The Killing of Osama bin Laden: A Kaleidoscope View through the Lens of Bob Dylan

I love the smell of napalm in the morning.

–spoken by actor Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, 1979






On May 16, 2003, in the al Baya neighborhood of western Baghdad, a 155 mm. shell was discovered on the airport highway. Uncharacteristically, the shell could be seen by the naked eye from some distance.  Too obvious for a typical hidden roadside bomb, this IED attracted the attention of the bomb disposal unit.  As a tech personnel approached the shell, protected by her 100-pound Kevlar suit, she observed that the shell was connected to a digital clock, stopped at 11:30.  Having disarmed the shell, she and her partner smelled a sweet aroma, like bubble gum.  Her partner saw a small puddle of amber-colored liquid, rolling from the shell.  He suddenly fell back, his eyes rolling wildly, his ears ringing.  He tried to warn his partner away, but his body was locking up.


The liquid was a deadly nerve gas called sarin.  His partner quickly fumbled in her pants pocket for the antidote-filled serette.  She slammed the spring-loaded serette into his leg and then another one into her own leg, their only hope of survival.  Had this shell exploded, it would have killed over 10,000 Iraqi civilians and over 3,000 coalition troops stationed nearby at Camp Victory.  This was the kind of damage Osama bin Laden was hoping to hurt Americans with, to drive them out of the country.  He was the villain that the US government needed to get rid of, ever since the downing of the Twin Towers.


So, finally, we got to kill Osama bin Laden.  Years after the event that brought him infamy.  We had him in our sights when Clinton was presiding, but the triggerman couldn’t get the OK from on high.  Some say because Clinton was too busy dealing with Monica Lewinski’s dress with a particular stain on it.  But the killing of bin Laden finally happened on May 1st, 2011.  So here’s the timeline:


11:00 AM Eastern Daylight Time    The White House wants to stay in touch real-time with the SEAL team and orders sandwiches from a local Costco to be delivered to the Situation Room.  A video link is set up with a stealth Sentinel drone flying over Abbottabad, Pakistan and to CIA headquarters across the Potomac.


I once heard a radio interview with a sniper and the most dramatic thing I recall is his description of how he felt immediately upon killing someone—sublime ecstasy.  Once I thought about it, it made sense.  That’s what he was trained for.  Success, for him, meant death to someone in his sights.  The actor Peter Sarsgaard, who played in Jarhead, about the real-life sniper Anthony Swofford, had a similar comment about the role of the sniper: “I kept thinking about the phrase ‘Shoot though to the back of the head.’ When you’re in that job, that act of violence becomes a form of art rather than something as brutal as killing.”*

*Hirschberg, L. (2005).  The Empathist.  The New York Times Magazine, Nov. 13, 68.


The author of the screenplay, William Broyles Jr., put forth the thesis that in an increasingly murky world, the idea of victory is clean and comforting.  Made me wonder how many a soldier might feel upon murdering an enemy.  There must be a degree of terror, fear of the loss of one’s own life.  In the World Wars, Korea, Viet Nam, there was the arbitrary terror of living among flying bullets, the sight of comrades’ flesh torn asunder, the smell of spent gunpowder filling the nostrils, the ominous boom-boom of deathly artillery—all coming together to create the hell no one taught in high school history.  In Iraq and Afghanistan, fear comes from the unknown—buried explosive shells, ambush and, most of all, the infamous Soviet-made, rocket-propelled grenades fired in great numbers by the Taliban and Al Queda.  Then killing is the goal; there is no time for reflection.  But what if there were time for reflection on the deeper meaning of bringing such intense force to kill one single man, evil as he was?


In one of the episodes of M*A*S*H*, Hawkeye is questioned by one of the soldiers as to why he was caring for a wounded enemy before him.  Hawkeye answers, because he’s closer to death.  “But that’s crazy,” replies the soldier.  “I was just trying to kill him.”  “Yes,” agrees Hawkeye, “it is crazy.”  A doctor doesn’t take sides.  But a sniper, or soldier in combat, doesn’t have the luxury of such humanistic consideration.  A doctor’s mission is to save lives, without political influence over his decisions.  A soldier’s mission is to kill the enemy, without any humanistic influence over his actions.


 2:00 PM         President Obama comes in from his golf game and reviews the final preparations as he confers with Brigadier General Marshall Webb.  He grabs a sandwich and munches on it while listening attentively, his expression revealing that the sandwich did not exactly meet his expectation.


At what point did we become the savior of the conflicted world?  In 1946, Winston Churchill coined the term “the Iron Curtain,” thus setting up a division between us, the free, and those chained by Communism and other tyrannies.


