Top critical review
13 hours: A little screed of flag waving political “cha-ching” masquerading as a historic account.
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on March 23, 2016
The people described in this book seem incredibly brave and admirable. Given the unbelievably awful situation, they appeared to have acted mostly heroically, but unwisely. I’m not criticizing the people; I’m criticizing the book and the author. Anyone who has ever watched reality TV knows serious subjects can be manipulated through misinterpretation and omission. That said, the book itself when compared to objective historic accounts by authors such as Michael Lewis or Doris Kearns Goodwin, “13 Hours in Benghazi” as a historic record is very poor. It’s incomplete, though seemingly successfully at manipulating the American jingoistic gene, yet fails to accomplish its self-proclaimed mission of providing, “the inside account of what really happened.”
Holes, Holes and more Holes:
1. Private soldiers who are paid to do soldering work are called mercenaries. Using euphemisms like “operator” is a deception. Private soldiers and armies have been called mercenaries from the beginning of time. Machiavelli expounded at length in “the Prince” regarding the limitations of mercenaries and why they are a poor substitute for actual state troops. I did not see the word “mercenary” mentioned in this book. The author, as a historian, should have made the connection at least once, or at a minimum explained the difference between an “operator” and a “mercenary”, so an honest reader wouldn’t be confused. The US government hires mercenaries and this book is about a group of mercenaries. Just say it.
2. Of the many things the author glosses over, the most egregious is that of Scott Wickland. What happened to him? If there is blame to be placed, by the author’s own account, it belongs to Scott Wickland. Wickland’s sole purpose for being in Benghazi was to protect Ambassador Christopher Stevens. He was in physical contact with him and was the last one to see him alive. Wickland more or less left his charge in a burning building and in the dust as he crawled to safety. How can that happen? If Wickland was still in the military and lapsed so, what would have been the appraisal of his performance through the eyes of military justice? He failed in his only mission and the book glosses over this fact. Two people lost their lives because their mercenary guard bugged out.
This wasn’t the only bonehead move Wickland made that night. The plan was to avoid the on-coming second wave of attackers by turning left out of the Compound. He turns right instead and jeopardizes everyone in the SUV. The man obviously was rattled(smoke inhalation? begs the question, “ why was he driving?) and maybe not qualified to be in such high pressure situation, which further begs the question, “why are we paying him $150k/yr as a guard when he is not reliable under fire?”
Why did the author point all this out and then go silent? Scott Wickland returned to the Annex, apparently hurt(smoke inhalation) and just disappears. What happened to him? The author doesn’t follow-up on this guy at all. Very important omission given two of the deaths(most important deaths?) seem directly related to Wickland’s actions.
3. In the Epilog, sardonically the author grimaces at the fact that the actual in-military and actual US government employee operatives, as opposed to the contracted mercenaries working for the government, the latter who degrade and insult the former all through the book are being decorated and promoted(Page 301 paperback). The 50 truck convoy that saved their lives after the mortar attack didn’t just appear. Someone negotiated the arrival and the evacuation at the airport. They all would have been slaughtered had the convoy not showed up when it did. It’s not only a petty bias the author demonstrates by not giving some credit to others. It’s a window into an agenda the author seems to have for this book: mercenaries good; everyone else bad.
4. As a historian you’d expect the author to evaluate the effectiveness of the combatants. The “Keystone Cop” Compound rescue mission, floundering and shooting blindly from the hip and into the dark that went on that night highlights how deaf, dumb and blind these ex-military guys are without all the technology that is today’s US military. Further the breakdown in the chain of command by these Mercs is glorified by the author, rather than questioned. They went Rambo and jeopardized everyone in the Annex.
Think of how things would have been different if the Merc team while at the compound, presumably against orders, while the Annex was attacked and overran. Everybody at the Annex would have been killed and the Merc team would have no place to retreat to, and ultimately would have likewise been killed or captured. The book wasted a lot of time describing the physical appearance of everyone and how nice the grass was. Maybe the author should have spent a little time describing military policy in an unsure environment and how lucky those people in Benghazi really were not all being killed because of a break down in the chain of command by a bunch of gung-ho mercenaries.
Ok, so they were worried about the Ambassador. Everyone was. Regardless, what would military justice do to a bunch of in-uniform solders leaving their post after being directly ordered to “stand down” in light of a massacre? It seems being a mercenary relieves the soldier of chain of command discipline, at least in the author’s eyes.
5. Why are the CIA hiring mercenaries at $150k/yr each to protect diplomatic missions in the first place? Protecting diplomatic compounds use to be a job for the Marines. How different this story would have been had there been a squad or two of Marines stationed at the Diplomatic Compound, rather than sharing a SMALL mercenary force with the CIA stationed at the Annex a mile away. If the Marines were stationed at the Compound, there would have been a support force sitting on a ship in the Bay with drones and evacuation helicopters and probably even an attack helicopter or two sitting in wait. There is no way the Marines would have put a squad in harm’s way without “eyes in the sky” and tactical air support, particularly on 9/11.
This use of contractors began en-masse under President Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan as a cheat to hide the causality counts, because contractors killed don’t count as military causalities; shame on the Obama administration for not ending this policy. Granted, it’s not the fault of the guys on the ground for the bad policy decisions of the Bush and Obama administrations. Though the author might have shown some objectivity by highlighting the gravy train the mercenaries and the companies who employ them generally enjoy by emphasizing that when a mercenary acts outside of orders and outside the strictures of military discipline, there are advantages to being a mercenary, such as not being court martialed for dereliction(Wickland) or abandonment of post.
6. It is very sad that Rone, Doherty, Smith and Ambassador Stevens were killed and Oz and Ubben were wounded. Because Smith and Stevens being government employees, so the wife and children receive compensation for life or until they are 18, respectively. What does a mercenary get when they die or are injured on the job? An in-uniform Marine makes between $15k to $42k/yr depending on rank and accomplishment, where a Navy Seal makes a little more, but not much more. A US Ambassador makes between $120k to $180k. This is all public record. The author doesn’t go into how much Rone or Doherty were being paid, but says the average pay of a Merc is $150k/yr. They are probably making more than the Ambassador. Bonuses? Death Gratuities? Pensions? Stock? How much better off are these guys than actual military?
The author should have discussed this to highlight that they are there voluntarily and they fundamentally have a monetary motivation for being there. I do believe the author did mention the Mercs were being paid to tell their story. Why didn’t the author describe the complete financial picture and the restriction and benefits of their contract? An honest historian would have explored that which influenced their judgment, which money most certainly plays a part.
7. This book, if nothing else shows the folly of depending on mercenaries for security. Unfortunately, the author is so wrapped up in how star spangled awesome these six ex-military guys are, doesn’t realize the point he is actually making: mercenaries are not substitutes for real in-uniform military, regardless of their background. Actual military is supported by the whole military. Mercenaries are discretionally supported and expendable. That’s why they get paid so much and that’s why Bush started using them in 2003, in the first place.
As a historical record, I could go on and on about the things I found objectionable in this book. “13 Hours in Benghazi” is an interesting yarn as is a Tom Clancy novel, but it’s hardly a historic account that can be trusted for being accurate. It’s like expecting paid informants to be objective. Even eyewitnesses in a criminal trial have been shown to be unreliable. A corruption occurs by filtering events through emotion, potential personal gain, stress, political predispositions and prejudice. It’s up to the author of a historic account to point to conflicts and contradictions and rectify them, a responsibility Zuckoff totally ignored. The book doesn’t jive well with the numerous and exhaustive Congressional hearings and is a very flawed historical account.