I Am Not A Hero

No Hero: The Evolution of a Navy SEAL

No Hero: The Evolution of a Navy SEAL

Personal war narratives are a difficult genre. At their worst they have the literary complexity of grocery store romance novels, glorifying the participants (specifically the author) and asserting some clichéd moral of bravery or brotherhood. At the opposite end of the spectrum, works such as A Farwell to Arms, or more recently Sebastian Junger’s WAR, capture the more honest, often scarring, sensory experience of conflict, its effects on the participants, and the malaise and humanity, not macho-man bravado, of those who fight.

No Hero does not fit into either of these extremes, but this is to its benefit. Mark Owen, along with coauthor Kevin Maurer, manage to produce a work that is more akin to a business book than a political device, more a story of a team than an a epic of a hero, and more an intimate journal of events than a passionate, poetic narrative. No Hero is different than the typical Navy Seal narrative, and for a genre generally reserved for middle school boys with a gun fancy, that’s a good thing.

Owen made his first appearance in the literary world with his 2012 book, No Easy Day: The Autobiography of a Navy Seal: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden. The subtitle says it all. Depending on who you ask, Owen or his publishers capitalized on the nationalist bravado following the Bin Laden raid by releasing the first book to chronicle the infamous night in early May 2011. What red blooded American wouldn’t want to hear a glorified tale of the defeat of the nation’s greatest enemy? But No Easy Day was not only about the Bin Laden raid. It contained all the trappings of the cookie cutter Navy seal narrative: childhood ambitions of being an elite operator, chilling descriptions of BUDS and Hell Week, select operations of note, difficulty adjusting to home and family life, etc. It was the type of book you would see middle-aged Republican men reading while on vacation in Maine: a source of escapism.

More interesting than its actual content was the firestorm that occurred following its release. Owen, who still writes under a pseudonym, was ostracized from the Seal community. Former teammates lambasted him for capitalizing on the work of thousands to make money for himself. Further, Owen claimed credit for the actual deed of shooting Bin Laden, which as was demonstrated when the Seal team adamantly declined to identify the shooter in a meeting with Obama despite the President’s requests, spits in the face of the organization’s selfless and team oriented values. Owen’s real name, Matt Bissonnette, was leaked by a member of the Seal community supposedly in retaliation. But in addition to the threats from his former colleges, Owen faced a far more serious threat from the Department of Defense. The DoD quickly began to investigate whether Owen released any classified information in his No Easy Day, which was not cleared by Government censors per typical protocol. They found enough evidence to file suit for violating his non-disclosure agreement and the Espionage Act and quickly brought Owen to court. The matter is still unresolved.

The actual information leaked seems rather comical in retrospect. Owen made references to night vision goggles used by the Seals, information that is publicly available on the manufacture’s website but is not specifically tied to the Seals. He also referred to his unit, the United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group or DEVGRU, as Seal Team Six, which was considered to be another release of classified information. Despite the innocent nature of the information revealed (a DoD official went as far as to question, “Does this [information] compromise national security today? Probably not.”), Owen’s reputation disintegrated. Labeled a traitor, abandoned by his government and former teammates, Owen’s certainly did not achieve his original intentions with No Easy Day, to honor those who serve their country and often go un-credited or unnoticed.

Separate in both time and subject matter from the excitement of the Bin Ladin raid, No Hero is Owen’s attempt to accomplish what he first set out to do. He begins with a section titled “40 Names,” a reference to the 40 contacts in Owen’s cellphone who have lost their lives in the conflict. “40 Names” sets the tone for the remainder of the work, but not in the sense that No Hero is about death or loss; these topics are rarely discussed. When they are, it is in the way you would think a life long solider would do so: honest, understated, but heartfelt. No Hero is not about Mark Owen and what he has done for the Navy Seals; instead, it is about the Navy Seals, and their effect on him. By beginning with a section dedicated to the fallen, Owen answers the critics who called him self-serving and self-centered for releasing his first book. From the onset, No Hero is about others, about the Seals through the eyes of the author.

Owen emphasizes that what separates a Seal from your run-of-the-mill enlisted man is the details. The Seals preform the same basic tasks as any other solider, but they make far fewer mistakes. This philosophy carries over into the events depicted in No Hero. The book has no Bin Laden raid or climatic battle. It instead portrays seemingly pedestrian events such as Owen’s first training mission and countless raids on nameless insurgent leaders who probably wouldn’t be recognized by anyone outside of the intelligence community. As a reader, you come to realize that this is the vast majority of the life of a special forces operative. There are only so many Bin Ladins to kill, so many Captain Phillips to rescue. The rest of their time is spent training for artic battles that will most likely never be fought and eliminating small packs of insurgents so tactically inferior that even engaging them in a two sided firefight is considered failure.

