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After Abbottabad: Navy SEALs and American Security

No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden
By Mark Owen, with Kevin Maurer
(Dutton Adult, 301 pp., $26.95)


FROM THE TOPPLING of the Taliban in the fall of 2001, to the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch, the capture of Saddam Hussein, the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the freeing of the captain of the Maersk Alabama from Somali pirates, and of course the Osama bin Laden raid, an extraordinarily high percentage of the most celebrated feats of American arms in the past decade were the work of the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and in particular of its most secretive component, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which is home to the Army’s Delta Force, the Navy’s SEAL Team Six, and other “Tier One” units. So, too, some of the most bitter losses in recent wars have been suffered by these same forces—such as the shoot-down of a Chinook transport helicopter in Afghanistan on August 6, 2011, which killed thirty Americans, including seventeen SEALs. It was the greatest single-day loss of American lives during the entire war.

Since September 11 JSOC has become a finely honed man-hunting machine whose “operators” take down two thousand or more targets every year, with an 84 percent probability that they will get their man (or a close associate) each time—and usually with little resistance, so adept are they at using the element of stealth. (The Chinook disaster occurred because for once the Taliban knew the SEALs were coming—they were responding to a call for help from Army Rangers engaged in a firefight.) The bin Laden raid, the subject of this best-selling memoir by one of the SEAL “assaulters,” a forthcoming book by journalist Mark Bowden, and a soon-to-be-released movie, was unusual only in that it occurred in Pakistan and involved the highest of all “high value targets,” but the same tactics, techniques, and procedures have been employed to capture or to kill thousands of other terrorist leaders over the past decade.

This is an impressive achievement, given that SOCOM, despite a decade of rapid growth, still has only 4.3 percent of the active-duty strength of the U.S. armed forces (sixty thousand out of 1.4 million) and spends just 1.7 percent of the entire defense budget ($10.4 billion out of $613 billion—although the figure is higher if one includes the support provided by individual military services to their branch components such as the Army Special Operations Command). The role of Special Operations Forces (SOF) is expected to grow in the future. With the Army and the Marine Corps in the process of downsizing (current plans call for eliminating roughly 100,000 positions over the next few years), and the appetite for major military deployments diminishing after Iraq and Afghanistan, SOF is left, for better or worse, as the instrument of choice for presidents looking to exercise American hard power. “Send in the Marines” used to be the cry a hundred years ago because a Marine deployment was seen as an easy way to use force without a congressional declaration of war or undue international perturbations. SOF is viewed in much the same light today: a way to “do something” without getting mired in a major ground war.

THIS NEW PROMINENCE is certainly flattering to SOCOM, but it also comes with heavy responsibilities and considerable risks that commanders must struggle with—including the risk of book-writing “operators” piercing the curtain of secrecy that normally surrounds their operations. To better appreciate the unexpectedly powerful position that SOF occupies today, and all the attendant challenges that come with it, it helps to understand just how marginalized it was for most of its relatively brief history.

Special Operations Forces date back only to World War II. There were many units in the more distant past, such as Rogers’s Rangers in the French and Indian War, that performed impressive feats of derring-do (and whose Rules of Ranging are still issued in modified form to U.S. Army Rangers today), but they tended to be pickup teams assembled for a particular mission, trained on the job, and then disbanded when the mission was over. Many of them were composed of regular soldiers whose country was occupied and who had to resort to guerrilla warfare to continue resistance—a description that fits both Francis Marion, “The Swamp Fox,” who fought British troops in South Carolina during the American War of Independence, and many of the Spanish guerrilleros who fought Napoleon’s troops in the Peninsular War from 1808 to 1814.

The British formed the first specially trained special operations units early in World War II, among them the Army Commandos, the Special Air Service, and the Special Operations Executive (SOE). Once the United States entered the war, it followed suit with the creation of the Army Rangers (modeled on the Commandos), the 1st Special Service Force (a joint U.S.-Canadian unit nicknamed the Devil’s Brigade), Merrill’s Marauders, the Marine Raiders, the Alamo Scouts, and other units. Some were part of the normal military chain of command; others reported to the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA. They were charged with either spearheading conventional operations or working behind enemy lines, usually in cooperation with local resistance movements, well ahead of the arrival of conventional Allied forces.

