Drones or SEALs: Those were the options President Obama and his advisers considered in the days before the raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan. If they obliterated Osama bin Laden with a missile, they would have difficulty proving he was dead. The SEALs would be able to show they got him, but if things went badly they themselves might be killed. Either option was risky since the odds, as the president saw them, were only “50-50” that Bin Laden was even there. So a deputy national security adviser, Benjamin Rhodes, was asked to compose different speeches — one for a successful raid, the other for a botched one.
Mark Bowden would seem like the perfect person to tell this dramatic story. He is the author of “Black Hawk Down,” a best seller about the disastrous 1993 battle in Mogadishu, Somalia, that deftly chronicled a dark chapter in America’s military history when nearly everything failed; that battle continues to provide lessons about the risks of such operations. Indeed, “Black Hawk Down” came up repeatedly during White House discussions about the Abbottabad raid. Moreover, Bowden has had extraordinary access: he spoke with Obama in the Oval Office and spent time with key players, including the C.I.A.’s deputy director, Michael Morell; the national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon; as well as with Rhodes.
“The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden” opens with the 9/11 attacks, then devotes several chapters to the long process of sleuthing and intelligence-­gathering that led to a housing compound in Abbottabad, an area that Leon Panetta, then the C.I.A. director, compared to “a well-to-do Northern Virginia suburb.” There, Bin Laden spent his time writing letters and taking walks in a vegetable garden, being careful to remain only a shadowy figure to others in the neighborhood. At one point, the chief counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, looked at hazy images of a tall man walking in the compound, as Bowden writes, and “felt in his bones that this was Bin Laden.” Drawing on interviews and government documents, Bowden also sheds light on Obama’s thinking about the fight against Al Qaeda and specifically his plans for the raid.
Bowden never uses the word “assassination,” but he recounts the words of a member of the Navy SEAL team who was detailing the progress of the mission: “For God and country — Geronimo. Geronimo. Geronimo,” and then the kill. Apparently, Bin Laden’s death was a foregone conclusion, since Obama made it clear before the raid that if the terrorist leader wanted to surrender, “he better be naked and on the ground.” The president’s remark, which does not appear to have been reported anywhere else, is revealing.
A significant part of the book, however, is devoted to the ticktock, as journalists call it, a veritable minute-by-minute account of meetings, nearly all of which have already been described in David E. Sanger’s “Confront and Conceal,” Seth G. Jones’s “Hunting in the Shadows” and Peter Bergen’s “Manhunt” (Bowden credits “Manhunt” in his acknowledgments). Yet in contrast to those carefully reported, often riveting books, “The Finish” is both superficial and superserious, a young adult version of “How America Vanquished Its Enemy.”
Marked by patriotic, occasionally dubious claims (“The United States did come to Afghanistan, and they had defeated the Taliban”) and unstartling revelations (empathy is “a generous worldview, and often the correct one,” while “evil does exist in the world”), the book exposes the sad truth about access journalism, which is that you can have all the access in the world and still not be able to produce a persuasive narrative.
“The Finish” is basically a Washington story — though the city is hardly recognizable to this Washingtonian. In Bowden’s telling, it is a place where egos are always in check and men are larger than life. ­Donilon, the national security adviser, seems “egoless,” for example, and the head of the Joint Special Operations Command manages to look at problems “without ego or emotion.” Meanwhile, intelligence analysts toil away in offices where “ego and eccentricity were suppressed.” This widespread ability to remain humble is all the more striking, given how extraordinary the men in Washington are, at least according to Bowden.
So Donilon is “known for doing the work of three,” and the Pentagon official Michael Vickers is “legendary in his own world.” Much of Bowden’s attention goes to Rhodes, who gave up his literary career for the greater good. A New York University creative-writing student who for years had carried a paperback copy of “The Sun Also Rises” in his back pocket, Rhodes turned to government work after the 2001 attacks. “Hemingway believed in facing hard truths head-on,” Bowden explains. “Rhodes the would-be novelist walked away from fiction that day, too. Whatever this was he had just seen, it was a thing that needed to be met head-on.”
During one Hamlet-like moment, Rhodes contemplated attending a White House Correspondents Dinner, which, as it turned out, was scheduled to take place the same time as the raid. “Rhodes was so nervous that at first he decided not to go, but then he changed his mind,” Bowden writes. “He figured if he stayed home he would just pace and obsess. The dinner would be a distraction.” Spoiler alert: He goes.
The flaws in “The Finish” lie not simply in banal observation, however, but also in tone. Bowden turns national security figures like Donilon, Vickers and Rhodes into 3-D Avengers, yet he can be cavalier when writing about people outside the Beltway. He says debates in recent decades over “Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, etc.” have involved “abstract questions about the use of American power”; in contrast, “there was nothing abstract about 9/11.” Whatever people in Washington may have felt about Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, “etc.,” the conflicts in those countries were hardly abstract to the individuals who lived through them.
Similarly, Bowden extols the virtues of new software used in American-run detention facilities that went “beyond storing detainees” — an awkward phrase that turns people into objects. And in writing about the treatment of detainees, he speculates that torture worked, or at least was “part of the story” of the raid. Maybe, maybe not. One thing is clear, however: The tale that Bowden tells is almost solely from the perspective of a small group of people in Washington, just about all of whom, in his account, were wise and selfless.
Rather than providing a nuanced view of counterterrorism and of the people who are battling Al Qaeda, “The Finish” offers little more than cardboard characters, without depth or humanity. Even so dramatic an event as Bin Laden’s death is turned into a pompom-waving occasion, with Bowden explaining that people gathered outside the White House around midnight to chant “C.I.A.! C.I.A.! C.I.A.!” A few hours later, Rhodes left the White House and headed home, feeling “like he had won.” His sense of triumph is understandable, but a book about the fight against Al Qaeda should relate not only the successes and satisfactions of the officials involved, but their mistakes and failures as well. If Bowden had examined both the strengths and weaknesses of the White House counterterrorism efforts, rather than relying so heavily on the participants’ own positive stories, his book would have been more than what it is — a compilation of “Geronimo” moments.
Tara McKelvey, a frequent contributor to the Book Review, is a fellow at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard and the author of “Monstering: Inside America’s Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War.”