Copyright 2013 by John T. Reed

I saw the movie Zero Dark Thirty.

Previously, I think I saw about four different hour-long documentaries/reenactments about the killing of bin Laden on the Military channel and maybe elsewhere. Plus I had read some time lines of it various places.

All of those were better than Zero Dark Thirty.

I am not sure of what to make about Zero Dark Thirty.

Let’s start with the title. I spent eight years in the Army: for as a West Point cadet and four as an officer including a tor in Vietnam and training as an airborne ranger.

The phrase used in the military has been for decades “Oh dark thirty,” not “Zero dark thirty.” It refers to the wee hours of the morning when the military time start with an 0 like “0430 hours.” “Oh dark thirty” means a generic, very early in the morning time. The bin Laden killing took off and took place at oh dark thirty.

So why did the makers of Zero Dark Thirty use the wrong terminology? That kind of goes to the heart of the problem with the whole thing. Apparently, they think “zero dark thirty” sounds more military than “oh dark thirty.”

Now how ridiculous is it for some Hollywood writer to be telling those of us who were or are in the military what military terminology we use or should use? The movie is directed by Kathryn Bigelow and written by Mark Boal who played the same roles in the movie The Hurt Locker (which I did not see).

(A reader says in his experience with the Navy and Marines zero and oh were used interchangeably. I was in the Army and never heard zero dark thirty until the movie.)

Director Bigelow has no military background or experience. Writer Boal, however, was embedded with an army bomb disposal unit in Iraq in 2004. He wrote an article for Playboy about it and that article morphed into the movie The Hurt Locker.

Much has been made about Boal being a reporter not a screen writer and I have the impression that the Zero Dark Thirty people are trying to use that to hype the film as being more factual than the usual war movie. The fact is Boal seems to have reported only briefly for Playboy magazine and has been pretty Hollywood his whole career. He being embedded in 2004 does not necessarily mean he was there for a full year or even most of the year.

I do not normally use phrases like “I have the impression.” So why do it here? Because we are talking about Hollywood, a land where substance is “What’s that?” and form is all. There is nothing in Hollywood and its products other than impressions. That place is in the impression business.

With regard to the title of the movie. I do not know what if anything Boal had to do with picking the title. But the Zero Dark Thirty people seem very much to be trying to have it both ways. If you are wavering on whether to see the movie, they say you should go because it is “the story of history's greatest manhunt for the world's most dangerous man.” In the movie, that man is named Osama bin Laden. Someone has created the rumor or told the truth that the movie people had unprecedented access to the SEALs, maybe even illegal access to military secrets pertinent to the mission.

But when the movie is criticized for libeling the CIA and SEALS, the Zero Dark Thirty people talk out of the other side of their mouths and say it is fiction. Fine. So name the movie’s “world’s most dangerous man” “Muhammed Zahiri” or some other made up name. Set it in Iran instead of Pakistan. Leave Leon Panetta out of it and have a fictional CIA director.

I also have a sense that the movie people poked a stick in the eye of the CIA deliberately to

1. Curry favor with Hollywood people especially members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who vote for the Academy Awards.

2. Piss off millions of conservatives, current and former CIA, the current federal government, and so on to generate controversy that will generate publicity in a town where they say there is no such thing as bad publicity.

The movie libels the CIA, maybe the SEALS, and the nation—but hey, who cares if it gets us Best Picture and/or more box office? For better or—in this case—for worse, America’s international image and self image is created by Hollywood. In a great many countries there is no free of press media so they assume all movies from America are made and/or approved by the government. In other words, what is in the movie becomes a new reality. There are many things in history where Hollywood BS has become fact.

For example, the line

I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.

supposedly spoken by Japanese Admiral Yamamoto after Pearl Harbor is now often quoted as fact by historians and reporters. In fact, there is no evidence he ever said that. He might have thought it. He studied for two years at Harvard and was twice a naval attache in DC and well knew the economic power of the U.S. compared to his then impoverished and backward country of Japan. But Japanese military people did not make such confessional statements to military subordinates in 1941 Imperial Japan. When they were finishing the movie Tora! Tora! Tora!, the Hollywood gold-chain crowd said it was ending on a down note—one of Hollywood’s biggest no nos. They invented that final scene and line out of thin air to put a happy final spin on it for American movie goers.

