Monday, June 25, 2012

Shepherd492 reviews: KBL: Kill Bin Laden

KBL: Kill Bin Laden (John Weisman) 

            KBL: Kill Bin Laden is the fictionalized account of the raid to assassinate infamous terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden. Featuring the three essential elements of the operation: Intelligence gathering, political approval, and the SEALs themselves, the book is a faithful and compelling re telling of the massive amounts of effort that must be put into clearing the red tape and preparing for a momentous undertaking like this. Impeccably researched but featuring otherwise weak writing and a fairly dull cast, KBL succeeds due to his subject material, and not so much on the book's own merits.
            The book's best sub plot is actually the most polarizing. Most of the conflict and tension is drawn out of what is the book's most crucial story: the job that Obama's advisors had in convincing him to authorize the assault on the Bin Laden compound. In this plot we explore the political effects of such a weighty decision, and the indecision that seems to have plagued Obama when it came time to pull the trigger on the order. D/CIA Panetta and his supporters square off against Obama's hand picked advisors in a battle to use evidence, reasoning, and shaming to convince the President to give the command. This segment was most interesting for its portrayal of historical figures, but exploring the topic of presidential power and the consequences and rationale that go in to each and every executive decision made for good reading too.
            In the book's second sub plot, the intelligence gathering element of the operation is detailed. We see most of this from the eyes of Charlie Becker, a former Ranger now undercover in the city of Abbottabad. This sub plot carefully details the intelligence gathering techniques Becker uses, and the methods by which he blends in to the Pakistani populace, and is ultimately an interesting look at modern day espionage. What makes Becker unique, and complicates his actions in many unexpected ways, is the fact that he has been seriously wounded in prior service. Missing both legs and experiencing damage to his hands as well, Becker nonetheless goes about his duties with a creativity and sense of duty that is awe inspiring and humanizing. This part also comes with the only real example of personal conflicts in the book, as a former prisoner at Guantanamo stumbles upon Charlie and attempts to assassinate him. Charlie isn't the only point of view featured for the intelligence gathering segment though, with the Raymond Allen Davis (Ty Weaver in this book) incident being covered as well, as well as the operations of a safe house near the Bin Laden compound. Overall another enjoyable sub plot, one with more intrigue and personal value than the previous, and certainly a strong effort to document the intelligence that led to the discovery of the Bin Laden compound.
            The least compelling sub plot, surprisingly, is the training and preparation of the SEALs. The biggest problem here is the incredibly large cast of characters associated with these events, and the relative lack of conflict involved in this segment. The SEALs mostly just sit around and train, waiting for approval from above. In the interim, the author tries to do some character building with a handful of the men, including our point of view character Troy Roberts, but it just comes across as forced, and does little to improve the sub plot. While the actual raid on the Bin Laden compound is entertaining (if SERIOUSLY anti climactic,) this sub plot was rather boring overall.
            Characterization is one of the least promising aspects of the book, being glazed over for more important (to history, at least) details concerning the mission and intelligence about the Bin Laden compound. There are some strong character clashes and moderately developed personalities in the political sections, but in the rest of the book characterization is scarce. Additionally, the lack of an antagonist point of view makes for a sadly one sided read.
            One quirky feature of this book is that every single character directly involved in the plot (mentions of other world leaders and positional predecessors or other ancillary characters do not share this trait) has had their name altered, including the president himself (who is actually never called by any name.) Despite this, the author makes sure to drop enough hints that it is easy to figure out who the original person was. One then wonders why this was done to such famous and influential people, especially if it was just going to be so easily given away with the clues and such. That being said, the author does do a good job of giving the politically charged cast a solid portrayal without putting too much of a spin on things. One humorous pseudonym involves John Kerry's alter ego, a character that doesn't actually appear in the novel but gets quite a scathing portrayal as a narcissistic, leak-prone diplomat that everyone feeds misleading information to. Additionally, Barack Obama supporters will not exactly be pleased with the pandering, indecisive, and occasionally arrogant character depicted in this novel. That being said, Hilary Clinton gets a strong portrayal as a fair headed and strong willed woman in power, so it cannot be said that the author has a "Republican" bias.
            Besides the characters in the political segment of the book, there is nothing to pay attention to here. Charlie Becker is a very intriguing man, but we don't learn a ton about him, his motivations, or his back story (not even more than slight references to the events that took his legs.) Despite this flaw, the concept of a double amputee doing spy work is just too cool to dislike. The rest of the characters don't fare nearly as well, with the book including a much larger cast than can be fleshed out with any degree of detail, and it is exceedingly difficult to keep track of characters during the SEALs chapters. Another problem I have with this book is that it is a decidedly one sided view of the event. It gives the book a stronger focus, yes, but we are left with nothing in the way of antagonists beyond the omnipresent challenge to kill Bin Laden. There is nothing in the way of an active antagonist, and not one point of view sequence featuring someone sympathetic to Al-Qaeda.
            The writing style is fairly pedestrian, but it is colored by an impressive amount of research and a staggering array of acronyms and related military jargon. One thing that is indisputable about this novel is that the author has clearly does his homework. We are given detailed and (to my knowledge, at least) accurate portrayals of command structure, tactics, training, and history of the various organizations at work in the book, including DEVGRU (SEAL Team 6.) All of this stuff is inserted somewhat clumsily, with the emphasis being more on providing the reader with the background information as opposed to creating a good flow for the story, but is used to good effect within the plot and extremely consistent. It doesn't lead to the smoothest read ever, but it is certainly among the more informative ones I've had in a fiction novel. As a result of the ever increasing amount of information dumped on the reader throughout this novel, there is a correlating increase in acronyms and symbolic phrases. People with little to no knowledge of the military could be confused by the overabundance of these words, which are thrown about often and generally explained only one time (or not at all.) It does help with the all important realism factor though, and people looking to learn about the U.S. military could do far worse than this novel.
            Action scenes are one of the book's weaker points. The author makes use of choppy sentences and one or two line paragraphs to quicken the pace of the limited amount (under seven, including at least two no-stakes training exercises) of action scenes in the book, but even this easy tactic fails to bring life into conflicts that are devoid of tension. Besides the fact that the way the events play out is already well known to the reader, there isn't even any personal interest involved because the characters doing the fighting are so hollow. Further still, the plot perhaps unwisely sticks to the historical evidence, and the operation goes off with nary a hitch: the climactic scene ends with all the terrorists dead and not a scratch for one of the United States soldiers. Sadly, this final event, a real world event that must have been incomprehensibly tense for those involved, feels more like an inevitable coronation than a hard fought victory in this novel.
            KBL isn't a flawless novel, and in fact if it were any other premise it would be mediocre to somewhat bad, but as a fictionalized (but seemingly very accurate) account of the mission to eliminate Osama Bin Laden, it is an extremely compelling read that anyone with the slightest interest in the inner workings of America's military will be sure to appreciate.
Final Score

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