Book Review: How Two Rangers Lead Their Own Ways

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Two new memoirs by former Army officers – a lieutenant colonel and a captain – offer guts and gumption in two different ways and styles. Each title, published in August, presents lessons about learning how to lead, whether at a combative Capitol hearing or in combat in Korengal.   

  • Alexander S. Vindman’s book, on The New York Times top-10 nonfiction bestseller list for two consecutive weeks, straightforwardly addresses his allegiance to the values he develops during childhood and during Army training including Ranger School. 
  • Ray McPadden’s book is more subtle in describing the qualities and demands of leading other soldiers. But the published novelist, also a former Ranger, bluntly and often poetically affirms his reliance on tactical and strategic skills.

Here is how each writer portrays – and personifies – leadership aspirations:


Here, Right Matters: An American Story

Vindman’s story provides context to his speaking up after hearing then-Commander in Chief Trump’s “demanding an investigation on a call with a foreign head of state.” The dignitary happens to be the newly elected president of Ukraine, where Vindman was born. The lieutenant colonel was not eavesdropping on the presidents. His job at National Security Council (NSC) mandated his listening in, and Trump’s request – regarding his political rival, now Commander in Chief Biden – “was crossing the brightest of bright lines” of Vindman’s own ethical code.

He believes he has “no choice but to report what I’d heard.” His duty is “a critical component of U.S. Army values.” In short, “I had an obligation to report misconduct” emanating from the 45th president’s “short-term, nickel-and-dime electoral and political sleaze.” He speaks up, and his life changes. The 44-year-old officer goes from being at the NSC to being the topic of news reports. Becoming prominent was not part of his career path, which includes a master’s from Harvard. “Being a public figure didn’t sit comfortably with me,” he says. However, he appears to be adjusting to his new role.

“I wasn’t born with any special degree of courage or some especially firm moral compass. Nobody is. We become the people we are by learning.”

Vindman himself learned about his weaknesses and his strengths – as an immigrant to the United States and as a soldier in Korea and Iraq and elsewhere. “Instinct feeds skill development,” he says, and “that’s a satisfying ability to discover in yourself.” He encourages readers to contemplate what they would do in Vindman’s predicament, which concerns protocol, propriety and the presidency.

Doing what’s right matters to him. His mental and physical might matters also – but he knows that “the key to victory is rarely brute force. The key is agility, creativity and seeing the big picture.”

In Korea he risks failure by proposing an out-of-the-pattern platoon maneuver, and his soldiers’ success vindicates his idea. “If you take the risk of saying what’s on your mind, try new ideas and back up those ideas with performance, your superior officers will listen. They’ll even encourage you.” In Iraq he sees how “you can’t let your judgment succumb to adrenaline, anger or the other emotions inherent in a counterinsurgency environment,” no matter how trying. “Discipline and professionalism demand doing everything to serve the mission – everything.

“You can’t make it personal” even when pain prevails. One a December day in Mosul, 22 of his comrades are killed, and his memory of the loss builds more personal fortitude. When “it was time for me to take a stand about President Trump’s wrongdoing, I felt a responsibility to those people we’d lost” in 2004 in Iraq.

“What I had to learn about right and wrong, I learned from my fellow soldiers.” 

He offers other points of advice in an epilogue:

  • ‘Start over – and keeping starting over’: Resilience is “part and parcel of our history as Americans.”
  • ‘Commit to your passions’: “For me, personal passion was born in the discovery of passion, which begins in excitement” and “develops in response to intense demands.”
  • ‘Navigation is everything’: Changing your course can save “time, energy and pain.”
  • ‘There are people here’:  Rely on them. “I had to learn my moral compass, and that’s done only in relation to other people.”
  • ‘Know your role’: “I learned to be confident in my role from superiors who encouraged me to take chances.”   
  • ‘Don’t self-deter’: “Overcoming your self-discouragement can be a struggle” but don’t let the bad guys scare you off.