But in discussing the mundane, little things, Owen emphasizes what allows the Seals to preform at such a high level when they need to. This is where No Hero reads more like a business book than a war novel. Owen takes the cliché morals as given, whatever mention of courage or bravery is brushed aside as necessary to be in combat, much as a work ethic is necessary in business. He instead focuses on what differentiates the best from the rest, on what makes an elite operator truly special. He emphasizes a mastery of the fundamentals and the ability to revert to the basics while under stress. He highlights the ability to take seemingly difficult problems and quickly break them down into smaller manageable tasks, prioritizing what needs to be done first. Owen discusses intellectual humility, and the ability to learn from one’s mistakes. Following every mission, the Seals would conduct an after action review where the participants discuss what went well and more importantly what went wrong. No one, from the rookie to the commanding officer, was immune to criticism, and as a reader you can tell that each member took this responsibility very seriously. Taken out of the context of war, these lessons read like a business book and they describe what any strong organization would do to improve. This is obviously not common for a war book, and that is what makes No Hero so interesting.

Also uncommon for a war book, No Hero has no obvious climax. The closest it gets is when Owen correctly identifies what bedroom in a compound contains enemy combatants by the male shoes outside the door, while a less experienced teammate (who did not notice this detail) storms a room filled with screaming women and children instead. Owen describes the moment as the first time he felt like he was the Seal he dreamt of being when he was young. Through this “climax” Owen demonstrates that ultimate satisfaction is not tied to one’s results, but one’s mastery of the process. This is a surprisingly nuanced observation, but Owen does not dwell on it. He instead quickly turns to how he imparted the lesson to the younger team member to make sure he would not make the same mistake going forward.

No Hero is in part Owen’s attempt to clear his name; to tell his part of the story. But it does not read like an apology letter. Owen defends himself by showing the type of man he is: selfless, driven, and dedicated to the team. He is, like most Special Forces operatives, a type A personality who craves challenge and thrives on performing at his best. Ultimately, as a reader you get the impression that Owen really enjoyed being a Seal. Its easy to believe that in chronicling his time in the service, Owen only intended to honor those who served with him, to impart some of the lessons he learned along the way, to inspire some to follow his path of service, and nothing more. By the epilogue, when he finally addresses the controversies of the past two years, you are already on his side. The last words you would use to describe him would be selfish, traitorous, or greedy.

Owen’s defense is that he wanted to tell the story of the Seals to honor those who dedicated their lives to defending their country and who often go un-credited. He did not want to make money. He claims that he was planning on donating the proceeds to charity but ultimately had to spend a significant portion of the money to finance his legal battles with the Justice Department. As to not getting his first book cleared, he claims he hired the wrong lawyer and got some bad legal advice. While I may be naïve, Owen just seems like too good of a guy to be a master manipulator or to have ulterior motives for releasing classified information about night vision goggles. There is no malice in his writing. He criticizes the DoD for suing him, but that makes sense: they are suing him while information leaks in similar projects such as Zero Dark Thirty go uninvestigated. Owen pleads stupidity and in all honesty I’m inclined to believe him. The reason why is evident in his writing.

Despite all its strengths, No Hero is still a mass-market war novel and characteristically has the literally complexity of an eighth grade essay. If you want to read it on the beach, don’t worry about bringing your dictionary. Instead of Hemingway’s vivid depiction of the Italian battlefront, you’ll get, “It was pretty f***ing gruesome.” One would be foolish to expect anything more. In a way, the unpretentious and raw language contributes to its authenticity. Owen is strangely successful in capturing the morbid tension as he sits on his teammate’s porch awaiting news of the 2011 Chinook helicopter crash that would claim the lives of 15 of his fellow Seals. He similarly captures the charade of the Navy’s mental health program as he and a teammate sit through a “consoling session,” blindly answering no to a series of PTSD symptoms so that they can return to combat. Owen is not successful because of his rhetorical acumen but because of his honesty. He gives the reader abundant opportunities to draw his or her own conclusions, providing a level of depth not found in contemporary works, like American Sniper.

No Hero is a war narrative, a series of practical lessons, a story of personal growth, an attempt to reclaim one’s reputation, and an honest window into the lives of those who dedicate their lives to serving their country. It is not a groundbreaking piece of literature nor does it try to be. But if you find yourself yearning for some escapism during the grueling winter, or better yet your next vacation, try No Hero. What you find will surprise you.