So now Zero Dark Thirty turns America’s triumph over jihad hero bin Laden into a “Yeah, but they had to torture and pull the pants of an Arab man down, and all that to make it happen.” No. Actually it was great detective work but that truth has no major motion picture and it that realm, box office lies replace truth.

The goal of the movie makers seems to be to tell the exciting story of a single, young, American woman CIA employee who was the sole driving force making the killing of bin Laden happen. Apparently, there were one or more young women involved but the movie character is not only a composite of many men and women, she gives the impression this was a one-person thing, which it never was. In other words, they took a stock Hollywood story line—the Dirty Harry type low-level person who fights against the brass up above and gets the job done in spite of them. I actually lived that story to an extent in the Army—the fighting the brass up above part. But in the real world, people who do that, like I did or like the various famous whistle-blowers who make the news from time to time, are pulled out of any jobs that matter and made assistant to someone who is not authorized to have an assistant.

That’s not to say there are not some subversives within the CIA or the military trying to actually get stuff done in spite of the bureaucracy—and succeeding—but they must operate like saboteurs or spies. They do not get in the face of the superiors and scream at them in insubordinate ways like Hollywood characters including the “Maya” character played by Jessica Chastain. I chewed out a captain company commander like that once in Vietnam. He kept me from being a platoon leader—I remained an assistant platoon leader which does not exist—and he gave me a 40 on my efficiency report at a time when your career was over if you got below a 97. Indeed, no one I ever met in the military ever heard of a grade below 90 before they met me.

Had Maya done what I did or what she is depicted as doing in the movie, she would have been on the next plane home, given a broom closet for an office then fired after they kept book on her for a judicious period of time so she could not claim it happened because of the altercation.

The torture scene in the movie seems to be a composite of

• water boarding, which happened to three bad guys but apparently not to anyone related to the bin Laden manhunt,

Abu Grhaib, which happened but was reserve, not active-duty, Army troops (800th Military Police Brigade) and not CIA personnel or SEALs, in Iraq not Afghanistan or Pakistan and not related to bin Laden, and

• the fictional TV series 24 which I’m guessing is the “source” of the secret torture chambers in Gdansk, Poland??

The actual operation was very much CIA personnel on the ground in Pakistan with a small percentage of SEALs. In the movie, it looked like all SEALs. They depicted the SEALs as a sort of burly, grizzled, bearded, blue-collar, quasi-biker gang crowd. Best way I could explain it was they looked like a group of late-twenties, former high school football players who still hung around their old neighborhood and who were getting ready to have a Super Bowl watching barbecue. The actual raid personnel averaged 38 years old if I recall correctly. That sounds to me like it was a VIP affair with a whole bunch of big shots taking the spots that would have gone to younger guys on a less high-profile raid.

The real SEALs call themselves “The Quiet Professionals” and members of the “Special Ops Community.” Not sure I’m buying all that. They sound like more like the Marines of whom President Truman said every rifle squad seemed to have its own PR man. But I expect the SEALs are extensively trained and somewhat experienced and very anxious, all of which I would think would produce more focus and less horseshoe playing and joking around than Zero Dark Thirty would have you believe.

In the real operation, I believe they had two Chinook helicopters and two high tech quiet choppers one of which crashed. The movie simply leaves out the Chinooks and has the one chopper crash and everyone return home on the other quiet chopper, plus the body of bin Laden and the computers and other intelligence stuff they captured from the house. Give me a freaking break! If I recall correctly, there were 116 guys in the actual raid. You cannot get even a fraction of that many on a small chopper. What happened to the Chinooks? Did the movie budget require magical expanding choppers?

Apparently that is precisely the reason. In a 2/156/13 Wall Street Journal article, the screen writer/producer said he used a C-130 (4-propeller cargo plane) instead of the actual C-17 (monster cargo jet) that was used in the event depicted because, “I couldn’t afford a C-17.” Using a monster cargo jet to fly one CIA woman from Afghanistanto the U.S. would have shown typically mindless waste by the pentagon.