We March at Midnight: A War Memoir

The memoir, the author’s second book, works largely because his word choices are well done – even if they sometimes seem raw – and the vocabulary adds up to form a trenchant look at a combat leader’s inner conflicts. The writer’s success in nonfiction is not surprising.

In 2019, this reviewer noted that McPadden’s fine novel, “And the Whole Mountain Burned,” is “an achievement that can be read as metaphor or mystery,” as literary symbolism or as suspense. The review urges you to “go for both.” Go for both in this book, too. Go for the action and for the introspection. And go for McPadden’s tenacious yet tender portrayal of what motivates him. He is self-doubting, self-deprecating, and occasionally self-aggrandizing. He is a warrior with warts, and his visceral voice elicits your intrigue.

“My whole identify is wrapped up in this job,” he says, describing his mindset in 2005 at Fort Drum. “What I am saying is there are people in this world who burn to do something noble, who must prove everything to everyone. That’s me.”

When he arrives in the Pech River Valley, he has opportunities to do and prove both in his 43-man platoon, and in he is ecstatic with the prospect of infantry independence. “No one is telling me anything. I have total responsibility for planning and executing missions. I love every minute. I’m thinking, “War is freedom.” 

Then two of his soldiers die. Freedom is not free, and “war, I learn, has no regard for the ambitions of soldiers.” He admits that “no amount of training or intellectual preparation can prepare new commanders for their first overwhelming contact with the enemy.”

However, “surviving the first big fight greatly improves one’s opportunity for reproduction and to flourish as a leader,” even after an injury makes him one of the “wounded men in a wounded land.” Still he is stoic, and when his medic insists McPadden get into a medevac bird, he resists – predictably belligerently. He prefers to stay with the action because “remaining on the battlefield is a symbolic gesture,” and “good leaders understand symbolism.” The point is underscored later by a lieutenant colonel who tells McPadden that a first battle “means everything” to young soldiers. Winning can make “your Boys {always with a capital B} feel like gods,” but losing scares them. What they become has everything to do with you.


 Hooah, sir.

 Also while deployed, McPadden learns he must adapt his intellectual agility. “Anything can happen at any moment,” he says. “A combat leader who overthinks the gravity of situation will burn out,” especially when the task of “thinking for 43 men is exhausting.” For example, a specialist is “playing dumb” by refusing to shoot at 10 Afghan men in Korengal Valley, insisting he does not see them. A frustrated McPadden grabs the M240B to “squeeze off a burst” – and then realizes he “may have just machine-gunned someone to death and it feels splendid” – while he wonders whether “I will look back on this as the day I lost my humanity?”

In hindsight, he decides the reluctant soldier does not understand the world is not black and white. “Decision-making in war is about gray.” On a later mission, McPadden goes gray in order to save his Boys  CQ  from “getting broke or killed. ” When he reports the action to higher-ups, he obscures facts. “Not a crowning moment for me,” he says, but “sometimes sanity and survival collide in this war of remote control.”

Still he persists, and he returns to Afghanistan in 2009 as “a ground force commander in the Rangers, a role I mythologized in my youth. Once, I had promised myself that if I could be this person, even for a moment, I would always be satisfied . . .“Right now, though, it is not satisfying in the last. It is responsibility and pressure. If I coast, Rangers will die.”

As a reader predicts, he coasts not, survives the deployment, and produces this vivid record of his experiences in Afghanistan.

“Now I am a husband and father,” but “I will always be an infantry officer.” That is obvious.

Huffman has reviewed 400+ books published during the Iraq and Afghanistan war era, and he received the Military Reporters and Editors’ 2018 award for commentary. He serves on the board of Student Veterans of America and co-edited “The End of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (2012, Marine Corps University Press). He has led discussions at Defense Information School and Marine Corps War College and has advised newsrooms from Defense News to Dubai to Delhi and back.