"It’s hard because those same qualities that make you really good at your job—chasing Al Qaeda or ISIS and basically taking them off the face of the earth—those same qualities can lead down some dark roads." -- Ray McPadden
The following highlights are from a conversation with Ray McPadden about his war novel, "And the Whole Mountain Burned." Click the link above to hear our full conversation or subscribe to our podcast.
Sarah Aronson: For a soldier, why does the first fight need to be a win?
Ray McPadden: The first fight really sets the tone, it sets a precedence emotionally and psychologically inside your head for what fire fights are going to feel like from then on. If the first one is a win, you have a positive emotional experience, it’s a rewarding experience and it makes you want to be aggressive and fight hard. If it’s a negative experience it makes you scared the rest of your career.
One of the messages that Private Danny Shane receives early on from Sergeant Vasquez is this: “If you want to dance with the cobra, you have to have hate in your heart.” And that becomes a ringing theme throughout. What does it mean to have hate in your heart as an American service member?
That’s something that a lot of people in the infantry can identify with. Infantry means foot soldiers: you have a rifle and your job is to close with and destroy the enemy—assault uphill into machine gun fire. I think there has to be something aggressive and violent in you to do it, and to do it well, so it’s about having a streak of violence inside of you that it takes to do what you need to do.
I’m curious about the points in the book where having that single-minded job turns into something more grotesque or cruel—where Sergeant Burch is acting in a comedic way with a dead Afghan. How did you perceive that then? How did you write those scenes? And what are you trying to comment on?
It’s hard because those same qualities that make you really good at your job—chasing Al Qaeda or ISIS and basically taking them off the face of the earth—those same qualities can lead down some dark roads. It’s hard to know when to turn it off or when to pull back. There’s no red line, there’s no clear point of delineation— “we’ve gone too far”—so it’s easy to just have that mentality creep over into other parts of your life. . .
You don’t make any overt suggestions in the novel about what would be helpful in terms of how we support our troops when they come home, but do you have any thoughts about policy reform for veterans?
I think the VA is pretty broken; a lot could be done there. I think we’ve talked about fixing the VA for a long time but not a lot has been done. I also don’t want to get on the bandwagon of just crapping on the VA. I think the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have created a huge influx of demand on that system and what it did was it highlighted an outdated system and its weakness. I also don’t think there’s been a lot of additional funding for the VA, so we still have this post-911 VA system but now we’ve had 17 or 18 years of war but we haven’t really, as a country, reinvested in the VA.
In terms of other support for veterans, I’m not sure what can be done. It’s hard getting out of the military. It’s very difficult, especially for the combat arms people. I remember when I got out, I was like, “I’m a war hero. There gonna be lining the streets to give me jobs. . .”
My purple heart.
Yeah, yeah. “I have a purple heart, man. Pay me a lot. What’s my signing bonus?” And people were freaked out. “Oh that’s cool, thanks for your service but you’re a psychopath. I don’t want you shooting up the office.” There is that tension between society being thankful for the people who are willing to go do violent things in the night on behalf of the country, but then to actually reintegrate those people into the normal civilian workforce, nobody one wants to take the risk.
I had an undergraduate degree when I got out. I was an Officer and I really struggled. It wasn’t until I got a Master’s degree that the doors opened that I wanted to open. So especially for the young infantry guys, who didn’t go to college, they get out and they have no transferable skills. Those are the guys that really struggle and I’m not sure what the solution is but I think a lot of them end up on the sidewalk and that’s unfortunate that America’s warrior class can’t find a place in normal society. By virtue of being in a combat role, it seals your fate. . .
About the Book:
Sergeant Nick Burch has returned to the crags of tribal Afghanistan seeking vengeance. Burch's platoon has one goal: to capture or kill an elusive insurgent, known as the Egyptian, a leader who is as much myth as he is man, highly revered and guarded by ferocious guerrillas. The soldiers of Burch's platoon look to him for leadership, but as the Egyptian slips farther out of reach, so too does Burch's battle-worn grasp on reality.
Private Danny Shane, the youngest soldier in the platoon, is learning how to survive. For Shane, hunting the Egyptian is secondary. First he must adapt to the savage conditions of the battlefield: crippling heat, ravenous sand fleas, winds thick with moondust, and a vast mountain range that holds many secrets. Shane is soon chiseled by combat, shackled by loyalty, and unflinchingly marching toward a battle from which there is no return. A new enemy has emerged, one who has studied the American soldiers and adapted to their tactics. Known as Habibullah, a teenage son of the people, he stands in brazen defiance of the Ameriki who have come to destroy what his ancestors have built. The American soldiers may be tracking the Egyptian, but Habibullah is tracking them, and he knows these lands far better than they do.
With guns on full-auto, Shane and Burch trek into the deepest solitudes of the Himalayas. Under soaring peaks, dark instinct is laid bare. To survive, Shane and Burch must defeat not just Habibullah's militia but the beast inside themselves.
About the Author:
Ray McPadden is a four-tour combat veteran and a former Ground Force Commander in an elite unit of Army Rangers. He earned a Purple Heart, two Bronze Stars, and a medal for valor during his combat tours, which included almost two years on the Afghan-Pakistan border during the height of the conflict. He now lives in Montana with his family.