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A Book that Puts You There!
on November 25, 2011
I read a lot of history books, and I find they tend to fall into two general categories -- a) those that are years in the writing, scholarly, exhaustively researched, extensively footnoted and annotated, and b) those that make history come alive. This book is clearly in the latter category. If you want to know what it's like to train to be a SEAL and to participate in a mission, this is that book. The author -- who was a Navy SEAL and for years has been involved in training Navy SEALs here and in Afghanistan and Iraq -- writes so descriptively, you'll feel the heat of the weapon in your hands, experience the jolt to your foot as you kick down the door in the Abbottabad compound and smell the musty air of Bin Laden's bedroom when you burst in.
What I didn't expect, and the book delivered, were chapters that put the mission in context -- including the geopolitical context going back decades, and the preparation for this particular mission through the context of the last several decades of SEAL missions. One element I particularly appreciated in the book was the section that gave a background to what made Bin Laden Bin Laden. It's popular to think that he sprung up from nowhere as a fully formed monster. But many factors made him the man he was who did the things he did. Chuck writes so vividly -- well, you don't exactly sympathize with Bin Laden -- but you do have an idea what it would have been like to BE him. That accomplishment takes a special and rare kind of historian and, I think, represents the main value of this book. A value that will stand even decades from now when the mission is declassified and someone has the extensive time and many research assistants it will take to write the fully annotated, exhaustively researched definitive account of the killing of Bin Laden. Perhaps Chuck will be that person. Perhaps it will be someone else. Perhaps, as is usually the case, it will take several books for the reader to be able to get "the full story".
I do want to address the negative reviewers -- not the one-star troll flamers who have never reviewed on Amazon before this and clearly have never read this book -- but the people who bought the book and thought it wasn't "extensive" enough. You do know the years and years of work that goes into those sorts of books? I doubt we'll ever have a more definitive book on Seabiscuit than Laura Hillenbrand's or a more multi-leveled biography of Kit Carson and his impact on the American West than Hampton Sides', but it took both of those authors nearly a decade to research and write each of their books. They also had the advantage of being able to stand on others' shoulders as they had access to a wealth of history, research, newspaper and contemporary accounts of their subjects and the gift of distance to put it all into perspective.
Chuck's book is first out of the gate and, it does have the advantage of his first-hand research -- both in his role as a contractor involved with the training of SEALs, his former service as a member of the elite SEAL Team Six and his primary research here and in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, not only did he not have Hillenbrand or Side's luxury of time for research, he was dealing with a subject for which many details are classified and necessitated that, even if he was privy to some of those details, he omit or obscure them for security's sake. It's a huge burden on a historian, but, as I contend, when the exhaustively researched, annotated account of the Bin Laden mission comes out, this book will still stand -- as a visceral description of how the mission went down.