the-finish1[xrr rating=3.25/5]My reservation with Mark Bowden’s new book, The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden, has nothing to do with Bowden’s skill as a journalist. I’m not even too worried about the strict ethical question that arises from a book that amounts to an uplifting account of a man’s assassination, but that’s mostly because the man in question was a gloating, insane mass murderer. While essentially sidelining the ethics, Bowden tells the story of the CIA’s two-decade hunt for bin Laden (and its culmination in an Obama-ordered Navy SEAL raid that earned the al Qaeda leader bullets in his chest and head) with a veteran journalist’s ability to organize loads of factual information into a propulsive narrative. The Finish is a masterful piece of long-form journalism and, for the military buffs (like me) who will no doubt eat it up, a refreshingly mature rejoinder to the dumb, jingoistic Navy SEAL fever that’s been ebbing and flowing since bin Laden’s violent death catapulted the elite soldiers into the international spotlight.

What the book ultimately suffers from is the nagging sense that it’s crowding out bad news in favor of one of the precious few success stories that has come out of America’s recent quest in the Middle East. Bowden, the 61-year-old author of mainly military-centered bestsellers (Black Hawk Down, Guests of the Ayatollah), is within a fairly large minority of American journalists, perhaps more prevalent since the 9/11 attacks, who are both liberal and big proponents of certain hard-striking US military operations. The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive, of course. Liberals are well within their political worldview when they concede that violence is sometimes necessary. What Bowden does with The Finish, though, is fashion a War on Terror success story out of little more than after-the-fact interviews with high level military and political leaders – Obama included – who had every reason to give him a rosy retrospective on events.

Using the careers of said leaders (and a few low-level CIA analysts) as a backbone, the narrative of The Finish goes something like this: an initially disorganized CIA refocuses on finding bin Laden after 9/11; it demands better efficiency from its analysts and runs all of its intelligence through newfangled computer software, eventually drawing a bead on a man living in Pakistan who stood a good chance of being bin Laden; it presents its case against that man (who to them was either bin Laden or a bin Laden lookalike) to a president who, as Bowden frames it, truly came into his own when he ordered Navy SEALs into Pakistan to get him. It’s a rousing story, possibly the major one of the ‘00s, but it not only elides every blunder the United States has made with its War on Terror, it veers dangerously close to reading like an official White House press release on bin Laden’s demise.

If you want to stick to the narrative of that press release, however, and forget greater concerns, Bowden makes it easy. He paces his book energetically, following the major players in what would become Operation Neptune Spear (the Navy codename for the bin Laden raid) over the course of the decade after 9/11. The main characters, not surprisingly, are bin Laden and Obama, men who Bowden characterize as polar opposites. The book’s first chapter is titled “A Definition of Evil,” which refers to the epiphany that Obama, just a lowly state senator in 2001, had after being forced to contemplate the type of person who could execute 9/11. The president’s famous (and well-publicized) empathy is, according to Bowden, “a generous worldview, and often the correct one. But on September 11 (Obama) confronted something that challenged that hopeful insight.” Bowden contrasts this, (rather broadly) with bin Laden’s sociopathy: when asked my his mentor during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan how he could justify killing a busload of civilians, bin Laden reportedly answered, “ So what will happen if Russia loses a bus full of people? It is not going to matter.” It goes without saying he felt more than comfortable transferring that logic to the United States.

Bowden makes room for a few of the more minor bin Laden hunters with short character studies that read like self-contained newspaper stories: Admiral William McRaven, the former SEAL and head of JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) who planned and oversaw the raid; Michael Scheuer, the mid-level CIA officer who tracked bin Laden throughout the ‘90s and failed to convince the Clinton administration to kill him; Michael Morell, a Bush-era national security advisor who eventually became the man whose opinion on intelligence the president most trusted; and many more are given their well-earned 15 minutes out of the shadows of national security.

With all of these stories taken together, however, the book comes off as less a bin Laden/Obama showdown and more a painstaking account of a near-impossible manhunt. What Bowden winds up doing, besides implicitly apologizing for Iraq and Afghanistan, is making the case that A) the CIA had done its homework, and had good reason to believe the man in Pakistan was bin Laden, and B) Obama was gutsy, and ultimately right, when he took a gamble on taking him out.

The book’s main selling point, the assault on the house where bin Laden was hiding, flies by in a few pages once Obama, after a lengthy series of huddles with top military brass and intelligence officials, decides an assault is the way to go. The brevity of its retelling matches that of the raid itself, which, owing to the skill of the SEALs who executed it, took less than 40 minutes, all told. Anyone looking for the kinds of juicy commando stories you tend to get in the tell-alls of ex-soldiers will be disappointed. Anyone looking for the kind of critical breakdown of America’s War on Terror that you tend to get from the many book-writing, war-junkie journalists out there will be disappointed as well. But if you were one of the many who picked up a newspaper on May 1, 2011 to find out we’d finally, and somewhat unbelievably, taken down our main target, and if you felt a subsequent surge of national pride that day, then The Finish will pretty much be the book for you.

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