Watching ex-SEAL Matt Bissonnette on 60 Minutes was equal parts fascinating and disturbing.
Eleven years since the horror of 9/11, some of us watched, transfixed, as someone who gave his word never to write of what he had experienced without a U.S. government pre-pub scrub, circumspectly spilled his guts to Scott Pelley Sunday night.
Battleland has read the book he wrote under the pseudonym Mark Owen – No East Day: The Firsthand Account of thew Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden. It’s well-written, and gripping, no doubt helped along by co-writer Kevin Maurer.
But that misses the point.
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If one of the nation’s top warriors can’t be counted on to stick to his pledge, what hope is there for the rest of us? By all accounts, he ignored his signed promise to let his work be reviewed by the government prior to publication. The government is weighing legal action against him. “I cannot, as secretary, send a signal to SEALs who conduct those operations, ‘Oh, you can conduct these operations and then go out and write a book about it,’” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told CBS News Tuesday morning. “How the hell can we run sensitive operations here that go after enemies if people are allowed to do that?”
Eleven years ago today we watched the Twin Towers fall in New York. Some of us smelled the sweet, sickly scent of jet fuel inside a smoky Pentagon for the first time. We kept replaying the heroics of the passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93 as Todd Beamer said: “Are you guys ready? Okay, let’s roll!” and brought the Boeing 757 down in Shanksville, Penn., killing all 44 aboard, including the four hijackers and 40 innocents. All told, neatly 3,000 other innocent victims perished that Tuesday.
To which some of us can only echo then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ advice, following the bin Laden raid, to both Mark Owen and Matt Bissonnette: shut the f— up.
Military and intelligence blogs are burning with flame wars over Bissonnette’s conduct. They generally break down like this: he violated his oath and should be prosecuted; his violated his oath but didn’t spill any secrets so it’s okay; he had to go public so he could tell the American people the truth and counter the lies told by the Pentagon, and especially the White House, in the days after the May 2, 2011, mission.
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“No Easy Day lashes up orders of battle, intel fusion methods, weapons choices (and SEAL procurement methodology), and mission planning sequences,” writes Navy veteran Ward Carroll, now the editor of Military.com. “There are insights behind timelines and rules of engagement. In sum, the book goes further than any of the recent flurry of war autobiographies in telling how things really are. And that gives the Pentagon a case in terms of accusing Owen of violating his NDA [non-disclosure agreement]. Active duty or not, some military secrets are forever.”
Some of the comments seem posted more in sorrow than in anger. “No Easy Day isn’t the Pentagon Papers; there’s no conspiracy being uncovered, no grand lies being debunked, only dishy details of the cruel and messy business of war,” one said. “This is the most flagrant example to date of a team guy getting out and cashing in at the expense of the community he once served; whether for money, notoriety, or just to give the proverbial finger to the NSW [Naval Special Warfare] establishment.”
“Basically, what happens down range stays down range,” writes “Dalton Fury,” the apparently still-tight pseudonym of an Army Delta Force commander who wrote (in a government-cleared volume) about the early hunt for bin Laden in 2008 in Kill Bin Laden – and who talked about it on 60 Minutes. “We all know that talking about the unit, particularly in a tell-all memoir, regardless of how vanilla the contents are, is tantamount to alumni suicide.” But he believes his fellow author didn’t compromise any secrets.
It was distressing – perhaps there was a little professional jealously involved, too – to see Bissonnette lob details thousands of reporters were fighting to get 16 months ago.
Without citing items that best go unmentioned, Bissonnette spoke of being wounded (“Plenty of other guys have suffered much, much worse so it’s not a big deal”), an ill-informed explosives expert who was preparing to blow up bin Laden’s house instead of the wrecked chopper that had to be abandoned after the raid (“He’s running around the first floor of the house, setting his charges, getting ready to blow up the house. And somebody looks over at him is like, `Dude, dude, what are you doing?’ He’s like, `Ah, I’m prepping it to blow.’ He’s like, `Not the house, the helicopter.’”) and the fact that the surviving but thirsty UH-60 Black Hawk had to land inside Pakistan (“We’re about to run out of fuel.”) following the raid, to gulp fuel from a bigger CH-47 helicopter.
It grates just a little to hear Bissonnette declare that his noble deed of breaking faith was driven by his lust to tell his piece of Operation Neptune Spear his way: “This operation was one of the most significant operations in U.S. history,” he said. “And it’s something that I believe deserves to be told right and deserves to go in a book and stand for itself.”
Check your ego at the door, sailor.
You’ve engaged in unilateral disarmament. No good can come from detailing the snafus that humanize members of SEAL Team 6. No good can come from a SEAL telling his story, his way, when he has sworn not to do so.
The nation knows the SEALs are human. But stripping away their anonymity, and detailing their foibles and stumbles — never mind their tactics, techniques and procedures — is four-star self-aggrandizement. Writing books and speaking before television cameras takes them, and the nation they are charged with defending, down a peg, or three. It can only make the next mission, or the one after it, that much tougher.