama, but it also features many of the low-profile missions that the public never hears about.
The most interesting part of the book, though, is the narrative surrounding the raid on bin Laden’s compound near the Pakistani city of Abbottabad. Many of the details of the raid have been released since President Obama announced bin Laden’s death, and Mr. Bissonnette’s account fills in the details while presenting a few contradictions. For instance, we learn about the training procedures leading up to the raid where a full-scale mockup of bin Laden’s compound was built in North Carolina and about how the information on bin Laden’s location was attained. Then comes the actual mission. It is a harrowing account, especially from Mr. Bissonnette’s perspective. He recalls his ride in the Black Hawk helicopter that was forced to crash land inside the compound, which fortunately did not injure anybody. Then his team battled their way inside the compound in the face of fierce resistance from bin Laden’s retainers. Finally, Mr. Bissonnette reveals that he was one of the men personally responsible for killing Osama bin Laden before the SEAL team made its escape.
All in all, No Easy Day is an entertaining, fast-paced read with some interesting details about the death of Osama bin Laden and SEAL life in general. On its own, it would be an interesting book, but from the moment its publication was announced, it was guaranteed to generate controversy. It was released a mere 16 months after Osama bin Laden’s death in the middle of a cutthroat election season where the raid was being used as one of President Obama’s most important foreign policy achievements, and one cannot help but think that its purpose might be something more than to simply inform the public about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Mr. Bissonnette’s decision to write the book has been roundly criticized for a variety of reasons, the most prominent one being that he did not submit it to the Department of Defense to have it reviewed for classified material. Because Mr. Bissonnette’s account does not differ much from the official story released soon after bin Laden’s death, this criticism seems unjustified, but narratives surrounding classified missions are always challenging for reasons of national security.
One of the most interesting responses to No Easy Day is a short e-book called No Easy Op: the Unclassified Analysis of the Mission that Killed Osama bin Laden, which was written by former Special Forces operators of the SOFREP organization. The e-book directly addresses Mr. Bissonnette’s book, and it raises some interesting points about the author’s motives for writing it. Because No Easy Day was written relatively soon after the bin Laden raid without the approval of the Department of Defense, the authors of No Easy Op suggest that Mr. Bissonnette did not leave the Navy on the best of terms. Publications like the Christian Science Monitor have supported this by uncovering rumors that Mr. Bissonnette was in fact forced to leave the Navy soon after the raid for airing thoughts about leaving the service to start a business. The Christian Science Monitor acknowledges that this rumor is not completely verified, but it does help explain why Mr. Bissonnette would sever his ties with the military so quickly and decisively. While No Easy Op does have some sympathy for Mr. Bissonnette, the authors come to the conclusion that the book was a PR stunt by the author and publisher to capitalize on the opportunity to have the first published eye-witness account of one of the most important events of our time.
Whatever happens in the coming months with responses to No Easy Day and the Department of Defense’s potential legal suit, I think the most important issue posed by this book is the fact that the author betrayed the professional ethos expected of him and his comrades in the military. Mr. Bissonnette has set a potential precedent where former members of the military may seek to capitalize on their experiences to create a political effect and a tidy profit. If military and civilian leadership is to trust the forces under their command to do their jobs well and keep necessary secrets, they need to know that soldiers will not divulge sensitive information at the first opportunity of a big paycheck.