Heroes and Villains in No Easy Day

It’s easy to feel some admiration for “Mark Owen,” pseudonym for the author of No Easy Day. He certainly has great physical strength and fortitude, and is highly skilled as a special operations U.S. soldier. His controversial book, which was never reviewed or approved by the Pentagon, details his training and missions as a Navy SEAL, most notably his role in the operation to kill Usama (Owen’s spelling) bin Laden.

Owen justifies publishing his accounts of killing bin Laden by claiming that news reports were largely fiction. But consider what I had gathered from news reports before reading his book: There was a helicopter crash but no one was injured; there was a firefight between SEALs and members of the household; bin Laden was not armed when he was killed in bed; no SEALs were killed or injured. The only deviation between the book and my impression was that bin Laden was out of bed when he was shot and killed. So this record was pretty accurate, at least in the general sequence of events.

After writing 366 pages with himself cast in hero’s role, Owen insists No Easy Day is not about him. But his attempt to pass this book off as a selfless endeavor is just another chapter in the myth that he and others have created about SEALs and soldiers in general. Owen tells us his fallen comrades “died for something so much bigger then themselves” and they “willingly sacrifice everything.” Then he, rather condescendingly, writes, “I challenge every person who reads this to sacrifice a little something as well.” His second of two suggestions is to “donate time and money to a veterans’ organization;” he notes he is “donating the majority of the proceeds” from his book (not all proceeds as widely reported by media).

I wonder how a social worker helping battered women or inner city youths feels about his challenge. For being very skilled at killing people, Owen is a hero to many; he is materially wealthy; he now enjoys fame as well, albeit incognito. A social worker, by contrast, saves or at least brings comfort to people; works in true obscurity; and gets paid a pittance. There are plenty of people in other professions that don’t need Owens’ advice. 

How are we to judge paid assassins? Are 16th century Japanese ninja, for example, heroes or villains? Surely, that would depend on their cause. In Owen’s case he believes he kills “bad guys” to keep America safe. Some of the “villains” Owen killed were Iraqi resistors. Consider that the Iraq War was a war of aggression instigated by George W. Bush under false pretenses. In a just world, Desmond Tutu’s observation would be universal: Bush and Blair should be tried as war criminals. Owen was an accessory to that crime. He and his comrades should ask to be forgiven for killing Iraqis rather than preach about their selflessness.

While the book gets bogged down at times (like the 60 pages leading up to the raid, much of it griping about bureaucracy), it was hard to put down once he finally provides a blow by blow account of the raid on bin Laden’s home. It’s interesting that the harshest criticism he makes about this “terrorist mastermind” regarding 9-11 is that he “inspired” the hijackers. That’s honest because the U.S. government has never provided evidence that bin Laden was anything other than that, an inspiration. He didn’t plan the attacks, and he certainly wasn’t involved in their execution. This is not to imply that bin Laden was an innocent man, but it is revealing. If bin Laden was merely an inspiration for 9-11, what does that make the Afghan War, which is still going on today? Can a country legitimately start a war to kill someone for inspiring terrorists?

Owen is also sometimes condescending to his enemies, calling them cowards. Bin Laden’s son was killed when a SEAL member cleverly called him by name, then blasted him in the face when he peeked out the door. To Owen, this was evidence that Khalid didn’t “man up.” Maybe he was groggy from sleep; maybe he had never killed and didn’t want to. Is not fighting against impossible odds always cowardice? Leaders like bin Laden who don’t go down fighting are called “pussies.” Even poor Iraqis who choose to live another day rather engage an enemy with superior training, weapons and technology (one, by the way, who invaded their country) are mocked for not having balls. I wonder whether Owen holds those who started the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, Bush and Cheney, by the same standards? At least bin Laden bravely fought the Soviets in his day.

Besides wanting more glory for himself, Owen takes jabs at President Obama. He notes that none of the SEALs were “huge fans” of Obama. More tellingly, he cops an attitude when the group goes to meet their commander in chief, not wanting to sign a flag that will be presented to the president as a gift. He implies that the reason is to keep his name secret, but others, easily enough, sign nicknames or made-up names. And considering the details in his book made it easy for Fox News to trace to his real name and identity, there was surely more to his reluctance to sign than security. Given his apparent icy attitude toward the president, it’s no surprise that Obama didn’t follow up on his invitation for the SEALs to visit his home for a beer. Owen, however, offers no explanation for their disapproval of Obama. In fact, early on he complains that Bush didn’t send him to fight in Afghanistan, then towards the end that he appreciates being given the green light to take out bin Laden. It’s as if his real aim to publish the book two months before the election is to tell readers “I don’t think it matters if a Republican or a Democrat gave the order.” That, and his claim Obama took too much credit for his team’s kill. It’s paradoxical that a supposedly selfless hero demands so much acknowledgment.

Disconcertedly, No Easy Day shows how far America has come to becoming a war-loving society. It takes an extremely biased world view to justify invading two countries, killing with impunity all who resist, and violating Pakistani airspace to assassinate (make no mistake this was an assassination, despite Owen’s and White House’s claim otherwise) a man who was the “inspiration” for 9.11. Soldiers who do the dirty work of fighting wars instigated by politicians who would never fight themselves are hailed for their selflessness and their dedication to a “greater good.” Many are indeed well trained, well disciplined, sincere men and women. But if the rationales for their battles are fatally flawed, then so are their actions. In comic book worlds of Good vs. Evil, Owen and his “brotherhood” are either Heroes (to most Americans), or Villains (to the Islamic world). But in the real world of mixed motives, disreputable leaders and lies, they too are creating disharmony and destruction.

John Spiri teaches at Tokyo University of Agriculture and technology. He can be reached at: johnspiri@gmail.com. Read other articles by John, or visit John's website.