February 19, 2009

Special Abu Muqawama Interview: Craig Mullaney

We’re joined today by Craig Mullaney, author of the just-released The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier's Education.Craig’s book got an amazing review in Sunday’s Washington Post Book World in case you missed it. I sat down with Craig to ask him about the book, the writing process, and why he refuses to use his political influence to find me a job:

So you just wrote a memoir of going to Ranger School and leading an infantry platoon from the 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan. My first question is, did my bookreally suck that bad that you had to start all over fresh with a new one? Or can we consider your book This Man's Army: The Irish-Catholic Edition?

When you were in Afghanistan in 2002 we were winning. By the time I arrived in 2003 the ground was already shifting under our boots. More than five years later, it's hard to believe there was once serious consideration of drawing down from 10,000 total U.S. troops to a smaller footprint. I thought that the story of Afghanistan after the invasion, as we stumbled into COIN blindfolded and handicapped by insufficient resources, was worth telling.

One of the most interesting things I experienced was seeing how my book was received among the men I led. How have the men you led responded to your book? How have their families responded?

Sharing chapters, and later drafts, with my soldiers was extraordinarily difficult. First, I was concerned about getting the details right. I didn't want to dramatize the facts, I wanted to tell the story as I remembered it with spare enough language that the story would be dramatic on its own. So, like I'd learned as a historian, I spent six weeks collecting every scrap of evidence from our platoon's experience before writing a thing: maps, radio logs, after action reports, letters home, emails, etc. I interviewed the key actors that I could find. Only then did I write. After I shared the first draft, my men helped me correct inaccuracies until I had the best version of the events I could.

My second concern, however, was a tougher challenge. As the only participant writing a book, I knew that my story would serve for many as the only written account of their story. Describing "what it was like" -- not from a descriptive perspective, but from a psychological perspective -- was a heavy burden. The book opened a lot of wounds for me and for my men. I had emails and phone calls describing sleepless nights and afternoon tears. But one by one my men thanked me for my honesty in laying out in the open the fears and anger and guilt we all shared. I had to use the pen to slay some of my dragons and I know I helped many of my men confront their own.

How have their families responded? I can only speak for the family of Private First Class Evan O'Neill, KIA 29 SEP 2003. Giving the book to his parents, Mike and Barbara, was harder than going on patrol on the border. I had no idea how they would react to a book that describes their own son's death on the battlefield. I worried for weeks. Eventually, I heard from Barbara and then from Mike. They told me two things that I'll never forget: "1. It's not your fault. 2. No one's really dead until they're forgotten. Thank you for remembering Evan and keeping his memory alive."

You spend a good deal of the book writing about your experiences in graduate school, at Oxford, the year after you graduated from West Point. In what way do you think your experiences abroad -- studying and also traveling -- prepared you for the environment in which you and your men found yourselves in Afghanistan?

I spent a lot of time while working on the book thinking about that very question. At a very basic level, studying the region's history at Oxford gave me a historical context for understanding the continuities and challenges of the region and the people with whom we interacted. At Oxford I also met my wife Meena who taught me enough pidgin Urdu to make small talk with tribal elders and bark commands to Afghan soldiers under fire. I had not expected to find the common ground in my interactions with local Afghans to be Bollywood pop culture. The larger value of graduate school and travel for me was changing my perspective. Traditionally, lieutenants and NCOs were handed missions / problems and they were expected to solve them within given parameters. "Answer this question. Solve this problem." In today's operating environment, and particularly in a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, the hard part is defining the question and problem in the first place. Studying and traveling abroad continually exposed me to ambiguous, uncertain, and unscripted environments. I couldn't have asked for better preparation for the unfamiliarity of rural Afghanistan.

My friend Laura Rozen is reporting you're about to be named the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Central Asia. I know you cannot confirm or deny this report, but let me ask you two questions: First, you previously served as an adviser on the Obama campaign. Are you excited by the idea of veterans such as yourself returning from the battlefield into policy-making positions? And second, are you going to be in a powerful enough position to find employment for a struggling counterinsurgency blogger in need of health insurance? I mean, how much "wasta" can I expect to have as your friend?

My wife Meena is working at HHS on health policy. She should be able to help you with the health insurance issue. I still can't figure out how to get a dentist appointment off-post.

That is a dodge worthy of a politician. But speaking of your lovely wife Meena -- whose IQ easily eclipses the two of ours put together -- she features prominently in the memoir. Did you guys talk about what she went through on the homefront as you were away in Afghanistan? How did you attempt to tell her story through your own?

During the first draft, I made a conscious effort not to write much about Meena. She's a much more private person than I am and I wanted to respect her privacy. However, I realized after reviewing the draft that a critical part of the story was missing. I couldn't tell the story of my experience as a student, soldier, and veteran without talking about the ways she shaped and supported me through that transition, particularly during my time in Afghanistan. Before I wrote the second draft we had a lot of conversations about her experience of the deployment. I re-read all of our correspondence back and forth by letter, email, and IM. One of the things I hadn't realized was the degree to which her training as a surgeon, and the constant exposure to mortality in the operating room, reflected my own learning process. We were both dealing with situations in which the officer (or surgeon) can never be in control of all the variables. You can do everything right and still lose a soldier or a patient. Finding that connection, and others, was one of the unexpected benefits of producing a book.

Although you're understandably mum about your current job prospects, it's no secret you worked on Afghanistan for the Obama campaign. How has your personal experience in that country informed your policy views? Do you think you're at an advantage for having served over there?

Serving in Afghanistan is, I think, for anyone a humbling experience. You are continually humbled by the geography, the complexity of the society, and the weight of history. Understanding in your bones how long a drive thirty miles is without a road. Feeling in your stomach eyes watching you from canyon rims. Seeing the mixture of sorrow and hope in a child's eyes and the disillusioned stare of an adolescent with no options. That stays with you and gives a texture and reality check that is valuable when sifting through dry memoranda and contemplating strategic options.

Your little brother followed you to West Point and the Army. We have a lot of ROTC and West Point cadets who read this blog. What message do you hope they will take from your memoir?

You have to train to be adaptive. A cadet should understand that the war he or she joins four or five years from now will be a different war altogether. The war in Afghanistan in 2009 is totally different than the war I fought in 2003-2004. A well-rounded education including self-directed outside reading and broad exposure through travel may not give you the specific answers about the culture, terrain, or enemy of tomorrow's battlefields, but it will at least give you the questions to ask so that you can adapt faster and smarter than your adversary.

Seriously, can I have a job?

Have you asked Nagl yet? I hear he's looking for a publicist.

I should ask Nagl… Find out more about Craig's new book here: