Dr. Sean McFate may very well be a top contender for Most Interesting Man In The World. Currently, he’s a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and an adjunct professor of national security policy at Georgetown University. But before settling into the world of academia, McFate was a military contractor with DynCorp International. And before that, he spent eight years as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division. He’s raised armies in Africa, run guns from Eastern Europe, and jumped out of a perfectly good airplane more times than any man should. As a scholar, he hasn’t strayed from his military roots. He’s only expanded his purview. His area of expertise: grand strategy and war.
Last year, McFate wrote “The Modern Mercenary,” a nonfiction book that examines the growing impact of private armies on world order. Now, he’s tackling the same elusive subject matter in his debut novel, “Shadow War,” co-written with best-selling author Bret Witter (“The Monuments Men”). The book, which is the first in a series, follows an elite private soldier named Tom Locke — a character shaped by McFate’s own experiences in the field — from the smoke-filled backrooms of Washington, D.C., to the battlefields of eastern Ukraine, and everywhere in between. It’s a fictional story set in a very real world. And it’s a world McFate knows better than most.
“Sometimes fiction can reveal truths better than reality,” McFate told Task & Purpose. “The things that I wanted to put in my nonfiction book, but couldn’t for different reasons, are in the fiction book.”
With “Shadow War” due to be released on May 10, Task & Purpose spoke to McFate about the expanding role of private armies in modern conflicts, what it means to be a professional warrior in the 21st century, and why Tom Clancy misses the mark.
Where did the research for this novel take you?
The novel was obviously based on a lot of things I had done and seen, and it was also based a lot on the research I had already done in this field as a professional scholar. There are things that I couldn’t say in professional scholarship, and the novel was a mechanism to do that. One of the things the research brought me to was this idea that’s really kind of dangerous. The question of, do deep states exist? It’s a very controversial idea. This is sort of the power behind the throne. It’s a network of elites who sort of rule states, industries, and so forth. Their industries are aligned. It’s not a conspiracy theory, because they’re not taking something down. They are actually the establishment. You could look at a lot of world politics, and it will make a lot more sense if you think about the world in terms of deep states. The question is, where do deep states end and conspiracy theories begin? So the novel, “Shadow War,” really plays with this idea a lot, and pokes at it — that deep states exist, and they may explain some things that are unexplainable, like why the U.S. got involved in the Middle East, or something like that. So that’s kind of an area that I’m playing with in these novels, which I think will resonate with a lot of readers out there.
To what extent is the main character, Tom Locke, based on you?
This book started as a memoire and ended up as fiction — as a novel. My agent recommended I do this for three reasons. He said, look, first, you don’t want DynCorp to sue you. Second, you don’t want the U.S. government to come after you for violating secrets. And, three, you can have a little bit more fun with the story. So it’s not a history. It’s a narrative. The main character is based on me had I stayed in the industry several years ago. Locke is a much more damaged person in so many ways. His flaws are what make him interesting. The book starts off in northern Africa, but most of it is set in the Ukraine, where I was not active. The character itself is based on me, but a much more damaged version. And a kickass version.
Aside from the obvious fact that you were a contractor yourself, why is Locke a contractor? Why isn’t he, say, a CIA agent or Delta Force operator?
Most novels in this genre do focus on the CIA guy or the Navy SEAL. But we’re moving away from that world, where states are the only actors on the stage. Corporations now have military firepower. So Locke represents a new type of figure on the stage. It also kind of peels back the nuance of international politics. It’s not the Cold War where it’s the CIA versus the KGB. If you go to the Ukraine or the Middle East, you find all of the strange creatures crawling around the battlefield, who are like Special Forces-type guys, but they’re not in a military you’ve ever heard of. That’s the world we live in. It’s not the world of Tom Clancy. So this is what this novel and series is — this is the universe we’ve created portrays: It’s that complexity of the modern battlespace and the intrigue of global politics.
In northern Iraq right now, especially around Erbil, you have tons of unofficial actors — civilian volunteers, mercenaries, nonprofit organizations — operating in the same battle space as official actors like the Navy SEALS. I don’t think 10 years ago we would’ve seen something like that.
That’s absolutely true. Erbil is an amazing community of all sorts of people. Mercenaries are emerging everywhere. Just in the past year, Nigeria hired them to take on Boko Haram, and they did. We’ve seen mercenaries on both sides of the Ukraine war. We’re seeing contractors and mercenaries in Syria. We’re seeing mercenaries from Colombia in Yemen. Ten years ago there was no big trade for mercenaries or military contractors. Now the industry is booming, and it’s going to continue to do so, and we’re going to see more of them. And not everybody who does this is evil. We think of military contractors as being criminals, at least some people do, and that’s not the case. And Locke is an example of that.
