Book: The Finish
Author: Mark Bowden
Publisher: Grove Press UK
Nearly 11 years ago, filmmaker Ridley Scott, then known for his Alien series, went into a little-known battle fought in Mogadishu, Somalia. The battle would result in the death of 19 American soldiers, perhaps the highest number of casualties suffered by the USA after the Vietnam War. The film, Black Hawk Down, was based on a book with a similar name authored by a correspondent experimenting with the art of telling a good tale of war.
Mark Bowden would become an international success thanks to the film. His book, a meticulous reconstruction, would show good old red-blooded American heroes going after an “evil” Somalian warlord and losing its brave sons in an ugly fire-fight in an alien land. The book pushed all the right buttons that record the tragedy and the glory of modern-day battles.
So it’s no surprise that in his latest book, The Finish, Bowden becomes once again the war correspondent junkie that he really is and tells another tale of a “gritty and determined United States” hunting down its enemy Osama bin Laden, using his characteristic slam-bang, fly-on-the-helicopter style of reportage.
The tale is good because Bowden is a good reporter who gets into the story of a battle, puts it in a context and tells it with gusto. But Bowden is no academic and if you are looking for a more complex treatise that gets into the politics of modern-day conflict and terrorism, then The Finish isn’t your book. Bowden prefers simpler narratives: guts and glory, the blood and sweat of wars, sprinkled with little details from and perspectives of the principal players in this tale.
A young Senator Barack Obama, not even a Presidential primary hopeful is driving to office on 9/11 when he hears of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center. We see Senator Obama tending to his baby Sasha as the days unfold. The other principal combatants of this war are shown in their younger avatars — David Petraeus as a brigadier posted in Europe; naval captain Bill McRaven as he recovers from a 10,000 feet-parachute plunge that almost killed him. These men emerge as the heroes as a decade is spent chasing the elusive Osama Bin Laden.
But authors with the benefit of hindsight should be able to tell a more complex tale. For instance, lost in the din and glory of the battle in Mogadishu in Black Hawk Down is a little-known fact that would have a major influence on international events a few years later. As the American Black Hawk helicopter crashed down after being hit by a rocket propelled grenade and stranded the US Rangers, Bowden missed how a strategic relationship came out of cold storage. A contingent of Pakistani troops was rushed in to help the beleaguered Americans. This would ensure a friendship between the American and Pakistani militaries that would stand in good stead when General Pervez Musharraf carried out a coup in 1999. In fact, the first person Musharraf would call was an American military commander whom he had befriended years ago, after the battle of Mogadishu.
In The Finish too, Bowden misses the big picture. The fact that Musharraf strengthened a structure that would protect and sustain Osama Bin Laden is glossed over in The Finish. It also fails to uncover the fact that all the heroes of this tale were also flawed individuals. Gen Stanley McChrystal, who organised the first raid in Iraq that led to the first concrete leads on bin Laden, turned out to be a general who had a poor opinion of his civilian bosses. General Petreaus was outed as just another man who had an affair while a hagiography was being written by his lover.
The only man who continues to remain above reproach is the man who planned this special operation — Admiral Bill McRaven. Worse, the book fails to get into the complexities of the role that terrorism has played in helping Pakistan achieve its strategic interests.
But for those looking who weren’t satisfied with No Easy Day (written by a Navy SEAL who participated in the raid) and want something more comprehensive, then The Finish just about fits the bill.