Thoughts: 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi, by Mitchell Zuckoff

Oh boy, so upfront, this is another one that really wasn’t for me, and it wasn’t for me right from the start. Lionisation of US foreign policy is not the way to win my heart and mind.

This one resulted in a film that we got at Sneak, which is why it’s ended up on my list.

Right, let’s get this over with. Which was, incidentally, my approach to the book.

13 Hours claims to be an apolitical portrayal of the bare truth of what happened on 11th September, 2012 in Benghazi. The problem is that you can’t really be apolitical when you’re coming from the middle of a highly political situation (especially one that involves defending and helping the CIA cover up their seemingly illegal* operations in someone else’s country) and when describing an attack that was… politically motivated. I doubt the CIA compound was attacked by people who Just Felt Like It One Day.

In trying to maintain this apolitical stance, the scope is obviously narrowed a lot, making this truth a very small one. And honestly, the men themselves whose words and memories make up the meat of the book are political. Of course they are. Every human being is. They may not see their opinions as being political, but it comes across in the book. Calling Libyan clothing “man jammies”, the lack of understanding as to why the Libyan security forces who get treated with the same vague annoyance as talking animals wouldn’t be mega-loyal (“You try to befriend them so at least they’ll be a damn speed bump if we get attacked,” he’d say. “It’s a hearts and minds thing.”), the frankly frightening beliefs of the man who believed that his work was part of “a battle between good and evil” and believed himself “an avenging angel”, etc.

So, I know I’m not the target audience. I’m not American, I’m not into military fiction or non-fiction, I’m not really big into war in general. But even bearing that in mind, I couldn’t get behind this book at all. I did appreciate the potted history of Libya at the beginning though.

The prose is pretty terrible. I’m just going to come out and say that. It’s not only simplistic and obsessed with dropping gun brands** and describing the layout of everywhere in tedious detail, but the prologue ends with a dramatic fakeout – aha, you thought he was describing Benghazi but he’s actually describing an event from 1967! – and literally ends “This is their story.” Zuckoff doesn’t miss a chance to describe how great the operators are, whether they’re being muscular or having country boy ways or being take-a-bullet friends. And I don’t mean that these are descriptions given by the other operators when telling their parts of the story.

There’s just a lot of clunky zingers and dramatic one-sentence paragraphs. And for something that claims to be deathly neutral, a lot of shade is thrown at the CIA themselves. Understandably, perhaps (those desk jockeys! Their smarts can’t save them from bullets!) but doesn’t really look great from a “this is exactly and perfectly what happened” account. Not to mention the painfully overt US patriotism. Maybe this won’t be so jarring to Americans, but to non-Americans it may come across as cringy. The amount of people described as hating America and Americans and everything they stand for, argh. I can’t.

So to anyone who wants to read this, I should probably give something helpful. The book itself is open about not being about any of the political machinations that led up to the attack or the cover-ups that followed it, so don’t expect any of that. If you’re looking to actually learn about the history of Libya, you can do better. This book is just a very US-patriotic action scene described in minute detail so armchair generals can follow each movement blow-by-blow. And it never really promises to be anything else.

*I assume we’re supposed to use a different word for the CIA but I honestly just cannot be bothered to look it up.

**I assume we’re supposed to use a different word for guns but I just don’t care.

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