Top critical review
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on December 4, 2012
When I found out that Mark Bowden, author of one of my favorite nonfiction books, Black Hawk Down, was writing a book on the killing of Osama Bin Laden, I immediately preordered it and read it as soon as it arrived. Bowden is a strong writer and dedicated researcher with a talent for styling nonfiction reporting in a gripping fictional style, doing for Mogadishu what Truman Capote did for crime reporting in In Cold Blood and Tom Wolfe did for the Gemini astronauts in The Right Stuff. Unfortunately, little of that talent is one display in The Finish.
Bowden attempts, at the beginning of each chapter of The Finish, to introduce a fiction-like moment involving the main players in his story. A chapter will begin with someone in a vividly described moment--Obama on the morning of 9/11, Bin Laden in hiding--and almost immediately launch into flashback. Bowden often used this technique in Black Hawk Down, beginning with someone in action (Sgt. Eversman lifting off in a Black Hawk opens the book) but skipping back in time to fill in the background of the bloody raid in Mogadishu, but the flashbacks in The Finish never lead back to anything. The narrative loops backward, exposition happens, and then the next chapter begins and the process repeats. Beyond descriptions of 9/11 and the raid on Abbottabad itself, there is little concrete action for Bowden to exploit, as he has done so well in other books, and so the majority of the book feels like background, exposition, detail we'll need for later.
I'd blame it on source material and a rushed timeline. The research for The Finish appears to have been primarily interviews with major political figures. President Obama's reminiscences, for instance, take up a lot of the book, and the sections dealing with him have the feel of a politician--any politician--in full PR mode. And while Bowden had obvious access to Obama and many other high-level figures involved in these events, he apparently did not get an interview with former President Bush (consulting instead his memoir for a handful of quotations), which is odd considering that the bulk of the book's background occurred during his administration, and Bush himself is discussed and/or critiqued several times. The section on the raid and killing itself is based on reports after the fact, and is therefore long on setup and very, very short on details.
The book also sends mixed signals about the whole affair. I had no idea what Bowden's politics are, and I still can't tell you. A lot of people have taken issue with his treatment of Obama's involvement in the raid, and at first they seem to be onto something--Bowden describes Obama as having refocused the energies of the military and intelligence agencies to finding Bin Laden after the Bush administration lost interest in the pursuit. But later he describes Bush as having asked, every day, what progress had been made in the hunt for Bin Laden. Likewise, Bowden describes a CIA and military that had virtually ceased to look for Bin Laden during the Bush administration, but later describes the hunt has having continued unabated, with Bush's daily questioning goading them on. The general gist for much of the book seems to be that Obama's top-down management of the hunt for Bin Laden was what finally ensured success, but Bowden undercuts even this at the end of his book by writing "that finiding Bin Laden was a triumph of bureaucratic intelligence gather and analysis, an effort that began under President Clinton and improved markedly after 9/11 under President Bush. The effort was going to continue for as long as it took. It took just under ten years" (248).
As for the titular killing of Osama Bin Laden itself, my copy of The Finish included a note inserted on a card stating that future editions "will have a slightly expanded version" of the raid included, having been reworked in light of SEAL Mark Owen's book No Easy Day, a book I have read and highly recommend. And given some of what I have read elsewhere about the timing of Owen's publication, I have to give credit to Bowden for his graciousness in handling the situation.
The end result is a book that is largely a superficial retelling of events surrounding 9/11, the 2008 election, and the raid itself, with a lot of Washington-level politicking and policy discussion. The only thing really worthwhile in The Finish is the "big picture" view of the hunt for Bin Laden, especially the intelligence gathered from detainees at Guantanamo Bay. But even this, from what I understand, has been done better elsewhere. I have not read Peter Bergen's Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden, so I can't say that it's better or worse than Bowden's book, but as often as I've seen it recommended over The Finish, I'm going to read it soon.