Osama bin Laden (UBL) lay on the floor of his bedroom in a compound in the quiet Pakistani city of Abbottabad, his brains leaking from a gaping wound in his skull, torn open by a bullet from an HK416 carbine that entered under his left eye.
Over him stood a SEAL with a camera. The SEAL snapped pictures of the dead man, and transmitted a coded message: “Visual on Geronimo.”
The use of the code word “Geronimo” to designate bin Laden is telling — and not without controversy.
Cultural sensitivities aside, it ties the war against Islamic terrorists to a centuries-old tradition of Frontier Partisan warfare. The U. S. has a long history of missions to kill or capture one man who has come athwart of the nation and its imperial designs. Depending upon where you sit, these men could be designated as terrorists or as patriotic freedom fighters — and our view of them can shift over time.
Benjamin Runkle authored an excellent book titled “Wanted Dead or Alive: Manhunts From Geronimo to Bin Laden” that details the many similarities in missions to nail the day’s Public Enemy No. 1. He recounts the cross-border dragnet for Geronimo; the Punitive Expedition to catch Pancho Villa after his Columbus, New Mexico, raid; and the capture of Emilio Aguinaldo during the U.S.-Philippines War before moving on to recount more modern manhunts like the one the hunt for Mohammed Farah Aideed in Mogadishu, Somalia — which led to the disastrous “Black Hawk Down” episode — and the hunts for Saddam Hussein and UBL.
Frontier Partisan History is rife with such episodes across the globe — including Frederick Russell Burnham’s mission to eliminate the Matabele spiritual leader known as M’Limo during the 1896 Matabele War in Rhodesia to the Russian efforts to capture the Islamic leader Shamil during its 19th Century wars to consolidate control of its Muslim Central Asian empire (which in turn presaged a more modern conflict in Chechnya).
What this illustrates is that Frontier Partisan warfare has always been personal. Charismatic leaders have important strategic value, even when they are no longer operationally effective. (Yet, as Runkle notes, focusing on one man may conflict with broader strategic values).
This is an element that resonates in the riveting “Zero Dark Thirty.” This is war, yes, but it is a deeply personal manhunt.
I’ve seen “Zero Dark Thirty” twice in three days. Haven’t done that with a movie since I was a teenager. It’s that good. Kathryn Bigelow deserves all the acclaim she’s achieved as a director, and writer Michael Boal deserves great credit for turning a long, tedious effort into a cohesive and dramatic story, without sacrificing authenticity (which is not the same thing as “accuracy.” ZD30 is a movie and shouldn’t be taken as a documentary). The performances are uniformly excellent, from Jessica Chastain’s outstanding effort in the lead to the smallest supporting roles.
I have my own particular angle on the story, finding that it resonates with my obsessions. Part of it is the setting; the Pakistan/Afghan frontier has been one of the most fascinating theaters of Frontier Partisan warfare for centuries. But what the hunt for bin Laden reveals is that, while the tools of Frontier Partisan warfare have evolved radically, the core requirements remain constant: You need good intelligence, an understanding of the terrain (both physical and cultural) and a cadre of skilled, dedicated “irregular” scouts and warriors to nail down the capture of the “Geronimo” of the day.