From Spec. Ops. to SWAT: John Weisman's 'Kill Bin Laden' is a riveting read
Despite differences, there are striking similarities between the ‘tier-one operators’ — SEALs, Rangers, and Aviators from the 160th — in KBL and American SWAT cops
I own just about every book John Weisman has ever written — most of them first editions in hardcover — so it was no surprise to me when, a few weeks back, the email robots over at Amazon.com sent me a notification inviting me to pre-order ‘KBL: Kill Bin Laden,’ a novel based on true events that more accurately reflects the truth about the mission in Abbottabad than could probably ever be achieved in a work of non-fiction.
What was surprising, however, was getting another email from my friend Kevin Gors inviting me to speak directly with his friend, none other than the abovementioned John Weisman. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity. I’ll cut to the chase here: I loved the book and I think most cops will too.
Prior to our phone call last week, I was able to spend a full weekend reading an advance copy of it — the official “release date” is actually today, the day I’m running this column on PoliceOne. Some of the words and phrases that I wrote down as I read it were ‘riveting’ and ‘exhilarating,’ even ‘hilarious.’ KBL is all of these, and more. It’s incredibly real.
Telling Truth Through Fiction
As had been indicated in some of the publicity literature from William Morrow (an ‘imprint’ of HarperCollins Publishers) even the most informed and savvy reader will have a devil of a time determining the difference between fact and fiction in KBL. In the pages of this book, you will find perhaps the most accurate and vivid account of the hunt for and the mission to kill the terrorist leader than any newspaper, magazine, or TV account we’ve seen yet.
Weisman accomplishes this because of two basic — but invaluable and unique — capabilities. First off, he personally knows (and as a former trainer for Heckler & Koch and Team One Network) has trained some of the top tier warriors about whom he writes. More important than having such incredible access is his ability to deftly modulate what can and cannot make it into the pages of his books.
“That comes from having friends in the community who know you, and trust you, and talk to you. It comes from asking questions. I’d say, ‘Hey we have to meet face to face,’ and we might meet two or three days later, and I’d say, ‘Look, here’s something I’ve learned. Can I say it in the book? And if not, how would I say it differently?’ Another thing is that I simply don’t deal in classified material. I don’t want to see classified material. I don’t have a clearance, and some years ago when I was sort of offered ‘the keys to the kingdom’ I turned that down. That would have meant that from that time on I would have to show everything I did, and there was no hesitation in my reply: ‘Thanks but no thanks’.”
There are certain things a writer — and this is as true for Doug Wyllie as it is for John Weisman — can simply obtain from ‘open source’ intelligence. For example, says Weisman, one of the super-high-tech intelligence surveillance platforms described in KBL is the RQ-170 Sentinel, an unmanned aerial vehicle built by Lockheed Martin (of Skunkworks fame). We know — because it had been disclosed in post-incident Pentagon press briefings — that at least one Sentinel was used over Abbottabad.
“You don’t want to say precisely how they were used, but you want to give your readers an idea about how they COULD BE used. So you have your invented characters have a conversation about what might be needed over Abbottabad, and let it go at that. You’re not talking frequencies, and you’re not talking specific technologies, and you’re not talking about how they actually did it, but you’re giving your reader a pretty good idea of what’s going on.”
Consequently, one of the things that truly differentiates Weisman from other writers in the “Action/Adventure” genre (and believe me, I’ve read a lot of the other writers in the genre) is that unlike some, he is not overly reliant on techno-speak to wow his reader. Sure, his books are full of action and adventure — hell, he was contractually obligated to include a certain number of “action” sequences in some of his prior work — but the truth is that fundamentally, Wesiman writes character-driven novels. One of the things that makes this so is that the dialog in his books is true to the way his friends in the special operations community actually speak.
“I will be talking to some Marine or some Navy guy, and they’ll say something and I’d tell them, as the old Chief says, ‘You will see this material again.’ There are just some things that stick with you.”
