Confessions of a Mercenary

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"I never was one of those kids who dreamed of being a soldier,” says Sean McFate, a decorated soldier, mercenary, and now author of Shadow War, a novel based on his own experiences abroad. He enlisted to the U.S. Army after graduating with a double major from Brown University, with the intention of putting in the basic commitment of four years and getting back to civilian life. But while other recruits broke under the stress of basic training, McFate found that despite being a pacifist during his younger years, he acclimated easily to the military. “I found out that I was actually pretty good at it,” he says. Stationed out of Fort Bragg, he became a Jumpmaster  — racking up more the 70 jumps as a paratrooper — and served under a few of the world’s foremost military minds, General David Petraeus and General Stanley A. McChrystal.

After receiving an honorable discharge, McFate became a policy advisor on armed conflict for Amnesty International USA, and later accepted a job for DynCorp International, a private company providing international security services on behalf of the U.S. Department of Defense. There were the jobs too dirty for American troops: overseeing arms transfers, raising small armies, and working in incendiary situations alongside African warlords. “Some of the things I saw have been pretty hard to shake,” McFate says. 

Deciding that the risks were becoming too great, he retired back to the States, earned a doctorate in international relations, and is now serving in a number of think tanks on the subject. He has also published a non-fiction memoir, The Modern Mercenary, and now Shadow War, a fictional novel inspired by his own incredible experiences.

What drove you to write a work of fiction rather than a memoir?

This book started as a memoir, but ended up as a fiction. It was about a private military operation that I was involved with in Africa that was meant to prevent the Burundi assassination and a genocide that could arise out of that. I ultimately decided to fictionalize it because I didn’t want the U.S. government to come after me. Even more critical, I didn’t want to have my former private military employers, or any warlords, to take too much notice. Because Shadow War is a fiction, I was able to have a little protection, but also able to have some fun. I think I was able to give a more in-depth analysis on what is going on in our international relations than I would if it was just a straightforward memoir about my life.

What pieces of your own experiences did you use to influence the book?

I kept journals while I was in the field. I had my day planners, that were kept more in a tactical capacity, but I also had my personal notes. I was pulling from some memories. A lot of the events that happen in the book are real, or based off of real people I met, but then combined with some fiction.

Tell me a bit about working for General McChrystal, who you served under.

Stanley A. McChrystal was and remains the most amazing military leader I’ve ever seen. He just makes you want to follow him. It may sound like a cliché, until you’re in the presence of a leader like that, because he’s an extremely sharp warrior. He never raised his voice. He never yelled at anyone, but he found a way to make you perform for him. There was no ego there. It was all about the team. He could look at a person and know who they were and what they might be thinking.

In what way was General Petraeus different?

General Petraeus is a completely different kind of person. He was also smart, but a little more politically minded. He was more like an Eisenhower-styled fighter.

In what way was serving in the military and as a mercenary different or alike?

They are completely different experiences. When you’re in a country’s army, you are there to serve that country, but if you’re in the private military world, it is transactional. You are doing it for the money. There are corporations and governments both involved with the paying of private military services. That changes things. It’s a strange world. It’s not like World War II anymore, where you have one state going up against another state. In some cases, it might just be one super-rich financier who hires his own army for his own purposes. Right now there are mercenaries fighting in Yemen, Nigeria, and the Ukraine. They are all over the world. Putin is using them as well. What we need to think about is what happens when anybody who can afford war is allowed to wage it. That’s a scary thought. We’re walking into a future where Fortune 500 companies could possibly have their own armies.

How was your experience coming back than maybe a more traditional soldier?

I’m technically a vet, and I will say it is hard to integrate. Despite everything that the country says about honoring and cherishing its soldiers, there is a neglect that occurs. That happens more so for private military, because if you’re wounded, you have no support system at all. They’ll patch you up on the battlefield and then send you home, but that is it. There is no VA. You’re screwed. And there is nobody you can talk to either, because the attitude toward mercenaries is not a pleasant one. Nobody has any sympathy for you. If you’re coming back from Burundi, nobody is going to want to know what you were even doing there. I think it’s hard for warriors to integrate back into civilian life whether they are private sector or national army. In my case, I can’t even start to talk about it. You don’t want to tell people what you did, and in most cases you’re not able to anyways. That’s even crueler sometimes. I don’t want to make a case for mercenaries. The ethics around mercenaries is a difficult one, because you are being paid to kill people.

Besides your own novels, have you seen any accurate portrayals of the mercenary life?

I will say that Blood Diamond with Leo DiCaprio was particularly accurate. Also, I know that Lord Of War with Nicholas Cage was based on a real arms runner, and I actually did that arms run myself through Eastern Europe in that same An-12 aircraft during my own career.