Those who volunteered for such assignments tended to be a breed apart from the regular military, and were viewed with suspicion and even disdain by the regulars. Many were eccentrics and non-comformists—such as the U.S. Marine Raiders Evans Carlson and Samuel Griffith II, who spent time in China and admired Mao’s guerrilla warfare theories, and Orde Wingate, the British pioneer of “deep penetration” missions, who was known for giving interviews in the nude while brushing his private parts. Other “operators” were upper-class adventurers, such as Winston Churchill’s son Randolph, who joined the Commandos, or Franklin Roosevelt’s son James, who joined the Raiders.

Regular soldiers had little use for special operations “cowboys,” who got what appeared to be more than their proper share of glory. One British general was said to have groused about “anti-social irresponsible individualists” who contributed “nothing to Allied victory” and “who sought a more personal satisfaction from the war than of standing their chance, like proper soldiers, of being bayoneted in a slit trench or burnt alive in a tank.” It was an exaggeration, of course, to say that the special operators contributed “nothing to Allied victory,” but it was true that their contributions were never decisive and sometimes decidedly marginal. Everyone could take pride in daring deeds such as the raid by U.S. Army Rangers and Alamo Scouts to free 513 Allied POWs at a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Cabanatuan in the Philippine Islands, or the kidnapping of a German general on Crete by British SOE operatives including the celebrated writer Patrick Leigh Fermor; but it is hard to argue that such operations did anything to shorten the war.

Only a handful of World War II special operations had any significant strategy impact. These included the sabotage in 1943 of a Norwegian heavy-water plant that Germany needed for its atomic bomb program, and the following year the sabotage of a train that was needed to transport German reinforcements to counter the Allied invasion at Normandy. Both were SOE operations. Weighed against such successful operations were numerous failures such as the raid on Dieppe, France, in 1942 by British and Canadian forces—a costly disaster in which most of the attacking force was killed, wounded, or captured.

Little wonder, then, that Field Marshal William Slim, one of the most respected British commanders of the war, wrote in his memoir that the “extraordinary variety of cloak and dagger parties” spawned by the British army “were wasteful. They did not give, militarily, a worthwhile return for the resources in men, material and time that they absorbed.” He thought the effect of such units “was undoubtedly to lower the quality of the rest of the Army ... by skimming the cream off it.” He concluded, “Armies do not win wars by means of a few bodies of super-soldiers but by the average quality of their standard units.”

SUCH THINKING, along with a general reduction in all military capabilities, shaped the postwar decision to disband special forces. In Britain, only the Special Air Service, Special Boat Service, and Royal Marine Commandos survived in the long run. The U.S. Marines had disbanded their Raiders even before the war’s end, and they would not field their own special operations forces for another sixty years, until forced to by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The U.S. Army likewise did away with its Rangers, which were temporarily reactivated for the Korean War but not brought back for good until 1969. The “unconventional warfare” and “foreign internal defense” missions—either employing or combating guerrilla tactics, usually in cooperation with indigenous fighters—were divided in the postwar era between the CIA, established in 1947, and the Army Special Forces, established in 1952.

The Special Forces played an active role in the Korean War, running guerrilla units made up of Korean partisans, known as Donkeys and Wolfpacks, that staged raids into North Korea from small islands off the coast. But those missions remained classified for decades. The Special Forces finally won public renown in the 1960s, thanks to John F. Kennedy’s enthusiasm for their exploits. In 1962 the young president urged the armed forces to prepare for a “type of war, new in its intensity, ancient in its origins—war by guerrillas, subversives, insurgents, assassins, war by ambush instead of by combat.” To carry out his vision, Kennedy created the first Navy SEAL (Sea, Air, and Land) teams, formed with personnel from existing Underwater Demolition Teams that dated back to the Pacific theater in World War II, and he increased the size of the Army Special Forces. He even allowed them to wear a distinctive green beret (the same color worn by British commandos), which they had adopted on their own initiative in defiance of uniform regulations. Before long the Special Forces would become known colloquially as “The Green Berets”—the title of a John Wayne movie in 1968 glorifying their exploits in Vietnam, which Admiral William McRaven, a SEAL officer and current head of SOCOM, has said sparked his boyhood interest in enlisting. 