The United States of America has a unique character, based on freedom from tyranny.  Yet the disparate economies existing within our country, the different worlds of workers and “captains of industry,” always existed, from the time the framers of the Constitution who were primarily gentlemen land owners who passed the laws to govern the working masses to the present day when the masses call themselves the 99% and protest against the 1%.  One man was able to consolidate the spirit of the masses more than anyone else—the songwriter, Woody Guthrie.


In his mid-40s, Guthrie’s life was cut short by the debilitating Huntington’s disease.  But in his short life, he was able to capture the essence of what it is to be an American.  Revolutionary Mind, one of his songs, is as timely as ever.

Night is here again, baby,

I’m stretched out on my bed

Seeing all kinds of crazy notions

Running through my head


Those “crazy notions” are still with us.  As a country, we strive to bring this global chaos to some kind of resolution.  So we sent our soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan to quell the enemy.


Here is a man who one can claim to be the founders of modern American folk music—Guthrie.  He was not interested in the slightest bit of power, yet he exuded more power in his flatpicking fingers than most politicians of note.


2:03 PM          All 23 Red Squadron SEALs—assault, sniper and demolition specialists—and a dog—a 4-year-old Belgian Malinois named Karo which is skilled at sniffing out explosive booby traps, protected by its own body armor—take off from Jalalabad Airfield in two all-black Stealth Hawk helicopters—named Razor 1 and Razor 2 for the mission—with all their walls at sharp angles to avoid radar detection.  The noise is not deafening, more like a hissing, as the helicopter blades struggle to lift the heavy load.  The air is turgid in the confined spaces of the two crafts.  Karo’s wagging his tail, as the SEAL next to him pets his collar.  Razor 1 maintains a height of only 50 feet, with Razor 2 at 70 feet, flying an erratic route along valleys and dry river beds to avoid radar detection. 


The top name in the next generation of folk musicians was Bob Dylan.  As Guthrie was hospitalized with increasing debilitation, Dylan visited him and, on one occasion in 1961, took the liberty of singing a song dedicated to his hero:

Hey, hey Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song

‘Bout a funny ol’ world that’s a-comin’ along

Seems sick an’ it’s hungry, it’s tired an’ it’s torn

It looks like it’s a-dyin’ an’ it’s hardly been born


“That’s good, Bob,” said Woody.  “That’s damned good.”


Young Dylan was inspired by such encouragement and wrote to a friend, “Woody likes me—he tells me to sing for him,” and went on to continue the tradition of articulating the concerns that many had against war.  A couple years later he wrote Masters of War, of which one stanza read:

You that never did nothin’

But build to destroy

You play with my world

Like it’s your little toy

You put a gun in my hand

And you hide from my eyes

And you turn and run farther

When the fast bullets fly


Now the currents have changed and it’s others who play with our world and build to destroy.  Bin Laden and his cohorts were the wagers of war, then “turn and run farther When the fast bullets fly.”  But now bin Laden’s wages of war were being held accountable.  And these SEALs were coming to collect.

2:08 PM          Memories of President Carter’s failed 1979 attempt at rescuing the Iranian hostages with helicopter attacks in Operation Eagle Claw motivate the planners to have backup—just in case.  So two backup Chinook helicopters, designated as Flashlight 1 and 2, filled with more SEALs and extra fuel, take off.  The first, an MH-47, called the Command Bird, was to land outside the compound.  It also carried medical personnel to take care of any wounded.  The other, a CH-47, with three M-134 Gatling guns aboard, called the Gun Platform, had the mission of hovering over the compound and attacking any Pakistani armed forces that might come to interfere. 


Who would have thought, during Carter’s presidency, that, within decades, we’d be fighting an enemy that dared to attack us on our own soil?  Other than Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, the attack on Twin Towers was the first time Americans experienced a direct attack on their own soil.  But it was clearly predicted in Dylan’s The Times They are A-Changin’:

Come senators, congressmen

Please heed the call

Don’t stand in the doorway

Don’t block up the hall

For he that gets hurt

Will be he who has stalled

There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’

It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls

For the times they are a-changin’


Looking at the killing of bin Laden through Dylan’s lyrics creates a surrealistic view of what is otherwise a straightforward military mission.  If you don’t mind seeing this mission through this topsy-turvy kaleidoscope, then read on.  But hold on to your hat.


4 PM   President Obama is notified and he enters the Situation Room, soon joined by Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and Vice-President Joe Biden.  The expressions throughout the Room have a collective look of worried fascination.  Their eyes are glued to the screen, showing the pictures from the vantage point of the drone hovering above the scene.   


