September 4th isn’t just the day after Labor Day in the U.S., it’s also the new publication date for No Easy Day, an autobiographical account of the killing of Osama bin Laden. Nearly 600,000 copies of this book–allegedly written by an ex-Navy SEAL who participated in the raid of bin Laden’s Pakistan compound a little more than a year ago–will hit the streets. When bin Laden was killed, many raised ethical questions about the way the raid went down. I am now asking myself questions about the ethics of the writing and publication of this book.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about this Navy SEAL operation. Longtime readers may recall that, immediately after bin Laden was killed, I blogged about my curiosity about the person who pulled the trigger. “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,” I wrote. “He has a story to tell.”
Now one of the SEALs has told this story, and I’m not sure I want to read it.
I’m writing my critical thesis for my MFA in Writing on the topic of whether in writing about people in our lives, we are, as Joan Didion says, just “selling someone out.” Just look at who this author may have “sold out” in allowing this book to be published:
- His employer. By most news accounts, few if anyone in the U.S. government knew that this book was being written. Word first spread when the publisher began promoting the book, and it was being promoted under a pen name, so it wasn’t even clear which SEAL may have written it. The Navy has suggested it may take legal action against the author for potential violation of a nondisclosure agreement. But beyond the law, did the author have a moral obligation to inform the Navy that he was writing this book, or at least share relevant sections with Navy officials? After all, he has this story to tell–and sell–because his employer put him in a position to do so.
- His colleagues. I am assuming that when that SEAL team was working its way through bin Laden’s compound, the first thing on the mind of each of the SEALs was not the question, “I wonder which one of us will write a book about this?” Teams like this succeed when the trust is total. How can you totally trust a fellow SEAL if you know your actions could find their way into his bestseller a year from now? I don’t know to what extent this author shared his plans to write a book with his former colleagues, or if he did share, at what point in the process he did so. Did he show them his writing beforehand? Did he give them editing privileges, or at least ask them if he should take something out or change something? And what implications will this have for future SEAL teams and operations? Is that something the author should have worried about?
Presumably there are other people who will be in his book that could be listed here. The focus of my critical thesis is on the moral implications of writing about someone who is still alive, so others could include the author’s family members, childhood friends, even the survivors he left behind in bin Laden’s compound. But the two bullet points above seem to rise to the top.
I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I do wonder if the author himself asked them. I’d feel better knowing if he did. Because on some level I do feel each individual has to choose the answers that are right for him or her, but I would hope the author at least asked the questions first.
What are your thoughts on this? Did the author sell out his employer, or his former SEAL teammates? Are you okay with him allowing his story to be published? And what would you have done in preparation for publication if you had been this author?