VIETNAM WAS THE biggest commitment of the Cold War for the Special Forces, beginning with the dispatch of the first twelve-man “A-Team” (Operational Detachment Alpha or “ODA”) in 1957. The first American soldier to die in Vietnam was a Special Forces officer. As the American military presence expanded, so did the Special Forces commitment. Eventually they were running 254 outposts throughout Vietnam, and more in Laos, where the Special Forces fought a “secret war” against the Pathet Lao in cooperation with the CIA.

The Special Forces’ most ambitious initiative was the Civilian Irregular Defense Group program, made up of Montagnards and other ethnic minorities, eventually numbering sixty thousand men, who were mobilized to fight the Viet Cong. Under cover of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Observations Group, the Special Forces also staged secret cross-border raids into Cambodia, North Vietnam, and Laos. The most famous such mission was a raid organized in 1970 by Special Forces Colonel Arthur “Bull” Simons to free American POWs from the Són Tây prison camp near Hanoi. The operation was flawlessly executed but hugely disappointing: the prisoners had been moved to other facilities before their would-be liberators arrived. The 1960s also saw active Special Forces operations in Latin America; one of their teams trained the Bolivian Ranger battalion that killed Che Guevara in 1967.

The post-Vietnam period—years of downsizing and demoralization—was as debilitating for SOF as for the rest of the armed forces. Their shortcomings were manifest in Operation Eagle Claw in 1980, the mission to rescue American hostages in Tehran, which ended in a fiery crash at a rendezvous point inside Iran code-named Desert One. Part of the problem was that Eagle Claw involved units from all the services—including the Army’s newly formed counter-terrorist unit, Operational Detachment-Delta, more popularly known as Delta Force—and they had not trained and operated together in the past, and therefore were not familiar with each other’s strengths and weaknesses and procedures. Eagle Claw was an ill-coordinated mess.

One of the immediate effects of its failure was to spur the creation by the Navy of its own version of Delta Force—SEAL Team Six, or as it later became known, the Naval Special Warfare Development Group. Delta Force and SEAL Team Six, two of the best-known National Mission Units, became the American analogues to the British SAS and the Israeli Sayeret Matkal—elite units specializing in hostage rescue, counter-proliferation, counter-terrorism, and other high-risk “direct action” missions. From then on, all of the National Mission Units would answer to the Joint Special Operations Command, created in 1980. The flawed Iranian hostage rescue, along with command and control problems evident in the invasion of Grenada in 1983, also provided the impetus for Congress to create in 1987 the U.S. Special Operations Command, headed by a four-star general, to provide greater resources and coordination to SOF. Eventually SOCOM, based in Tampa, would become almost a fifth service, with its own personnel and equipment, but it took years for it to assert its independence from the service bureaucracies.

Although SOF played a significant role in both the invasion of Panama in 1989 and the Gulf war in 1991, their development was considerably set back in 1993 by the “Black Hawk Down” disaster in Somalia. Nineteen soldiers died in a manhunt for warlord Mohammad Farah Aidid led by Delta Force with support from Army Rangers. This was a well-publicized embarrassment for the Clinton administration, and led to the ouster of Secretary of Defense Les Aspin.

Subsequently Clinton (and, in his first months in office, George W. Bush) proved gun-shy about using SOF, despite copious intelligence about the growing threat from Al Qaeda. During the 1990s, SOF and the CIA developed plans to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and to raid his training camps in Afghanistan. Clinton instead chose to employ cruise missile strikes in 1998 against the Afghan training camps and a Sudanese factory wrongly suspected of manufacturing chemical weapons. These attacks were ineffectual in large part because of the long lead-time needed for a cruise missile to arrive on target, but they were considerably lowerrisk than sending SOF. Special operators were employed in the 1990s to hunt down Bosnian war criminals but not terrorists plotting to attack American targets.

In fairness, this was not all Clinton’s fault. Ronald Reagan had not employed SOF in the 1980s either, to free hostages in Lebanon or to exact revenge for attacks such as the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut. He, too, preferred to retaliate with air power, as in a bombing raid on Libya in 1986. That caution among senior policymakers was reinforced by conventional military leaders who had little faith in the capability of SOF and, when pressed for options, typically presented civilian leaders with recommendations that were so cumbersome and ungainly that they were certain to be rejected.

The scholar Richard H. Shultz Jr. has found that, incredible as it may sound in retrospect, “prior to 9/11, these units were never used even once to hunt down terrorists who had taken American lives.” In an article in 2004 based on a report that he prepared for the Rumsfeld Pentagon, Shultz quoted General Peter Schoomaker, former head of the Special Operations Command and then–Army Chief of Staff, admitting that “It was very, very frustrating. It was like having a brand-new Ferrari in the garage, and nobody wants to race it because you might dent the fender.”

AFTER THE ATTACKS on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the Ferrari came roaring out of the garage. The campaign to topple the Taliban, launched in October 2001, was spearheaded by CIA operatives lugging suitcases full of cash and by Special Forces teams equipped with sophisticated communications equipment that allowed them to call in air strikes with pinpoint accuracy. Working with the Northern Alliance, a few hundred covert operators and soldiers managed to topple the feeble Taliban regime within two months. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld held up a picture of Special Forces on horseback and marveled at the combination of high technology and old-fashioned gumption that made their exploits possible. “This is precisely what transformation is all about,” he crowed in Foreign Affairs. “Here we were ... fighting the first war of the twenty-first century, and the horse cavalry was back—and being used in previously unimaginable ways.”

There is no gainsaying the courage and the resourcefulness of Special Forces troops, inserted into a land of which they knew little, who managed to improvise and adapt with lightning speed. But their success went only so far. Afghan militiamen and their Special Forces advisers could not capture Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora and, even more significantly, they could not establish a government in Kabul capable of exercising sovereignty over its own soil. Both shortcomings could have been rectified by the dispatch of larger numbers of conventional troops, but after the unexpectedly rapid downfall of the Taliban the Bush administration became intoxicated by the “small footprint” model of military interventions, centered on SOF.

To be sure, the Bush administration rejected far-fetched suggestions that a small number of commandos could topple Saddam Hussein, choosing instead to send over 100,000 conventional troops to get the job done. But the administration and the military high command also pressed to begin withdrawing those troops almost as soon as they had arrived in Baghdad. This repeated the mistake made in Afghanistan: while a relatively small number of highly skilled troops could topple an unpopular regime, it would take larger numbers of security forces, whether foreign or indigenous, to restore law and order. Nation-building was not, however, a priority for the United States either in Afghanistan in 2001 or in Iraq in 2003. In both places the administration kept the American troop commitment limited. (As recently as 2008 there were only 31,000 American troops in all of Afghanistan.) This created a security vacuum that allowed the Taliban to stage a resurgence in Afghanistan and various Sunni and Shia extremist groups to arise in Iraq.

Fearful of sending American troops to police population centers, American military and political leaders assigned the primary job of fighting these insurgent groups to the Joint Special Operations Command led by a strong-willed former Green Beret and Ranger named Stanley McChrystal (whose own memoir will be released soon). Then a three-star general, he spent most of the period between 2003 and 2008 at an austere forward operating headquarters at the Balad airbase in Iraq, north of Baghdad, from which he supervised JSOC's global activities. He amped up the tempo of its operations along with its ability to generate its own intelligence, to coordinate with the intelligence community, to interrogate detainees immediately upon capture, and to exploit sensitive information found at a target site to plan more missions, sometimes that very night. Through its close cooperation with the CIA, NSA, and other intelligence agencies (all of them represented by liaison officers at its headquarters), JSOC virtually re-created the old civil-military model of the OSS.

As the size of the insurgency grew, so did the number of missions that JSOC would carry out. Operating in three-month stints in-country, units such as SEAL Team Six and Delta Force would destroy numerous “high value targets” whose “target packages” had been painstakingly developed through the use of human and technical intelligence, including the copious allocation of surveillance drones and other high-tech assets. Most of these raids took place after dark, when American “night-vision” capabilities gave them an advantage over insurgents. Assault teams would infiltrate quietly by helicopter to a landing zone sufficiently distant from the target so that they could not be heard, and then they would sneak onto the objective to overwhelm a disoriented suspect. Conventional forces would support the mission by “sanitizing,” or guarding, the perimeter around the target to stop enemy reinforcements from arriving or “squirters” from escaping. Looming overhead would be air “assets” such as a Special Operations AC-130 gunship capable of pouring devastating fire onto insurgent heads.

