Mark Bowden’s insta-history of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, “The Finish,” arrived with high praise and thus high expectations. It wasn’t a terrible book. It was a quick read, exciting at times, and contained information I had not already known. Five stars, right?
Well, it’s not that easy. You see, this is one of those books that is rushed to the shelves in order to capitalize (and I mean that in the most profit-driven sense of the word) on a topic or interest that the American people have at a certain moment. Bowden has credibility with previous work like “Black Hawk Down,” so I can see why he got the gig. He gets some interviews, stitches together a story that Kindle lovers will gobble up, and everyone goes home happy. (Except Osama, I guess.)
Look, this review is already tacking down the snobbish path. So for that, I’m sorry. But I wanted so much more out of this book. Bowden didn’t talk to a single SEAL who was part of the mission. He printed no appendix or no notes section, a sign that this was less a book of studious research and more a book that was simply long-form journalism. Indeed, when he did cite sources in his acknowledgements, he listed two other widely-read articles, including the highly-praised “New Yorker” send-up on the raid. Bowden’s interview with the President was a nice “get” but I gathered from the length and type of the quotes that it was less of an interview and more of a “Can you give me a few quotes for my book?” kind of discussion.
What I did like was enough to make this a page-turner. The architect of the raid, Bill McRaven, was the most interesting individual chronicled in the book. I could read an entire book about McRaven. (And I will now attempt to use his favorite expression “sporty” in conversation.) The descriptions of the White House activities during and before the raid contained a few more details than I already knew. For instance, I really enjoyed hearing how the principals (Obama, Clinton, Biden, others) were in a larger room and then migrated to the smaller room, where all the action was, as the raid went on. Bowden gives us a clearer picture as to how that now-famous photograph developed.
In exchange for source material, Bowden gives Josh Lyman treatement to Ben Rhoads, the super-smart Obama national security communications pro. Near the end of the book, Bowden dramatizes Rhoads slinking out of the White House, a moment that if I were Rhoads, I would cherish. But since I’m not, I just thought it was a little hokey. A friend points out that Rhoads is an interesting study given his youth (age 32 during the raid) and his high level of power in the government. Absolutely true. But we only get 10 or 12 pages about him. And this leads to my general complaint about the book—it’s a newsmagazine style treatment about an event that deserves a more richly developed history.
The most interesting part of the book, to me, was the discussion of the methods they might use to capture/kill Osama. There is a short section on the drone missiles and unmanned aircraft that could be used to spy on or attack the compound. Mind. Blown. Bowden describes little missiles flying around, weighing only 15 lbs, with the capability of killing individuals. I know some about drone strikes, but this made it more real. Robot wars are not the stuff of science fiction anymore and I found myself captivated both by the technology and by the ethics of modern warfare. If you have good recommendations for reading more about these topics, hit me in the comments.
I think I needed to temper my expectations with this book. First drafts of history are often incomplete. Years will go by before we truly understand what happened as the U.S. Government closed the net on the most wanted terrorist of all time. And because much of what they did was covert, there are parts we’ll likely never know.
I was in Boston the weekend The President and his team executed the daring mission in Abbottabad. I went to Fenway Park for a Red Sox game and then ate too much food and consumed too much alcohol. While I was out horsing around, living the American dream, our government and a team of men were out protecting that dream. Over the past couple of years, through this book and other accounts, I’ve learned what they did while I was out on the town. I’m amazed and grateful that they succeeded. Book review aside, the story of what happened that night will forever be remembered as momentous.
Thanks for reading.