by Gunjan Veda (author, Beautiful Country, Stories from Another India)
Before I begin this book review, a word of caution. Much as I love reading non fiction, reviewing them is a task I shy away from. Honestly, I am never sure if I am qualified enough to pass an opinion. After all, when you review a work of fiction – there are very tangible and easily monitorable (at least, in my case) parameters. You look at the plot, story line, language, treatment, tempo. Is it believable? Does it recreate the scene for you? Are you able to identify with the characters, their feelings? Is the fantasy fantastic enough? Is the romance sweet or forced? Did you solve the mystery by page 50 or did you sit up all night to get to the end? Was it a whodunit or a lame attempt at one? Did the words flow as one whole or did the sentences jar? Yes, I know what I am looking for and I am confident in what I pronounce. But enter the realm of non-fiction and the game changes. I can still talk about readability, language, flow, treatment. Is the topic interesting enough? Is it new? Is the information new? Has it been explained sufficiently? But here’s where I hit a bottleneck – is the information accurate? Is it neutral or does it only reflect one side of the story? Has the writer wittingly or unwittingly, hidden, manipulated or distorted facts? In a work of non-fiction, the truth counts. But truth is subjective. And there are just too many versions of it. I will never know if the information in the secret CIA files was doctored. I will never know how many “terrorists” the author actually spoke to or whether he accurately reflected their sentiments. I can do some research and figure out the political leanings of the author, but really I won’t be able to balance his or her views or provide sufficient counters. So treat this as a disclaimer of sorts. This is not a comment on the political leanings of the author or how meticulously he did his homework. I can’ t tell you if the author consulted all available sources or if he did justice to them. We will assume that he did all of that and more. This review is on the contents of the book and what the reader can expect for it.
On May 2, 2011 the world woke up to the news that Osama Bin Laden was dead. After a ten year long search that cost half a trillion dollars, employed hundreds of CIA and Special Service operatives and resulted in many civilian deaths in drone attacks conducted to kill the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Osama Bin Laden had finally been felled. What did this manhunt entail? Why did it take so long to capture him? How did the security agencies finally track down and kill the man who had eluded them for over a decade? What were Bin laden’s final days like? All this and much more forms the basis of Peter Bergen’s new book, Manhunt: the ten year search for Osama Bin Laden.
There is something strangely – almost morbidly- fascinating about propagators of violence. You may loathe them, idolize them or try to understand them, but you can’t ignore them because their actions -howsoever repulsive or brave they may be – define eras. 9/11 made Osama Bin Laden into a household name. The years that followed have seen innumerable books, TV shows and documentaries on this man who single-handedly declared war against the world’s reigning super power. Yet one week before Bin Laden became a global phenomenon, CNN’s Peter Bergen submitted a manuscript about the man and his “Holy War” against America. Bergen was the first journalist to carry Bin Laden’s hate note for America, delivered from a mud hut in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan in March 1997, to a western audience. Perhaps it is poetic justice then that the same man has now come up with a blow by blow account of how the US forces struggled and finally managed to kill Bin Laden by tracking his courier.
Manhunt begins with a brief account of the man who was Bin Laden and his “retired” life in Abbottabad. As with his previous three books, Bergen reminds the reader that Osama Bin Laden was not a spectre or a phenomenon, but a man with beliefs, ideas and a family – a man who was happiest in a mud hut high up in the mountains of Tora Bora where gas lanterns were the only source of light and a wood burning stove the only source of heat. A man who taught his family to always be prepared for life on the run because “we never know when war will strike.” Bergen talks about Osama’s day to day life, his relationship with his wives and the use of Avina syrup, a natural Viagra. Of course, there are the obvious biases when Bin Laden is compared to Hitler but to be fair, the author also documents the absolute loyalty and trust Bin Laden inspired amongst his followers. He goes on to describe Bin Laden’s reaction as he heard the news of the 9/11 attack over the BBC’s Arabic radio in the mountains of Khost in eastern Afghanistan.
To this point, the book is interesting but not exceptional. The real action begins after the attacks when Bergen transports the reader to the mountains of Tora Bora, to the CIA Counter Terrorism Centre, to White House and finally to the Abbottabad compound where Laden was killed. Being a journalist, he does not expect the reader to understand military terminology or set up. Instead he explains the entire operation and the role played by every individual and unit in simple terms, without overwhelming the reader with too many facts or jargon. As a result, the lay reader is able to appreciate the military strategy and planning that goes into an operation of this magnitude. Ferreting out one terrorist for a whole bunch of special operatives might seem like an easy enough job but in reality it is very, very tough. It requires a plethora of special skills and a whole bunch of people – from behaviour experts and commandos to cryptologists and even botanists- working together on a zero tolerance for mistake thresh hold. After all, one untapped clue can lead to a collapse of the entire mission. One may or may not agree with the War against Terror and the way it was fought, but Manhunt compels the reader to appreciate the pressures such a mission puts on those in power. They faced tough questions and mostly, it was a case of damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t. Pakistan was an ally, albeit one in chaos. Should the Pakistani Army be trusted? Should the Special Operatives collaborate with them? Should Osama be killed or captured? How should he be taken out – with a B2 bomber, a drone attack or a helicopter borne assault? And most importantly, should the US violate the sovereign integrity of an ally by sending in its troops on the stealth when the certainty of Osama being at the compound was at best 60 per cent? Even after the raid was carried out successfully, the questions did not end. Should pictures of his dead body be released to silence skeptics or should they be withheld to ensure he isn’t granted the status of a martyr? What should be done with his body? How should Pakistan be informed?
Yes, Manhunt makes for fascinating read – an action packed thriller, albeit one where the events, characters, stunts – everything is real. But for me the real strength of the book lies in the insight in provides into the lives of the Heads of State and their Heads of Security. Here, once again, a disclaimer is in order. I am unashamedly and avowedly anti “War on Terror.” Like most people, I abhor war and violence, but unlike many, my opposition extends to all acts of violence, irrespective of political leanings, nationality or religion of the perpetrator or the victim. I try to understand the motivations behind these acts, gruesome and inhumane as they may be, but that makes for another post. The point here is that I am not a neutral reader or reviewer. I have my biases. If I had to find a bad guy in the orgy of violence that has snuffed out – an indeed continues to do so- so many lives in Afghanistan , in Iraq and in many recognized and unrecognized battlefields across the world – it would be the man who authorized this violence and his cronies. Yes, I have been and continue to be, in many instances – decidedly anti-establishment (and in this case the US establishment). But Manhunt made me realize that I would never like to be in Obama’s shoes. Or Bush’s for that matter. (I am not getting into the Democrats vs Republicans debate here). My decided and definite antipathy to violence notwithstanding, would I have been able to do things differently? I am not sure.
To most “commoners” (read people who are not part of the government or establishment), the life of a statesman or stateswoman is grand. Foreign trips, exclusive planes, VVIP treatment, all manners of special privileges. That is true. Yet, Manhunt tells you why you and I would never wish to have those lives. “With great power (and everything that power can buy including every manner of luxury) comes great responsibility”. Uncle Ben’s wise words to Peter Parker (Spiderman, for the uninitiated) are not just an adage. What if it wasn’t been Bin Laden, but a perfectly respectable Pakistani citizen and his family staying inside the Abbottabad compound? What if it was Bin Laden hiding in the mountains of Tora Bora, planning the next 9/11? What if the handful of soldiers sent in on the chopper to the compound got apprehended or killed by Bin Laden’s associates? What if the Pakistani army hit the helicopter? What if another Somalia or Vietnam happened? What if the raid wasn’t conducted and Bin Laden and Al Qaeda continued to flourish? What if some Al Qaeda agent had infiltrated the US intelligence system and fed wrong information to further rupture the already faltering relationship between US and Pakistan? The what ifs are never ending and each time the ultimate decision lies with one man (or woman). As National Security Adviser Tom Donolin said, “Those moments still really strike me, that we ask one person in our system to make these incredibly difficult call on behalf of three hundred million Americans.” And that isn’t the end of it. You are not permitted to betray, by the slightest word, deed or gesture, the questions that plague you. You are expected to take decisions that history could forever condemn you for without batting an eyelid and often without letting anyone but your closest advisers in on the secret. So immediately after giving the go ahead (against the advise of his top advisers) for the operation, Obama flew to the tornado affected city of Tuscaloosa in Alabama, watched the launch of the space shuttle Endeavor and gave a commencement address at Miami Dade College. A few hours before Operation Neptune Spear as it was called, commenced, he took digs at Donald Trump at the Annual White House Correspondents dinner while his Director of National Counterterrorism Centre took his marriage vows. And even as the choppers flew towards Abbottabad, he went for his customary Sunday game of golf. All so that no one would scent what was afoot. Definitely not a life I want.
So read Manhunt, if current affairs, politics and the war on terror interest you. Read it if Bin Laden intrigues you and if you want to disabuse the many myths that unknowingly, we still hold dear. Read it for the intrigue, the thrill and the little known facts -did you know that women agents played a critical role in locating Bin Laden – that it brings out. Read it to understand a little more about the person and events that have and continue to shape the world as we know it today.
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