Interview: ’13 Hours’ Book Author Mitchell Zuckoff

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13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, in theaters now, is based on a book entitled 13 Hours: The Inside Account Of What Really Happened In Benghazi.  We had the opportunity to speak recently with the book’s author, Mitchell Zuckoff, about his experience writing this book, working closely with the security team, and what he wants everyone to know about that night in September 2012.

“First, thank you for taking the time to speak with Heroic Hollywood today, and thank you for your work. How did you got involved with writing this book?”

“Thank you. Well it was really a stroke of great fortune for me, the guys had really stuck together after the events of Benghazi, they watched the events of the story get politicized and twisted and they decided they wanted to tell their story and through different contacts, I got a call. It’s one of those things where when it falls into your lap, fortunately I was smart enough, I couldn’t say no to this. So we went from there and got to work.”

“In writing a book of this kind, historical events and the political controversy that followed, we all know, at least to some degree what happened.  What did you learn that you didn’t know going into it?”

“So much. You know one of the things was certainly the amount of individual heroism. We saw it, as you suggested, as a political story, and tragedy and it was certainly both of those things. But the untold story is the fact that there were these heroes, on their own, going against orders, who were not tasked with protecting the diplomatic compound, and they saved all these lives. No one had really understood that that was part of the story. Really it’s just all the little things that ultimately fall under that umbrella. You know, the individual heroism, the acts of bravery and self sacrifice that characterize that day, that to me became the real story.”

“In writing this book, to get the story right, I know you worked with Kris ‘Tanto’ Paronto, Mark ‘Oz’ Geist and John ‘Tig’ Tiegen, along with the two who wanted to remain anonymous [five members of the six-man team of CIA security contractors].  Who else did you work with specifically?”

“They were the primary sources. But, yes, I spoke to a lot of people – some with first hand knowledge, some with close to first hand knowledge – to try to be as good a reporter as I could be, to triangulate the information, to make sure that while I believe the five main guys completely, you know there are things that sometimes you don’t see or you were in one place. So as much as possible, I tried to broaden it out, but they are the heart and soul of this book and of the movie.”

“As I mentioned before, this story carries with it a lot of controversy, that the book and movie don’t directly address by design.  How important was it for you to steer clear of the controversy surrounding the events?”

“it wasn’t like I was looking to steer clear of it, as much as, you know, that’s not the contribution we can make here. You know, to tell this story, it’s not just a story. These guys didn’t have any first hand knowledge of what was happening in Washington, or even in Tripoli [Lybia] at the time, so you have to make choices when you tell a story like this. You know, somebody else might write a ‘Washington book’ about Benghazi and about the controversy and what was happening. But we felt we could make a very specific contribution, that we hoped, to history, but certainly to current events on what we could absolutely prove. You know if people want to take issue with the movie or the book that is absolutely their right, but we know we can defend every word in both. So it was less a matter of steering away from the controversy and more toward toward steering toward what we could prove.”

“There are those that will criticize you, even before reading the book or seeing the movie because it is such a hot button issue.  Have you taken a lot of heat for writing this book and working on this movie, and how do you manage that?”

“Sure. Yes. Well you know on the front end its funny, one thing that Michael Bay, the director, and I bonded over was we realized early on, maybe our first phone call, that both of our mothers told us to avoid this story, like ‘why do you need this.’ But we both had the same reaction that we can’t [avoid working on it]. It’s one of those stories where you have to accept that there will be heat, and you have to then still say, ‘look, I have a responsibility here.’ If I have an opportunity to do this, you know I can take the heat. I don’t want to speak for Michael [Bay], but you reach a point in your career or your life, where if you are doing what you think is the right thing, and you are doing it in a way with integrity, the heat and criticism doesn’t penetrate, it bounces off.

But the larger answer to this question is the guys I got to meet the guys that were there, they took a lot more than criticism that night. They were facing live fire, they were taking RPGs, they were facing mortar rounds. Shame on me if I can’t take a little heat. You get to know these guys, and they are guys with such integrity. You know it’s not complicated for them. They knew what was at stake that night, and there is this point in the movie … where Badge [James Badge Dale, portraying Tyrone “Rone” Woods] says, ‘so long to contracting,’ and Krasinski [John Krasinski, portraying Jack Silva] says, ‘well you can’t put a price on being able to live with yourself.’ You know, when you get exposed to guys like that, it has an affect on how you behave.”

“What was the hardest part of writing this book for you?”

“Well I think it’s two things. One was the intense pressure in my mind to get it right. If I made an error of omission, or an error of commission, then it would have reflected on the guys and their story … we had an intense deadline to make publication in time for the second anniversary of the attack, so if you let down a little bit. But sometimes if you lose focus for a minute you can make a mistake and over look it, so it was a pressure that these guys would be criticized if I got something wrong. So that was the hardest thing. The rest was just meeting the deadline.”

“If there is one thing you want people to take away from the book or the movie, what is it?”

“One thing? Can I go for two? Two is to not lose sight of the four men that died that night. It was my commitment to the guys I worked with, that we pay tribute to the four men who sacrificed their lives in the interest of their country and countrymen that night. And the second is the heroism of these guys, the self sacrifice. They put their lives on the line for 13 hours. The average firefight lasts 15 minutes, and they never let down for those 13 hours, and that kind of heroism deserves a tribute.”

“What I took from the book, and then again from the movie, was that I was angry.  As I was walking out of a screening the other day, I overheard someone say, ‘that made me really angry,’ and I replied without thinking, I had no idea who this person was, I replied, ‘if you aren’t angry, you weren’t paying attention.'”

“Great, great line. That’s correct, absolutely. I share that. I’m hoping people have other emotions as well, but you put it perfectly. if you are not angry, you were not paying attention. But I also want people to be sad, and uplifted, and inspired. But I don’t know how you can read the book, or know what these guys did, and not feel angry. But let’s not lose sight also, let’s be angry at the people who attacked the special mission compound and the annex that night. Before we get angry at each other, as Americans, let’s be angry at the people who set out to kill the men and women who were there that night. But there is plenty to go around.”

You can check out 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, in theaters now.

Heroic Staff

Heroic Staff

Heroic Special Activities Division Agent Trainee Program