As a young 10th Mountain Division officer in 2006, Ray McPadden was among the first Americans to push into Afghanistan’s formidable Korengal Valley. After four years of Army ROTC, McPadden was finally going to do what he had signed up for: kill bad guys.
McPadden later went on to serve in the elite 75th Ranger Regiment, where he earned two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart. In his new memoir, We March at Midnight, McPadden describes his experience fighting in four combat deployments spread across two wars, and the difficulties of leading both conventional forces and special operators. Coffee or Die Magazine sat down with the award-winning author to discuss his newest book and the end of America’s longest war.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
COD: We March at Midnight is your second book but your first piece of nonfiction. What inspired you to break away from fiction, and what sets We March at Midnight apart from other Global War on Terror memoirs?
RM: I started writing with a novel, And the Whole Mountain Burned, and it ended up winning an award from the National Library Association. I wanted to keep writing, and I thought nonfiction would be a really interesting venture. Once I started writing, all these stories just kept coming out of me. It was this very instinctive and organic thing where I had these stories, and I needed to get them out for the world.
I had some unique experiences that make this book different. We were the first to go into the Korengal Valley. Right after Red Wings, the military said, “Hey, we need to go in here and kick some ass and own this terrain.” 10th Mountain was actually the first to go in and try to establish a permanent outpost. My second deployment was to Iraq, where I was part of the first joint strike force of Army Rangers and Navy SEALs. That was not a real pretty marriage. We were highly successful in accomplishing the mission, but you had these two elite units essentially put in the same room who were told to play nicely with each other. There were huge cultural differences: everything from tactics to language to core doctrine. It was messy, man.
The book doesn’t paint me as a hero; I talk about all my mistakes and fuckups that got people killed. And one of the things I was brutally honest about was midtour leave. Those few weeks off in the middle of a 12 to 16-month tour was the biggest mindfuck ever conceived. I was a Ranger officer, yet I seriously contemplated how to avoid having to go back. I even fantasized about crashing my car so I didn’t have to go but could still preserve some face. I obviously did not do that, but I seriously considered it. And that’s from someone who has been through some of the best training the Army has. I was an officer and a Ranger, so you have to think about how that midtour leave impacts 18-year-old kids who basically went right from basic to getting thrown into an infantry unit.
COD: You are one of the few service members who fought as a member of a conventional unit and a special operations unit. What lessons did you learn from those unique perspectives?
RM: Leadership is a big theme in the book. There’s kind of this mystique around special operations, but being a leader in a line unit is way harder than special operations. Way fucking harder. It’s largely about the people you’re leading. In a Ranger company, everybody is super motivated, super competent, and there’s a lot of high performers. In conventional units, you’re constantly lifting people up. In the course of a 16-month deployment, you don’t really get replacements, so you have to lift people up who are quitting on you. The book really dives into navigating those two worlds successfully and exploring what it takes to win in those separate environments.
COD: You also served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Did those two theaters of the GWOT feel like parts of the same war?
RM: Iraq and Afghanistan were also markedly different. I think the enemy was far more competent and lethal in Afghanistan. Afghanistan was a shooting war. I mean big-ass firefights where we were throwing down. We were also on foot in the mountains. It was almost romantic, like it’s what war was supposed to be for a light infantry guy. When we were in Iraq, we were driving around. We did some helo ops, but we drove around a lot. And we got blown up a lot. Afghanistan was harder, both when I was with 10th Mountain and 2nd Ranger Battalion. There were lots of longer missions where you were living out of your ruck and not getting to shower. In Iraq, we’d go do a raid, then come back, so you always started fresh. Whereas, in Afghanistan, by the time you got to the target, you were smoked, man. Fighting in Afghanistan was this incredible exercise in endurance before you even got to a point of pulling a trigger.
COD: Do you see the recent end of operations in Afghanistan impacting the way We March at Midnight will be received? Was the war’s end different from your predictions in the book?
RM: Anyone who makes predictions about Afghanistan is setting themselves up for failure, but I think we will see other ethnic groups reestablish control of their own areas and put up with the Pashtun Taliban control so long as they get left alone. I think we always knew on the ground things were not going well. Working with Afghan army and Afghan police units, you kind of always felt that the whole concept was flawed. I wasn’t surprised how it ended — just how fast it all collapsed. A lot of those realizations about the flawed mission are in the book, and I tried to humanize those things. On my second deployment to Afghanistan, I was leading a raid on a guy’s house who had been a friend of mine on my first tour. He was an Afghan police officer who fought alongside us. He even let us shelter in his house during snowstorms. Then, I go back a few years later, and now that guy is the enemy. That’s when I had to ask myself, “What are we accomplishing? Are we turning people bad just by being here?”
COD: This book is for active military members, veterans, and civilians. What specific lessons did you intend to convey to your readers with We March at Midnight?
RM: I really wanted to put the reader in the moment and have a visceral experience. It’s basically a modern adventure story where readers get to go to these extremely dangerous places and understand what it’s like to fight and survive. I tried to let the reader jump into the foxhole next to me.
The other big thing this book showcases is the endurance and honor of the American spirit embodied in the infantry. I have so much admiration for the guys who not only volunteered but also kept going back and back and back. There’s real heroism to going back. To me, it’s kind of easy to go to war the first time. It’s a lot harder to go back a second, third, or 10th time. I liken it to new troops who, before they’ve had a real taste of serious combat and casualties, think deploying is kind of fun. But you are a lot braver in your hundredth firefight to keep stepping up and exposing yourself once you really understand the stakes. In terms of stories about heroism, they’re usually about a singular act. It’s rarely about the people who sign up for the slog and carry on with incredible dignity and honor throughout that slog. To me, the embodiment of heroism are those senior NCOs who signed up after 9/11 and did an entire 20-year career during the GWOT.