Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Book review: The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden, Mark Bowden (2012)

Unlike Bowden's 2006 Guests of the Ayatollah, about the Iranian hostage crisis under Jimmy Carter, which I reviewed here a few years ago, this book focuses almost exclusively on matters from a domestic point of view. The actual Special Forces raid takes place in Abbottabad, of course, but the reader of The Finish sits, as it were, inside the Beltway looking out at the world, especially the world in the Middle East and Central Asia where the jihadi movement has its origins. Bowden had access to many of the central players in Washington, including Barack Obama, and interviewed them at length. Even more than in the case of the 2006 book, The Finish demonstrates how a great quantity of work can be refined in the hands of an expert practitioner and turned out to look surprisingly simple. Bowden's skill and his effort to cover as many bases as possible mean that this book is a delight to read.

The book details the origins of and the push within the administration to give continued importance to the assassination of Osama bin Laden. In addition to the CIA there are many other people involved, from Silicon Valley software engineers to foreign interrogators - key pieces of information were secured using coercive methods by the US through the extra-legal "rendition" of captives - to the US military and the specially-trained and highly-experienced soldiers who finally went over the border from Afghanistan to Pakistan to carry out the assassination. Bowden rightly focuses on a few individuals to give his narrative coherence and relevance for the reader, including the US president, a White House speechwriter, and a senior CIA staffer. Focusing on individual personalities is not a new technique, but it is effective here, and the result is a better book than Bowden's 2006 one.

The book's domestic focus also delivers other dividends. One of these is a measure of balance with respect to the public sphere itself. When you read spy novels there is always the presence of politicians and the media, and usually some politicians, and most of the media, get a bad rap. Here, because of the book's domestic focus, these elements also get play, especially toward the end where Bowden takes a look at how the assassination was handled domestically in the US. The last chapter is titled 'Glitter', and it's about the spin that often adheres to high-profile events such as the assassination of Osama bin Laden. But it's not the media that loses control of objectivity, in the book, but rather the administration, and when Obama goes to Kentucky to thank the SEALs who carried out the raid, and is asked about the untruths that had entered the "narrative" surrounding the assassination, for him to brush it off is disingenuous:
"Don't worry about it," said the president. "That's just Washington, that's just media, that's just noise."
While the SEALs in the room just laughed, Bowden tells us, it's actually no laughing matter. In spy novels generally there is a sharp contrast in affect between noble soldiers and ignoble and tainted Beltway operatives, such as politicians and the media, and this dynamic has always surprised me. If Bowden's book does anything, it shows how the people involved in such actualities as the assassination are just that - people - and normally they are dedicated and passionate people too. The way operators in the public sphere are routinely smeared by fiction writers - the people who write the fictional analogues of Bowden's book - is a source of amazement for me, because it is precisely the democratic process that they are engaged in that is what is being protected in the War on Terror. There's something dysfunctional about this matrix of ideas and feelings, as if we are ashamed of how well the system works compared to the alternatives; alternatives that can cause so much trouble to the democratic majority, as the recent events in Boston show.

What Bowden does also in his book is to show how essential good journalism is - Bowden is, after all, a journalist - and how it can bring truth to light despite the spin that politicians often apply to facts in order to gain advantage in the public sphere. What Obama should have said to the soldiers instead of "the media" is "the public sphere", but the concept is a bit elegant, perhaps, for most. The public sphere is a highly contested space, and it always has been. The feeling of shame that appears mainly in fictional narratives that deal with the point of confluence between the polity and the military might be assuaged by books such as Bowden's, which tries very hard to portray the truth. Bowden's reputation as a fair witness gives him access to people most of us are barred from discussions with, and his dedication to truth serves him in the form of a passport in this sense.

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