Everyone Has a Story

Attention, readers: I’m posting updates to this post below.

When I learned late last night that Osama bin Laden had been killed, one of my first thoughts was of Paul Tibbets. It’s okay if you don’t recognize the name. He was the pilot of the bomber plane “Enola Gay” on August 6th, 1945. On that day he and his crew dropped “Little Boy,” an atomic bomb, on Hiroshima, Japan.

Behind every major news event there is a personal story. Early news reports indicate that bin Laden was killed by a bullet to the head. Who pulled that trigger? What were his emotions when he fired the shot? When did he first imagine the role he might play in history? Did he daydream in his high school algebra class, telling himself he didn’t need to learn how to solve for ‘x’ because someday he would kill the most notorious mass murderer of his day?

It was the stories of individuals that drew me to journalism. Most of my career I covered so-called “hard news,” policy decisions by Congress that had national, and at times international, impact. But behind every major news event was an individual — a Member of Congress, a Hill staffer, a lobbyist, an activist.

Three months from now Bob Woodward will likely have a book out titled something like “The Moment,” which will put us in the White House Situation Room on the day President Obama authorized the raid on bin Laden’s hideout. A military historian will write a book breaking down the military operation on that hideout.

But another writer will tell the story of the man who pulled that fateful trigger.

I will eagerly read it. My favorite book of the last year was Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, the story of an Olympic runner who survived an ocean plane crash and POW internment during World War II. The two books that most inspired me to pursue creative nonfiction were Dava Sobel’s Longitude, a profile of the man who invented a clock allowing explorers to safely navigate at sea, and Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman, which told the story of the key man behind the Oxford English Dictionary and the murderer who contributed many of the book’s entries.

Everyone has a story. I knew that when I launched a cross-country U.S. trip to interview creatives. I love telling people’s stories. I love reading people’s stories.

I eagerly await the story of this brave soldier who accomplished something that led to spontaneous celebrations in front of the White House, a few short miles from my home. He has a story to tell.

UPDATE (5/2/11, 6:25 pm ET): One of my favorite tweeps, Alexis Grant, directed me to this GalleyCat post of an upcoming memoir by a former member of the Navy SEAL team that conducted the raid on bin Laden’s compound. The author is no longer on the team but presumably can write about some of its members. Also check out Alexis’ take on various newspaper headlines from today featuring the big news, based on her drop-by at D.C.’s Newseum.

UPDATE (5/3/11, 7:52 am ET): The Washington Post speculates that unlike Paul Tibbets (yes, they cited that example) we may never know who the shooter is, following Navy SEAL protocol.

UPDATE (5/5/11, 5:40 am ET): Today the Washington Post has a front-page story on Vice Admiral William H. McRaven, a former Navy SEAL who selected and supervised the team that conducted the raid.

UPDATE (5/5/11 3:30 pm ET): Just saw a post by Write it Forward’s Bob Mayer, whose bio states “is a West Point graduate, served in the Infantry and Special Forces (Green Beret) commanding an A-Team and as a Special Forces operations officer; and was an instructor at Fort Brag.” He walks the reader through the planning and execution of a mission like this, and says: “To all the second-guessers out there, I say:  Shut up.”

18 thoughts on “Everyone Has a Story

  1. So with you on this, Patrick. Brene Brown called people’s stories “data with a heart.” Each person’s story, no matter how mundane, gives us information about what it is to be human and helps us make sense of our own lives.

    I also love that it allows us to experience things we never actually will–I love to ask the question, “What would it be like to ___?” What would it be like to pull the trigger on bin Laden? I love that you’ve called our attention to this story-behind-the-story.

    I have to say I’m not at all comfortable with the cheering and celebration that has gone on. I understand it, but I can’t celebrate violence, even when it’s justified. I’m glad he’s gone, but I don’t delight in the revenge. I wonder what that soldier who pulled the trigger is feeling today.


    1. I too wonder what emotions he is feeling. I gather he’s a Navy SEAL, and they’re trained to do their job without emotion, but he’s also a man.

      My suspicion is that if you tried to get him to tell his story, the first thing he’d say is that it is not about him, but about his team. And that would be a great story as well.


  2. This was the topic on my mind as well last night. What’s the story behind not just the single person who pulled the trigger, but behind the entire team that was involved in the raid?

    Apart from discovering a remarkable story from these individuals, we can learn a lot by listening to the situations they were presented with and how they solved the problems that confronted them.

    Stories are entertaining, but more than that: they’re inspiring and insightful.


    1. Hi Tanner, yes on the team! Hillenbrand does a good job in Unbroken in placing the protagonist in context with his fellow sailors and POWs, and as I just mentioned in the comment above, SEALs are team-first. So many possible stories, so many inspiring and insightful ones.


  3. That is so true that everyone has a story. Even Osama Bin Laden had a story. I think that people are tending to forget that beneath the labels he has acquired over the years. He is a human, with a story, not a label or symbol of evil. He may have done horrific things, but evil is likely not the sum of his parts. Or, if it has been over the years, it likely wasn’t his story growing up. Some day, I would be interested in reading his story, too. Right now, I’m just too disturbed by the celebration surrounding his death. Because in the end, he was a human being. With a story.


  4. What a wonderful post. It seems everyone or most everyone seems to forget the person. Not just a seal or military man, a person behind the gun. Funny you mention Longitude. I was just looking at it last night thinking I should take it with me to read on the plane. I think you just helped me make up my mind.


  5. I’m right there with you. One of the first things I wanted to know, past the newsworthy details–of course–was the story behind the men (and maybe women?) who took on this dangerous, risky mission. Do they have families, wives, husbands, kids? How did this mission affect them? What was the emotional aftermath of accomplishing something so great, so daring, and so heroic? Does it bother them that their names will remained sealed, because technically, not all of them “exist?” Great question, and I agree with you. I cannot wait to read/watch/learn the story behind the mission. The story of the people.



    1. Hi Shari,

      I just linked to a Washington Post story (update above) that suggests we may never know many details, as you suggest. It also notes that women aren’t permitted in the Navy SEALs, so we are talking about men here.

      You have me wondering what these individuals can/will tell loved ones — parents, wives, siblings, etc. Okay, so they can’t be publicly identified. But how do you keep something like that a secret from someone you love? And how does that loved one keep your confidence with news that profound? There are some compelling dramas lurking there.


  6. Kate Arms-Roberts

    A friend of mine (also a writer) found herself wondering about the story of the woman killed in the raid who was being used as a shield.

    Everybody truly has a story.


    1. Absolutely. I think the story I’m curious about here would be of interest to everyone, writers and non-writers, but since writers tend to look at the world through a prism of storytelling, it’s likely the writers who first wonder what the story is, instead of simply delighting in finding it told by someone else.


  7. Pingback: Write This Way, Condensed: Top Writing and Editing Links for June 5, 2011 « Write Livelihood

  8. Pingback: Selling Someone Out: The Ethics of Writing about Your SEAL Team Operation to Kill Bin Laden | The Artist's Road

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