These capabilities had existed before, but no one had ever put them together the way McChrystal and his successor, Admiral William McRaven, did—and no previous JSOC commander had ever enjoyed remotely similar freedom of action. Usually SOF operations had been constrained by the need to win the cooperation of local governments; and if that cooperation was not forthcoming, a SOF mission would have to violate another nation’s sovereignty, leading to difficult diplomatic complications. In Iraq, an occupied country with no effective government of its own, the American armed forces could do pretty much as they wanted, at least in the early years, and the special operators took advantage of this freedom to carry out a series of successful and audacious operations ranging from the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003 to the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June 2006.

YET SUCCESSFUL AS these operations were, they could not prevent the country from spiraling out of control. At best the special operators slowed the rate of America’s defeat; they could not by themselves deliver victory. The security situation only began to improve in 2007 as a result of the “surge,” which involved an increase in the number of conventional troops and a change in strategy. McChrystal, of all people, was aware of the limitations of his own forces. When he took command in Afghanistan in 2009, he actually curbed JSOC's “night raids” and imposed limitations on the use of firepower, meant to decrease civilian casualties. Instead he emphasized manpower-intensive and often “non-kinetic” (that is, non-shooting) counterinsurgency tactics—namely providing security and some essential services designed to drive a wedge between the populace and the insurgents. Contrary to the expectations of many, he did not place his primary emphasis on surgical strikes by SOF.

Ironically, SOF would gain greater importance in Afghanistan under two conventional generals: David Petraeus of the Army, who was in command of all U.S. and NATO forces from 2010–2011, and John Allen of the Marine Corps, who has been in command ever since. They employed large numbers of Green Berets, working in cooperation with conventional military units, to set up Afghan Local Police units, a militia force modeled on the Sons of Iraq and designed to augment the capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces. (Training of the Afghan police units was resumed recently after a brief suspension in reaction to attacks by some of its recruits on coalition troops.) They also unleashed JSOC to take down Taliban and Haqqani facilitators and high-level targets; it is primarily through such operations that the Haqqanis have been prevented from carrying out more high-profile terrorist attacks in Kabul. Whenever Petraeus would be pressed to cite evidence of progress in Afghanistan, more often than not, he would point to the number of successful raids carried out in previous months by JSOC. Indeed, given how rare it is for conventional U.S. forces to encounter the Taliban in frontal battle (the insurgents prefer to strike with roadside bombs targeting coalition vehicles and rockets lobbed onto coalition bases), JSOC has undoubtedly been responsible for a high percentage of all enemy fighters captured or killed by coalition forces.


THE DEVELOPMENT OF JSOC, which had taken place largely out of public view, was suddenly thrust onto every front page in the world by the success of Operation Neptune Spear— the operation, overseen by Admiral McRaven, which resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden on the night of May 1–2, 2011. This raid, the pinnacle of the art of special operations, is now back in the news not only because it is regularly cited by President Obama as an argument for his re-election, but also because one of the assaulters has published a memoir that has generated headlines and controversy.

No Easy Day, needless to say, is hardly a masterpiece of military memoir. The really good books on a fighting man’s experiences are usually penned decades after the fact, not a mere year later. (Two of the best World War II memoirs—With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by Eugene Sledge and Quartered Safe Out Here: A Recollection of the War in Burma by George Macdonald Fraser—were not published until 1981 and 1992, respectively, and one of the best autobiographical Vietnam novels, Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, was not published until 2010.) Nor are they written with the aid of a ghostwriter, as No Easy Day is. Still, even if it is not profoundly revealing or artfully written, the book sheds some light on the mentality of the men who make up the National Mission Units at the forefront of the war on terror.

Much of the controversy surrounding the book has revolved around the fact that its author, Matt Bissonnette (writing under the pseudonym Mark Owens), did not submit the book for pre-publication review by the Pentagon, as anyone who has access to highly classified information is supposed to do. Bissonnette clearly violated the law, but the possible case against his conduct is at least somewhat vitiated by the fact that many of the classified tidbits contained in his book had previously been leaked to the press anyway, presumably by White House aides eager to paint the commander-in-chief in heroic hues. While No Easy Day undoubtedly contains some new and unauthorized information on SEAL techniques, it is doubtful that it will tell future adversaries more than they could learn from watching Act of Valor, a recent feature film made with the full cooperation of the Naval Special Warfare Command and starring active-duty SEALs who show off a range of raiding techniques for the cameras. And it is doubtful that the book contains more information on the search for bin Laden and the raid that killed him than does the forthcoming film Zero Dark Thirty, made with the cooperation of the Obama administration.