            The helicopters arrive at their destination.  Sniper team members on Razor 1 make their way to the port and starboard doors and ready their weapons.  The SEALs can feel the sweat trickle down their bodies.  They adjust their holsters and help one another don back-mounted radios, then flip down and switch on their night-vision goggles.  Finally, the port and starboard doors are opened, filling the cabins with Pakistan’s hot night air.  Razor 1 is now at a height of 20 feet as the scent of farmland hits their nostrils.  Now the pilot, hovering at seven feet above the main building of the compound, affords a jumping-off point for the SEALs.  Razor 2 is hovering at 30 feet, a sniper’s M-4 rifle with silencer at the open door, ready to attack any enemy.   Below the aircraft, scores of chickens and a few cattle are scattering from the noise and draft above them, trying to make as much space as they can from the fearsome tumult.


From Dylan’s Thunder on the Mountain:

Thunder on the mountain, heavy as can be

Mean old twister bearing down on me

All the ladies in Washington, scrambling to get out or town

Looks like something bad gonna happen, better roll your airplanes down


4:00:20            Lights from bin Laden’s residence come on. 


From Dylan’s Brownsville Girl:

Well, they were looking for someone with a pompadour

I was crossin’ the street when the shots rang out

I didn’t know whether to duck or to run, so I ran

“We got him cornered in the churchyard,” I heard somebody shout


4:00:40            One figure, later identified as Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti, Bin Laden’s courier, can be seen carrying an AK-47 assault rifle through a door, opening fire blindly.  The sniper on Razor 2 has him in his riflescope and, on the command his superior, Mel Hoyle—“Bust him,”—levels two 3-round bursts.  All the bullets hit their mark, blowing al Kuwaiti off his feet, his AK-47 spinning out of control, the bullets going through him and hitting his wife behind him, killing her as well.   Its mission completed, the second helicopter lands in a field across from bin Laden’s residence. 


From Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited:

Now the rovin’ gambler he was very bored

He was tryin’ to create a next world war

He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor

He said I never engaged in this kind of thing before

But yes I think it can be very easily done

We’ll just put some bleachers out in the sun

And have it on Highway 61


4:01     A brave SEAL is the first to jump.  The others follow.  The SEALs and Karo depart the craft as one demolition team prepares to blow through the first gate they encounter. Three SEALs secure the guesthouse.


From Dylan’s Things Have Changed:

I hurt easy, I just don’t show it

The next sixty seconds could be like an eternity

Gonna get low down, gonna fly high

All the truth in the world adds up to one big lie


4:01:20            The SEALs are in intense operating mode, not interested in risking their lives by bothering to take prisoners.  They enter the inner courtyard and, upon seeing shadowy figures approach, they open fire.  Abrar al-Kuwaiti, Abu’s brother, and Bushra, Abrar’s wife, are the unlucky recipients of SEAL training and they pass on to the next world.


From Dylan’s Romance in Durango:

Was it me that shot him down in the cantina

Was it my hand that held the gun?

Come, let us fly, my Magdalena

The dogs are barking and what’s done is done

4:01:25            SEALs from the second helicopter catch up with the team inside the compound.  Now the SEALs are inside the residence and, as they approach the second floor, bin Laden’s 23-year-old son, Khalid, has the misfortune of being more curious than cautious as he leans over the railing to see what the matter is.  That unfortunate decision costs him his young life.  Hopefully, a number of beautiful virgins are there to welcome him as he enters his next incarnation.


From Dylan’s One More Cup of Coffee:

Your daddy he’s an outlaw

And a wanderer by trade

He’ll teach you how to pick and choose

And how to throw the blade

He oversees his kingdom

So no stranger does intrude

His voice it trembles as he calls out

For another plate of food


4:01:30            Two accounts exist as to what happened next.  In one, by Mark Owen, author of No Easy Day, the next face the SEALs see, leaning over a railing, is that of a shadowy version of bin Laden and, not having the luxury of waiting for a process of identification, the SEALs shoot him dead.  According to the official account, however, the lead SEAL enters a room in which a middle-aged man and a woman cower in fear.  A second SEAL enters (presumably Mark Owen), and both take a bead on their target. One of bin Laden’s wives, Amal, driven no doubt by intense devotion and loyalty to her infamous husband, yells at the SEALs, “No, no—don’t do this” in Arabic, while bin Laden reaches across the bed for an AKSYU machine pistol.  She is pushed in front by her husband, bin Laden, who is now in the SEALs’ gunsights.  The first round of bullets misses the mark.  The second round—two U.S. Navy M855 5.56 mm Predator bullets—hits the target.  One enters his chest, next to his breastbone, as he is thrown backward against the wall.  The second bullet, insurance for the team, smashes into his forehead.  Excited by the success of his mission, perspiring throughout his body, the first SEAL yells into his body mic, “For God and country—Geronimo, Geronimo, Geronimo!”  This is the code name for signifying the ultimate aim of the mission, the expiration of the man who is more responsible than anyone else for the tragic killing of over 3,000 unsuspecting victims in the Twin Towers on the infamous date of 9/11.


