Osama and the Riddle of Modern Warfare

No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden
by Mark Owen
Dutton Adult 2012, 336 pages, $16.00 hardcover



America’s most wanted terrorist had about fifteen minutes from the time two Black Hawk helicopters entered his compound until the minute American special operations soldiers stormed his bedroom. Mark Owen, the pseudonymous author of No Easy Day, was rightly surprised to discover that the chambers of the AK-47 and Makarov pistol stashed on the shelf above bin Laden’s door were completely empty of bullets. “He hadn’t even prepared a defense,” Owen tells us, in contrast to some other articles on the historic raid which claimed that Osama was either armed or had weapons ready in the room. “He had no intention of fighting.” Owen, unlike the other reporters on the subject, was a member of the assault team that fast-roped into bin Laden’s compound.

One almost gets a sense of anticlimax reading the account of this veteran Navy SEAL. His tale of what happened in the house is in fact only slightly different from Nick Schmidle’s infamous New Yorker article about the raid, which received a lot of criticism for its sourcing (Owen on the whole confirms Schmidle’s reporting), but it lacks some of the excitement. No bomb vests on his two wives in the house, no gun in his hands. Two shots to his chest, one through his skull, and the costliest manhunt in American history was over. “He asked his followers for decades to wear suicide vests or fly planes into buildings, but didn’t even pick up his weapon,” Owen writes, with unmasked disdain.

Had the leader of al-Qaeda gone soft, let down his defenses, been caught frozen in a panic? It seems unlikely. Bin Laden is known to have been in battle zones – he was present at the December 2001 Battle of Tora Bora, an attempt to capture him which pitted thousands of Taliban fighters against coalition forces in a small area of southern Afghanistan. Perhaps Owen was deliberately writing about Osama’s cowardice with a patriotic relish that could have only been more cinematically perfect had bin Laden gone on his knees to beg for his life.

It is generally agreed that bin Laden’s death was mostly symbolic – even as US and NATO forces prepare to step down their presence in Afghanistan, the ability of Afghan security forces to defend the state is yet unknown, and a worn Pakistani military continues to wrestle with the insurgency in Waziristan across the border. For Owen and many Americans, however, it’s hard not to derive satisfaction from a sense of closure. Osama’s last moments raise a question concerning the nature of the enemy that had so forcefully jolted the people of the United States from their exceptionalist and historically justified sense of complacency and security in 2001: “Did he believe his own message? Was he willing to fight the war he asked for?”

Owen says he sees this phenomenon in raids during his deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan all the time: “The higher up the food chain the targeted individual was, the bigger a pussy he was.” As it has been with wars since antiquity, it is always the young and the impressionable who shoulder the rifles and die for God and ideology. The difference between modern wars and those of old, however, is that the asymmetric conflicts typical of our day consist of a professional army fighting not another army but an entire people or an idea. Gone are the Cannaes and the Waterloos, the Antietams and the Verduns. Instead, Dien Bien Phu and Algiers inaugurated an era of Iraqs and Lebanons, Afghanistans and Chechnyas. The problem of modern warfare, distilled and popularized by Martin van Creveld’s seminal 1991 work The Transformation of War, remains a problem without a definite solution: how to use the best-trained tools of the world’s advanced military systems against the amorphous enemies of low-intensity, low-tech conflict.

In No Easy Day, there is no doubt that Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), the formal name of Owen’s Seal Team Six, is among the sharpest tools at the United States’ disposal. Most of the book is a memoir of Owen’s experiences in DEVGRU prior to his final mission in Abbottabad, ranging from his training in Virginia and deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan to his involvement in the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates in 2009. Owen’s writing style is short on sophistication and charisma; his prosody tends towards the bland. What the author lacks in style, however, he more than makes up in content. Contrary to what is sometimes depicted in popular media, the mission against bin Laden was nothing special operationally. Owen and his team routinely performed similar raids against Taliban hideouts in Afghanistan—the only thing that made the Abbottabad raid unique was the identity of the target and the fact that it was in Pakistan.

