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Bringing the Truth Out of Hiding (Review of KBL: KILL BIN LADEN | John Weisman)

NOTE: I feel as if I’ve been hiding out myself in the last four or five months. From the new adventures of homeownership, to logging a lot of miles on my bike in the summer and fall, to a lot of hours at work and—I admit it—more time watching TV than I’ve spent in the past, I haven’t had a whole lot of time for reading and writing. But the book discussed below is a great reason to get back in the swing of things, and hopefully I’ll soon have some things to post about what’s been distracting me these last few months.

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The figure of Osama Bin Laden and the havoc he wreaked on the United States of America on September 11, 2001 will loom large in our collective consciousness for ages. The raid that killed Bin Laden almost a decade after 9/11 will have a similarly lasting place in U.S. History; that raid unearthed a myriad of emotions among Americans of all ages and stripes. I was fascinated when the news of Bin Laden’s death struck. I read as many articles as I could find on the operation, on SEAL Team 6, and on the intelligence that led to the raid. All of those things being highly classified, there wasn’t a great deal available to read.

With that in mind, the first thing that struck me about KBL: Kill Bin Laden John Weisman’s “novel based on true events,” I was equally invigorated at the prospect of reading this book and reluctant to put a great deal of faith in the book’s ability to shed light on the truth of what actually occurred. More than either of those things, though, I was impressed with Weisman’s gall. Truth, fiction, or somewhere in between, this topic was a tall order, and whether he liked it or not, Weisman must have expected that readers would be tempted to treat his book as gospel. The book itself seemed a dangerous proposition.

Weisman handles the potential dangers with a few key tactical moves: first, he puts an important disclaimer in the foreword to indicate that although he did research this book as if it were a journalistic piece, that it is a work of fiction and any error in fact is attributable to him and not to his sources. Second, he gives the key political, military, and intelligence personnel fictitious names. The Secretary of State closely resembles Hillary Clinton, but her name is Kate Semerad. Leon Panetta becomes Vince Mercaldi, and Barack Obama is known only as “the President,” or other epithets suggestive of his office (POTUS, etc.). Characters who resemble the real-life players but whose names are not the same are a constant and overt reminder that this is a work of fiction, not history.

Despite the very clear indicators that this is a work of fiction, Weisman’s voice is authoritative, and the book generally reads with the weight of fact. In most cases, this is a great strength of the novel, and it’s a clear reflection of the depth of research the author must have conducted and the dedication to the truth he clearly held when putting this book together. 

At times, however, I wondered whether Weisman was using the veil of the “novel” status as a license to question the character of certain players, most notably the president. The president of KBL holds nothing dear but politics. He is neither decisive nor brave, and he is mostly despite him that the operation ever gets a green light. This is not to say that Weisman is being unfaithful or unkind. It’s entirely possible that Weisman has sources who were party to some of the actual conversations that took place in the White House when evidence was presented and decisions were made. If, however, those conversations in the novel came more from Weisman’s imagination than any source material, it’s safe to say that his portrayal of the character who resembles Barack Obama is less than charitable.

For me, the portrayal of politicians is not so important to the reading experience (and less so the author’s opinion of the actual people his characters portray). But it did make me wonder, how much of this novel—how much of the dialogue, which of the plot details—actually occurred? Just how good were Weisman’s sources? How much could he actually know?

Unless a lot of classified records become unclassified, I’m unlikely to ever find out the answers to those questions. I’m inclined, though, to give Weisman the benefit of the doubt. This much I know for sure: he knows a lot more about how this went down (even if he only generally knows how these types of things go down) than I do, and I think I know a lot more about it now than I did before. Despite my lingering questions, KBL feels true. The characters think, talk, and act like real people. The plot is well-paced, and the background descriptions provide enough context to support the development of both the characters and the plot. For any reader who appreciates a thriller, this book is a good bet; but for any reader who relished the few details made public about the actual raid that killed Bin Laden and the people who executed it, Weisman’s novel is a must read.

 

Disclosure: This review is based on a copy of the novel I received from the publisher.

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