On that note, military contractors aren’t typically portrayed in a heroic light. They usually get a bad rap in the media. I imagine the Tom Locke series is part of an effort to change that…
It is. I’m very proud of some of the work I did with my colleagues as a private-sector soldier. We helped stop a genocide. It’s easy to look at Blackwater and some of the other characters out there, who, deservedly so, earned a bad reputation. One of the questions people ask me is, why did you even do it? And I think one of the reasons people join these firms is because you have a lot more freedom of choice. So if you’re a Marine or a Navy SEAL, you’re set to go back to Iraq on your fifth tour, and meanwhile your family hates you, they don’t know who you are, your wife is divorcing you — all of these things could be happening, but you still have to go. Or you don’t support the war. If you’re a contractor, you have the option of sitting it out. You can say, “I just don’t want to do it this round. I want to take care of business at home, or I don’t believe in the cause.” So there’s a lot of nuance that is lost in the current discussion about military contractors that I want to explore in these books.
Once these contractors are on the battlefield, do they have more freedom and flexibility to carry out missions the way that they see fit?
They have more freedom and flexibility in general, and there’s good and there’s bad about that. The good is that they can be very creative in what they do, and they’re not constrained by a certain dogma or approach. One of the bad is that they can just leave. They can just desert. Another bad is that sometimes clients want to hire mercenaries or military contractors to have a heavy hand and do things that might be a human rights violation, and they don’t want their own military getting caught doing it. And we see this sometimes with the French Foreign Legion. The French Foreign Legion is not a mercenary outfit, actually, it’s part of the French army. But the French Foreign Legion is sometimes sent to do things in Africa that are very heavy handed, stuff that the French army may not want to get caught doing. So, contractors can create a moral alibi, if you will, do to some heavy-handed work.
You write that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were a “once-every-three-centuries” opportunity for the mercenary industry. What do you mean by that?
So, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan revitalized and resurrected the mercenary industry. Mercenaries are the second oldest profession in the world, many would quip. And their utilization has ebbed and flowed over the centuries. For example, in the Middle Ages, mercenaries were the ones who fought wars. Nobody wanted to pay for a standing army. It was cheaper to rent mercenaries, like it’s cheaper to rent a car than own a car. But in the 19th and 20th centuries, they were kind of pushed into the background by national armies. Now, that’s coming back full circle. So, Iraq and Afghanistan, when the United States started to rely on private military companies, it unleashed this new globalized industry of mercenaries. That’s why we’ve seen a resurgence of them. Just in the last year alone, we’ve seen them in a couple different places. And this will continue. It’s hard to regulate mercenary activity, because they can shoot the police, right? I think we’re going to see this grow.
Would you say that Western contractors are currently in an actual “shadow war”?
Absolutely. First of all, this industry, the private military world, is truly internationalized. It’s no longer a U.S. phenomenon. If you go to Erbil, you will see private military contractors from all over the world there. We don’t know who they are, or where they’re coming from, or who they’re working for. It’s the same case in Nigeria. So I think we’re seeing these shadow wars in which this industry is being heavily utilized, and these contractors come from all over the world, including Western Europe and North America.
Was this book written with a military audience in mind?
Yes, the book was written primarily for a military audience, and it really kind of looks at what it means to be a warrior in the 21st century. Locke, the main character, is a very flawed person. He’s not like Jack Ryan of the Clancy world. He’s not a perfect guy at all. He’s very damaged. But he’s very good at what he does, which is lead a small mercenary team. And he also engages in international politics when he’s asked to do that. There are a couple of things that come there. One of them is, what does it mean to be a for-profit warrior? The book just plays with that. It doesn’t suggest that it’s evil or good. It looks at the gray area nuances of that. I think a lot of soldiers, they may think about this, like what would it be like to have the freedom to choose your causes, to have the freedom to choose the equipment and kit you take into battle, and also the freedom to work with people from other countries. What would it be like to work next to Special Forces folks from Thailand, Israel, North Africa, Honduras? What would it be like to not serve a country? Soldiers are out there wondering what they’re fighting for, what they’re risking their lives for — sometimes you go to the Pentagon and you don’t even know there’s a war going on. These are things to think about. The book does not have answers. It just presents the scenarios. It’s really looking at the changing nature of war and the changing nature of warriors.What is the calling of the profession of arms these days? It is exclusive to states? Can you not do good things working in other capacities? I think this is something a lot of people are thinking about.