Weisman was quick to credit his own mentor for his ability to so purely reflect the mindset, the mannerisms, and the mentality of his spec ops subjects. “I had a wonderful mentor in Roy Bohem. Roy and I spoke just about every day of the year for almost 20 years, and so a lot of this is osmosis. So if there’s some Senior Chief talking there’s a lot of Roy in that,” Weisman told me.
Staying Current, Staying Real
Weisman is meticulous about staying current with the vernacular of the day. “You don’t ‘kit up’ anymore, you ‘jock up’ and ‘fire in the hole’ is old fashioned. Most guys today say ‘burning’ now. And certainly the language on headsets during action is not like what a lot of people portray it. There is not a lot of over-talk. The other thing is that there is generally a lot less shooting. In movies and [other] books, everything is on full auto. That’s just not the case. Most of these guys going after these high-value targets are shooting semi-auto.”
Wesiman confirmed for me a long-held belief that the ‘double tap’ is outmoded. “The rule now,” Weisman explained, “is that you shoot controlled pairs until the target doesn’t move. That’s one reason the ‘official’ story of ‘one shot to the center mass and one shot to the head’ of bin Laden doesn’t really ring true for me. Maybe it is true, maybe that is actually the way it happened, but I don’t think so and nobody I’ve talked to thinks so. The people in the White House are putting that story out because we wear the white hats.”
The Warrior Mindset
There are definitely differences between the ‘tier-one operators’ — SEALs, Rangers, and Aviators from the 160th — in KBL and American SWAT officers. Having said that, Weisman also believes that there are also striking similarities which merit our attention in this space.
“I spent some time at HK as an adjunct instructor, and I’m still with Team One, and you’re teaching stacking and all of that. Well here’s one difference between cops and tier-one units. There’s a line in the appendix that says, ‘stacking is for firewood.’ If you look at how Rangers or SEALs or other tier-one units go through a place, they RUN. I mean, cops just don’t move that way even in dynamic entry. ...Cops use shields and various other things and these guys do not. Here’s another one of those rules: Kill with high explosives whenever possible. So the ROEs are entirely different.”
These clear differences in practices and procedures, of course, beg the question, ‘Okay John, how then are these police and military units similar. Naturally, both Wesiman and I knew this answer even as I prodded him with my ‘lawyer’s query.’
It’s the stuff between the ears — it’s the stuff between the solar plexus and the spine.
“Some of the dynamics are the same,” Weisman said, “and certainly the mindset has got to be very similar.”
In my humble estimation, Weisman’s books — not just KBL, but absolutely including KBL — are some of the best written in the genre. His wit is razor sharp, his research meticulous, and his characters believable and enjoyable. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what he told me when I asked him, ‘What would you say to a cop — any cop — about what they could get out of your writing?’
“For first responders, I think that my books give you a good sense of how you should think as a warrior. Terrorism is, as you know from Kevin Gors, a tactic. And how you beat a tactic is you outthink it. Whether you’re talking about terrorist tactics or criminal tactics, it’s the thinking part that allows you to get inside the bad guys’ OODA Loop. What I try to do in everything I write is to illustrate that anecdotally. It’s why many of my major characters don’t just kill the bad guys, they outthink them first, and then they kill them!”
A Riveting Read
As I have previously written in this space, I pretty much have just two hobbies which occupy my “down time” when off duty. I shoot stuff and I read stuff. I’ve read every single book in the Rogue Warrior series (the first nine of which were written by Richard Marcinko and John Weisman, followed by several authored by Marcinko and Jim DeFelice). I’ve read Weisman’s SOAR easily five times. I will no doubt be reading KBL again (and probably again and again after that) and will also be buying at least two more copies to give to a pair of my friends. I know for certain they’ll be delighted upon receiving those gifts.
The greatest gift I could ever receive is earning the respect of someone for whom I have considerable respect. Consequently, for me personally, the best part of KBL has been the fact that I’ve begun with John Weisman a friendship that I am hopeful will last many years into the future.