You're Only a Hero Until You Tell the Truth

When news broke that Osama bin Laden had been killed by a team of Navy SEALS, the first thought of everyone in the media business, and of many curious Americans was: when can we get one of these heroes to tell his story? Well, now we have. And a lot of people want the government to crush him for it.

Former Navy SEAL Matt Bissonnette published his firsthand account of the killing under a pseudonym in his book No Easy Day, but his identity was quickly outed. The Pentagon was fairly pissed, due to various nondisclosure requirements it said Bissonnette violated. Now, the idea of making an example out of Bissonnette has become a cause among militaristic right wing types: "Secrets are secrets, and leaking them should get you hammered," says Jim Hanson in a USA Today op-ed today.

It only took a little over a year for a Navy SEAL who helped kill America's greatest enemy to go from glorified, untouchable hero to scumbag who should be jailed, in the eyes of those who, politically, like to think of themselves as a soldier's greatest ally. What did Matt Bissonnette really do that was so bad it revoked what one would assume would be a lifetime pass to heroism? He told a different version of his story than the US government did.

Step back for a moment to contemplate just how farcical this situation is. Bin Laden's death was big enough news for the networks to cut in, big enough news for a special presidential address to the nation. Those who killed him were the closest thing America had to Angels slaying Satan. Each of those SEALS had an amazing story. Once-in-a-lifetime story. Hottest interview in the world. TV news wranglers, scriptwriters, book agents, movie producers—any of them would, and probably did, slit one another's figurative throats in an effort to secure an interview with Bissonnette, or any other SEAL on that mission. His book is more popular than Fifty Shades of Grey, for fuck's sake. This is not a case of a craven bottom-feeding media pushing some tripe on the public. This is a case of what the public wants. What the American people want. They want to hear the story. And Matt Bissonnette gave them exactly what they wanted. And the story was different from the official, heroic version. Like so: "The White House initially said that bin Laden had 'engaged in a firefight' and used a woman as a shield. Later, officials said that he was unarmed and that one of his wives rushed the SEALs and was shot. Bissonnette says bin Laden was shot in the head as he peeked out of his bedroom. Then, as he lay bleeding on his bedroom floor, Bissonnette and another SEAL 'fired several rounds' into his chest 'until he was motionless.'"

If you're one of the very few people who initially objected to the fact that the US government assassinated bin Laden in cold blood and dumped his body into the ocean, rather than, say, bringing him to trial, congratulations. The farce of this situation should be even more amusing to you. Matt Bissonnette told the truth. The truth was a secret. Therefore, Matt Bissonnette must be punished and branded a traitor, a prospect that would have seemed unthinkable just a year ago, and would have drawn outraged accusations of "hating heroes" and "not supporting our troops." It's fair to say that in the days after bin Laden's death, America would have happily brushed off any revelations that a SEAL who shot him was a drunk driver, a wife beater, an animal torturer, a statutory rapist. "Yeah, a statutory rapist HERO. God bless America."

But Matt Bissonnette did something far worse: he ruined the narrative. And for that, he must pay. Consider what would have happened had his book precisely mirrored the Pentagon's official version. I'll tell you what would have happened: nothing. Some minor scolding, perhaps, some symbolic penalty for appearance's sake, but nothing too bad. This is about narrative control. He leaked something? Everyone leaks. His bosses leak. The Bush administration leaked. The Obama administration leaked. Advantageous leaks are fine. Negative leaks are what get you into trouble. They are also the definition of "news." All leaks are political. So are all leak prosecutions. Matt Bissonnette just unwittingly found out how to turn in his officially issued "Hero" card. Sometimes you can have glory, or truth, but not both.

[Image by Jim Cooke]