They showed the SEALs celebrating and joking around multiple times in the bin Laden house and on the chopper as they were leaving. Uh, okay, I was not there. And I was never a SEAL. But I was a paratrooper, ranger, and had four years of training at West Point.

On my first capturing of an objective—capturing a machine gun nest on the top of a hill—at West Point, my classmates and I celebrated our capture of the hill, then were fascinated by the stuff left behind by the “aggressors” whom we had driven off the hill, then we were all “killed” by the aggressor counterattack we had not taken any care to defend against. Oooops! They also showed a bunch of “no-way-Jose celebrating like freshman high school football players” near the end of the movie We were Young about the battle of the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam. That is NOT what happens with an experience well-trained unit.

For one thing, in real war as opposed to training, you are scared shitless. I don’t care if you are the SEALs or the Green Bay Packers or the UFC all-star team, when you are hundreds of miles behind enemy lines surrounded by hundreds of thousands of enemy citizens and military and you are killing residents of Pakistan and your radio crackles with the news that the Pakistani Air Force is scrambling jet fighters in response to what you are doing, you almost certainly are not celebrating or kidding around until you get back to Afghan air space.

Also, in bin Laden’s house in the middle of the night, you cannot celebrate killing a guy or two guys because you do not know how many total bad guys there are or what they are doing at that moment. When you are fist bumping, they are liable to shoot you. In the Army when I was there, every time you take an objective—I repeat, EVERY time—they aggressors counterattacked after we won the battle. I would expect the SEALs and CIA were constantly worried about what other bad guys or booby traps or Pakistani military was about to him them. I do not believe they were celebrating or joking around in bin Laden’s house. But like I said, I was not there.

I think the movie and Hollywood in general pander to the teenage boy idea of war. Teenage boys would celebrate on the objective and, if they were really cool, joke around on the objective. Real professionals would constantly be clearing the next room, taking roll again and again, securing the perimeter of the areas they had already cleared, searching for intelligence information, etc. Even on the chopper getting ready to leave the bin Laden, I doubt they would celebrate until they had reached Afghan airspace. Pakistani jets are launching looking for them. Neither the air crews nor the SEALs or CIA personnel could do anything but pray while still in Pakistani airspace. They had no defenses. No friends. I would be surprised if they could breathe during that flight, let alone celebrate like school boys.

On 2/12/13, I read an interview with the SEAL who claims to have shot bin Laden. He confirmed exactly what I just said. He said the movie depicted them talking in the Bin Laden compound when in fact they were totally silent for the simple reason that they did not want a bad guy to know where they were.

He also said they did not celebrate the way the movie kept depicting. In fact, they figured it was a suicide mission and were apporpriately somber from when they were first told they were going on it. In that case, my guess is their demeanor after they got on the choppers to get out of Pakistan was stark terror and ultimately surprise and relief. The guy who shot bin Laden said an emotional goodbye to his wife, who did not know the mission but knew her husband well enough to sense the suicide nature of it, before the mission and silently took what he believed was one last look at his sleeping children before he left. He also said the actual events in the bin Laden compound happened in a much shorter period of time than the movie showed.

Of course. It was a hit-and-run mission deep behind enemy lines.

We did a number of night ambushes in Army Ranger School. You open fire, check the enemy trucks for intel, and get the hell out of there on the double. In the Army in Vietnam, rangers would do an ambush, haul ass to a pre-selected helicopter landing zone, and get rescued before the enemy could catch up to them.

When special ops people do any mission, it’s sort of slow and quiet in the approach to maintain the element of surprise, but once the shooting starts, you are essentially extremely vulnerable little bunny rabbits—to use the phrase a downed American pilot in the Serbian war used—who need to be rescued by conventional forces ASAP.

What the alleged shooter says now is what I would have expected, although I did not realize they believed it was a suicide mission.

I do not recommend the movie. It was dark, political, overly focused on one young composite character, and only intermittently felt obligated to tell the truth. The various documentaries and reenactments are probably on the Internet. Watch them instead.

John T. Reed