You might even say that Bissonnette stands squarely in the most enduring if not altogether finest traditions of the National Mission Units, since both the founder of SEAL Team Six (Richard Marcinko) and the founder of Delta Force (Charlie Beckwith) wrote memoirs that caused considerable heartburn in official circles. Other SEALs have also written memoirs in recent years, including Marcus Luttrell, author of the bestselling Lone Survivor, chronicling a mission in Afghanistan in 2005 that went awry. In an effort to limit the fallout from his book, Bissonnette actually omits details that have been reported elsewhere, such as the fact that the Black Hawk helicopters used by the strike force had been given stealth modifications to evade Pakistani radar. He adds only a little bit to what has already been reported about the Abbottabad raid.

More interesting are the details of Bissonnette’s own background, which are mixed, rather haphazardly, with his account of the bin Laden operation and others he took part in, including the freeing of the captain of the Maersk Alabama. He grew up in small-town Alaska, learning to survive in extreme conditions and to shoot with great accuracy. Both skills were to come in handy when he enlisted in the Navy and took the demanding qualification course to become a SEAL in 1998. Bissonnette had already graduated from college by the time he enlisted, so he could have applied to be an officer, but he preferred to become an enlisted man, since this would keep him closer to the action. Six years later, in 2004, after having already done one combat deployment in Iraq (with SEAL Team Five), he took and passed the “Green Team” qualification course to become a member of SEAL Team Six, which, like the Delta Force, draws from a small subset of already qualified SOF personnel.

LIKE THEIR World War II predecessors, today’s special operators tend to be impatient with the petty rules and the micromanagement typical of the conventional forces. Many SOF operators have told me they could never have lasted long in the “Big Army.” Bissonnette writes that SEAL Team Six operated by “Big Boy Rules ... which means there wasn’t a lot of management unless you needed it.” Special operators did not have the freedom to choose their own missions, but they had considerable leeway to select their own weapons and other highly specialized gear. This makes sense because of a crucial difference between SOF and the regular forces: the enlisted personnel in the former are considerably older than in the latter. In National Mission Units, the average operator is in his thirties, with multiple combat deployments behind him, so he has a lot more maturity and experience than the average new soldier or marine who is still a teenager or just barely out of his teens.

Another advantage enjoyed by SOF is a remarkable degree of continuity. Whereas in the regular army, brigade combat teams are largely re-made after every combat deployment, with numerous personnel leaving and others arriving, SOF teams can remain intact for long periods. Only the officers change; the NCOs who make up the core of a team (there are no privates) can stay together year after year, which is why Bissonnette writes that “We sometimes called our officers ‘temps’”: “they showed up for a few years before moving on to check another box on their career path.”

Bissonnette notes that as a result of the post-9/11 wars he did “thirteen consecutive combat deployments,” a not atypical number among National Mission Units. And when he was not deployed he was usually training. He and other SEAL Team Six members would be gone from home eight to ten months a year—year after year. The “nonstop” pace has taken a heavy toll on the family lives of the special operators. He notes that “many of my teammates suffered through bitter divorces. We missed weddings, funerals, and holidays.” Presumably the grind finally caught up with Bissonnette when, after the bin Laden raid, he decided to leave the service still short of the twenty years needed to receive a full pension. Frustratingly, he does not explain his decision to return to civilian life or truly explain his decision to keep such a punishing and dangerous job for so long.

“Even with the pace and the sacrifices of being away from family,” he writes, “most of us kept coming back for more.” Why? One may infer that his initial motivation was to prove that he “could measure up” to the exacting standards of the SEALs, and that he stayed in because he enjoyed the team’s camaraderie (he notes all the pranks they played on each other) and derived satisfaction and excitement from killing or capturing wanted terrorists. “The dirty secret of it all is that everyone, including me, loved it,” he writes. “We wanted to get the call every time, which meant everything else in the world took a backseat.” Most likely, although he does not say so, he became addicted to the “high” that comes from combat, much as rock climbers, bungee jumpers, or other extreme athletes can become addicted to their dangerous sports.

Political concerns are almost entirely absent from No Easy Day, aside from Bissonnette’s offhand and not terribly surprising revelation that “none of us were huge fans of Obama.” He also expresses unsurprising frustration with the imposition of rules, in response to local sensitivities in Afghanistan, that curtailed JSOC's “night raids.” Bissonnette never served in a non-operational capacity and never rose to become an officer, so he had little time or need to think about the strategic implications of what he did. He just liked going on raids.