Maintaining an elite special operations force takes a lot of investment – in both human and financial terms. From fast-roping into the mountains of Afghanistan to parachuting into the Indian ocean, these special operations guys have perfected the science of rapid insertion/extraction operations, and they’re serious about their professionalism. Mark Owen had been a SEAL for over ten years at the time of the Osama raid, and he describes in detail what it means to be the best, distilled twice: the competitive nature of first being selected to be a SEAL, and then the rigorous selection process to join DEVGRU, before becoming a senior enough operator at the force to be hand-picked for the Osama mission.

These men in the special operations teams are up against militants with as little as a few weeks’ training, but a cheap AK-47 bullet fired from an insurgent is the same piece of metal as a bullet from Owen’s personalized suppressed Heckler & Koch with a 2.5X10 Nightforce scope. True, the insurgents he faced in Afghanistan or Iraq were hopelessly outmatched against superior discipline and technique, and time and time again his team would clear target buildings, killing five or ten insurgents, without taking any casualties. But in terms of sheer cost-effectiveness, the insurgent strategy is extremely economical relative to those any professional militaries could employ.

As Owen frustratingly notes, political considerations would also frequently hamper the war effort. The SEAL team was in the habit of photographing and documenting the weapons and all implicating intelligence at each raid or kill site in order to prove that the men killed were not regular civilians. It is easy enough for Americans at home to take the moral high ground and wax indignant about military practices, but No Easy Day shows us how the rules of engagement could be exploited by the enemy. If he knew a raid was coming, a militant could hide his guns and pretend to be a guest of the house and be certain that American troops were not allowed to shoot him. If the guns were found, the fighter would be arrested and the evidence photographed to present to the village elders who inevitably show up a few days later to vouch for his innocence. Arrested suspects were usually set free after a while as part of maintaining good relations with the civilians, and the game starts over again. “It was a catch and release system,” Owen writes, annoyed. “We’d roll them up and in a few weeks the fighters would be back on the street.”

Owen seems particularly bitter about the creep of new rules during his last deployment in Afghanistan – as if the closer they approached the planned NATO withdrawal, the more the politicians were concerned with public relations and political correctness. The covert infiltration into militants’ houses that worked so well in killing insurgent fighters in the past was disallowed. Instead, the new rules stated that the house must be surrounded and the fighters called out to surrender by an interpreter with a bullhorn. Of course, the captured men would only returned into circulation in due time. Frequently, Owen and his team would recapture the same guy several times over the course of one deployment, but each time would have no choice but to hand him over to the authorities to deal with.  This makes sense in a way: the job of the soldier is to fight other soldiers, not to serve as judge and executioner. But the job gets tough when there aren’t any real soldiers to fight, only a hostile people willing to bend the rules to their advantage.

While no one is advocating that anyone should fight war with unethical, “total war” methods – summary executions, terror bombings, using rape as a psychological weapon, and so on – the problems Owen and his team face are perfect illustrations of a fundamental paradox in asymmetric warfare commonly studied by strategists like van Creveld. On the one side, the regular military has the technological and organizational superiority but lacks the determination to use all means necessary to win and is limited in the kinds of actions it could perform; on the other, the technologically inferior irregular forces fight determinedly for unlimited aims using unlimited means – including unethical or dishonest behavior such as blending into the civilian population or using women and children as human shields to hide their combatant status. Indeed, the simplest, most effective way to fight an insurgency is to drain the pond to catch the fish – a method otherwise known as ethnic cleansing – but it also happens to the be least morally palatable.

Whether modern professional armies can learn to fight asymmetric conflicts in a manner both efficient and ethical remains the greatest unanswered military question in the 21st century.

About Tony Cheng

Tony Cheng is a junior in the East Asian Studies department who has an unhealthy fascination with dead people. He's just glad they can't change their minds on him. He can be reached at ruofanc@princeton.edu.
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