From Dylan’s High Water:
Well, George Lewis told the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew

“You can’t open up your mind, boys

To every conceivable point of view”

They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway Five

Judge says to the High Sheriff

“I want him deal or alive

Either one, I don’t care”

High water everywhere


4:01:40            Back at the Situation Room, the collective looks of relief can be seen across the faces of the government officials and soldiers.  “We got him,” utters the President, his hair looking just a bit grayer than earlier that day.  Joe Biden, fingering a rosary, replies, “We should all go to Mass tonight.”


From Dylan’s Jokerman:

Standing on the waters casting you bread

While the eyes of the idol with the iron head are glowing

Distant ships sailing into the mist,

You were born with a snake in both fists while a hurricane was blowing

Freedom just around the corner for you

But with the truth so far off, what good will it do?


4:15     The SEALs and Karo, the dog, become helicopter-borne, departing the scene of the successful “caper.”  But something is awry with the first Black Hawk.  It must make a forced landing inside the compound, not as planned.  Later, it is discovered, there is a reason for the problem that only an aeronautics engineer could explain thoroughly—something about a wind draft created by the walls of the compound over which the helicopter is hovering, causing a kind of wind tunnel in which the craft loses its ability to stay aloft.  The forced landing creates a jolt for the SEAL passengers as it sits astride the wall at an awkward angle in, of all places, an animal pen. 


From Dylan’s Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues:

When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez

And it’s Easter time too

And your gravity fails

And negativity don’t pull you through

Don’t put on any airs


4:38     For the next 13 minutes, SEALs scour the premises, gathering everything that might be of interest to intelligence agents.  Meanwhile, a medic gathers DNA evidence from bin Laden’s body.  Other SEALs prepare to blow up the helicopter damaged in the forced landing. 


From Dylan’s Desolation Row:

Now at midnight all the agents

And the superhuman crew

Come out and round up everyone

That knows more than they do

Then they bring them to the factory


6:00     With all the gear brought to the scene, after the return to Jalalabad (sometimes referred to as “Location 562,” what the Russians called it when they were occupying the area, but now commonly referred to as “J-bad”), no one can find a tape measure with which to measure bin Laden’s body.  So a 6-foot SEAL lies next to the body to determine its height.          


From Dylan’s Isis:

We came to the pyramids all embedded in ice

He said, “There’s a body I’m tryin’ to find

If I carry it out it’ll bring a good price”

‘Twas then that I knew what he had on his mind


8:25     It’s time to deal with the body itself, what to do with it, so it doesn’t lend itself to becoming a shrine, even a stimulus for terrorist events.  Bin Laden’s body is carried to an aircraft carrier in the north Arabian Sea by a V-22 Osprey.

From Dylan’s It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue:

Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you

Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you

The vagabond who’s rapping at your door

Is standing in the clothes that you once wore

Strike another match, go start anew

And it’s all over now, Baby Blue

10:00   Word begins to leak out about the successful mission.  The White House announces a special Presidential address to be held in a half-hour but does not give the reason for it.  Facebook begins to flutter with rumors. 


From Dylan’s Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream:

Well, I rapped upon a house

With the U.S. flag upon display

I said, “Could you help me out

I got some friends down the way”


10:30   The speech is delayed by an hour.


From Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone:

You used go be so amused

At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used

Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse


11:30   Finally, Obama appears on TV: “Tonight I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden.”  Obama’s ears seem to radiate from his head with pride. 


From Dylan’s Tombstone Blues:

The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing a fly

Saying, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry”

And dropping a bar bell he points to the sky

Saying, “The sun’s not yellow it’s chicken”


11:45   Thousands gather at Times Square in New York and elsewhere to celebrate one of the few military victories that are simple and conclusive.


From Dylan’s It’s Alright, Ma:

While them that defend what they cannot see

With a killer’s pride, security

It blows the minds most bitterly

For them that think death’s honesty

Won’t fall upon them naturally

Life sometimes must get lonely


May 2nd 1:00 AM      Bin Laden’s body, treated with dignity and washed according to Muslim tradition, is wrapped in a white shroud, and unceremoniously dumped into the ocean. 


From Dylan’s Not Dark Yet:

Well, I’ve been to London and I’ve been to gay Paree

I’ve followed the river and I got to the sea

I’ve been down on the bottom of a world full of lies

I ain’t looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes

Sometimes my burden seems more than I can bear

It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there


Next morning:  On the streets of New York City, hawkers are selling T-shirts emblazoned with “Obama got Osama.”  They sell quite well.  And no one smells the napalm in the morning.