THANK GOODNESS we have such men supremely skilled in doing harm to those who mean us harm. But it is not enough to be as tactically proficient as Bissonnette and his colleagues have become over the past decade. The American government must have a larger strategy for using JSOC’s expertise to achieve national objectives. Such a strategy too often seems entirely absent. Instead, from Pakistan to Yemen, there is a tendency to use JSOC, often in cooperation with the CIA, to play “whack-a-mole” against terrorist organizations.

President Obama has elevated the use of such strikes, usually carried out with armed drones such as the Reaper, to become the centerpiece of our counter-terrorism strategy. Yet such attacks are necessary but not sufficient to deal with the threat posed by radical Islamist terrorism, because all too often terrorist organizations have been able to replace leaders lost in American (or Israeli) air raids. Only by furthering governance and security in unstable lands across the greater Middle East can Washington truly defeat the terrorist menace—but that will require a subtler approach than simply sending in SEAL Team Six or Delta Force to knock down more doors and “clear” more rooms.

In the SOF lexicon, the softer approach is known as “white” operations, as opposed to the super-secret “black” JSOC raids. It is also sometimes known as the “indirect approach.” Whatever you call it, this line of operations is premised on working “by, through, and with” indigenous forces rather than by simply sending highly trained Americans to put a bullet through the head of a terrorist leader. In the past decade, SOCOM has achieved largely unheralded success with precisely this approach in both Colombia and the Philippines—countries to which the United States has dispatched aid and SOF advisers but has not sent them into combat. Instead the special operators have worked to assist Colombian and Filipino forces, respectively, to more effectively fight insurgents on their own.

There will be more calls for such missions in the future and, in all probability, less employment of the National Mission Units, which are unlikely to have the same freedom of action that they have today in Afghanistan—or once had in Iraq. Future missions are more likely to call for linguistic and cultural skills rather than door-kicking skills, but the former have atrophied, or at the very least not grown, over the past decade, even while the latter have reached superlative new heights. The Special Forces are divided into various “groups” that are assigned to different parts of the world: 1st Group focuses on the Pacific, 3rd Group on sub-Saharan Africa, 5th Group on the Middle East, 7th Group on Latin America, and 10th Group on Europe (there are also two National Guard groups); but owing to the demands of the recent wars, all the groups have been sucked into endless rotations through “the sandbox” (Iraq and Afghanistan). Owing to the overall shortage of troops, they have often focused on “direct action” missions rather than their traditional role of working with indigenous forces. As a result, linguistic and cultural skills—never, it must be said, strong to begin with—have weakened. So, too, civil affairs and psychological operations, both less glamorous realms of SOCOM, have not had as central a place in the recent past as they must occupy in the future.

In the future, moreover, SOCOM will not only have to build up its regional and cultural expertise. It will also have to figure out how to coordinate better with intelligence agencies, law enforcement, conventional military units, the State Department, non-governmental organizations, and international organizations, in order to ensure that its specialized military capabilities are employed in furtherance of larger objectives and not simply for their own sake.

JSOC operators with whom I have spoken tell me that their raids in Afghanistan are designed only to buy time for someone else—civilian agencies or the conventional military forces—to build up governance and security capacity so as to enable the long-term defeat of the Taliban. Otherwise their raids are about as lasting as mowing the lawn. It is possible, just barely, to argue that a nation-building strategy exists in Afghanistan—but what about Pakistan? Yemen? Somalia? Mali? Libya? Syria? Iraq? True, Al Qaeda central, based in Pakistan, has been crippled by CIA and JSOC attacks using a combination of commando raids and drone attacks. But Al Qaeda continues to exist and even to expand its tentacles through the cooperation of organizations ranging from the Shabaab in Somalia to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Even Al Qaeda in Iraq, once on the verge of defeat, has shown an alarming resurgence since the withdrawal of American troops at the end of last year. Unless the United States pours more energy and resources into helping our allies to gain control of effectively ungoverned territories, there is a real danger that the kind of expertise displayed in the Osama bin Laden raid will be dissipated in endless strikes that achieve little lasting effect.

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author, most recently, of Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present (Liveright). This article appeared in the November 8, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Abbottabad and After.”