Review: Memoir Seal Team Six: The incredible story of an elite sniper - and the special operations unit that killed Osama Bin Laden by Howard E Wasdin
Published 09/07/2011 | 05:00
Of the millions of people delighted to see the back of Osama bin Laden, few could have been happier than Howard E Wasdin, a 49-year-old American chiropractor. Not only was the operation carried out by Seal Team Six, the elite special operations unit in which he'd once served, it also took place less than a fortnight before his memoir, Seal Team Six, was due to be published.
"I know the conspiracy theories," laughs Wasdin. "But this was not co-ordinated with me and the guys on the team who did the hit."
While his former colleagues analysed the intelligence from Bin Laden's compound, Wasdin and his co-author hastily scribbled a new preface. The book is now a New York Times bestseller, with Vin Diesel due to play Wasdin in the inevitable film.
"I want people the world over to look at him and think, yeah, at some point Howard Wasdin looked like that," he says. His wife would have preferred Brad Pitt.
Wasdin's story is more interesting than that of any film star. In terse prose, reminiscent of a Lee Child thriller, we follow him from his tough childhood in Florida and Georgia, often woken in the night by his stepfather to be beaten with a belt, to his enlistment in the navy.
After a stint in search and rescue, he signs up for a Seal (Sea, Land and Air) selection course of sadistic brutality, carries out clandestine operations in Iraq and joins Team Six, an elite within an elite founded in 1980 as a counter-terrorist unit. On near-permanent standby, they wear their hair long, address officers by nicknames and often travel undercover as a skydiving team for a beer brand.
Wasdin becomes a sniper capable of felling a target at 850 yards. In 1993, he fights in the Battle of Mogadishu (made famous by the film Black Hawk Down). He is shot three times, wins the Silver Star and leaves the Seals -- his idea of recuperation from his injuries was to go hunting while still in a wheelchair.
He gets divorced, tries his hand as a police officer and car dealer, before finding a new wife, his real father and a degree of contentment in his latest profession.
This roller-coaster ride notwithstanding, the book has risen to popular consciousness for one reason only -- the killing of the world's most wanted man on May 1.
And although it is disappointingly thin on information about Operation Neptune Spear -- the preface, which gives the wrong codename, offers only conjecture and cliché in its attempt to recreate the raid -- it does give a unique insight into the sort of men who carried it out.
Wasdin says he has received appreciative emails from other Seals.
"The book probably provided a happy distraction, taking people's minds off trying to find out who the individuals (who took out Bin Laden) are," he says.
"In 15 years' time one of them might write his memoirs. But I do a good job of describing what it takes to be one of them. That's the question everyone wants answered."
The answer is that it takes almost superhuman levels of willpower. Wasdin was the only one out of 100 applicants to pass Seal selection, which included extreme physical ordeals and a bizarre psychology test with questions such as: "Do you like Alice in Wonderland?"
Of those selected, only 20pc finish the 18-month training. A month in, the notorious Hell Week involves physical activity 20 hours a day with one hour's sleep a night. Recruits urinate on each other's hands to keep warm.
Wasdin gets through it by comparing it favourably with his childhood. By the end he is hallucinating so badly that he attacks a tray table in the canteen, believing it to be a deer.
Such extreme training is justified by the mantra, "The more you sweat in peacetime, the less you bleed in war".
Regardless, necks and backs are regularly broken on the obstacle course; and two people have been accidentally shot dead during training.
A Seal's playtime appears pretty brutal, too. Wasdin and three friends overhear some Tunisians in a strip club in Virginia making anti-American remarks. The Seals beat them up, chuck the bouncer over the bar and when reinforcement arrives, take on 30 police officers and, just for good measure, bite a police dog.
Wasdin is eager not to portray himself as a violent automaton. He shares his moral concerns over his first killing with a priest at home. And while holed up in Mogadishu he looks after an injured teenage boy next door who has stepped on a landmine (compassion Seals-style, however, involves breaking the door down each time and flexi-cuffing the parents).
"It's impossible to operate at that level for too long," he says. "There's an eight- to 10-year window. After that you have to get a life."
That transformation was not easy. "I had to redefine myself. I had survivor's guilt (19 serving Americans were killed in Mogadishu). I didn't know why I felt so terrible all the time."
The book has provided a degree of closure, as has Bin Laden's death -- even if Wasdin wishes he were 15 years younger and could have pulled the trigger himself.
'We had a bad day in Somalia," he says. "The people fighting us were trained and supplied by al-Qa'ida. By tucking tail and leaving, we left an incubator for eight years, an area rife for recruitment and training. So when I found out he was dead I was, like, okay, good."
It's no surprise to find that Wasdin doesn't share the moral qualms expressed by some commentators about the death of Bin Laden, including the Archbishop of Canterbury.
"With all due respect to the archbishop, he has no understanding of what it's like to do close-quarters combat," he says. "There were two weapons -- a pistol and an AK47 -- within arm's reach. This is a man who has taught thousands to rig explosives. He could have knocked over a teddy bear and blown up the compound.
"We have guidelines. There is no 'just go in and shoot someone'. Bin Laden was not compliant in that room, which is why he is dead. If he was compliant, I'm assuming he would be on trial now."
Although a natural Republican, Wasdin praises President Barack Obama's handling of the operation. The commander-in-chief, he says, got it right on three counts: maintaining operational security by not informing Pakistan; having Bin Laden buried at sea; and not releasing the photos for extremists to rally around.
"The only person who needs to see those pictures is (Ayman) al-Zawahiri," he says. "To say hey pal, be careful, the next knock you hear on your door, you might look like this."
And will Seal Team Six already be after the new leader of al-Qa'ida?
"As we speak," he replies.