Vince Flynn on The Last Man and the War We’re Leaving In Afghanistan
HH: Lucky 13, Mitch Rapp is back and at breakneck speed. And so is Vince Flynn, his creator. And the brand new Mitch Rapp novel, The Last Man, shooting up bestseller lists everywhere. Welcome back, Vince, congrats on a book sure to hit number one. How are you doing?
VF: I’m doing good, Hugh. Thanks for having me on the show.
HH: It’s so great to have you back. This book is wonderful. It’s going to absorb many a Christmas afternoon. It’s what dad really wants, and not a few moms. I blew through it in two days on airplanes. And it’s like a long lost friend coming back. I’m amazed you wrote this during your recovery. How’s that going?
VF: You know, the cancer side’s pretty good. I’ve been battling bronchitis for about a month now. I was talking with Duane before I came on. In New York, last week, it was awful. Lysa and I were, I was trying to get away to someplace warm before I go on tour to make sure I’m feeling good. I went down to Mexico, felt a lot better, got back, flew to New York, and within about 24 hours, everything went right back in the tank.
HH: Oh, dear. Now I am amazed, though, because people have heard you on this program, you’ve battles prostate cancer through the last year, and did all the different cancer regimes. And yet this book is like you never took a day off. It’s really, your craft is getting better and better. This is a very well-plotted and finely written book, Vince, and we’ll talk about it. But I mean, did you find it was much more arduous than the previous ones?
VF: No, you know, I think what happened was I, before…I was diagnosed two years in November with stage 3 metastatic prostate cancer, you know, pretty serious. And for the previous two years, I had been not feeling that great, pain in my hip and stuff like that. I just assumed I was, you know, I was in my early 40s and I thought maybe I was just getting an arthritic hip from all the football and basketball I played. And so my level of focus was maybe not as hot as it was for this last run on The Last Man, because I was able to sit down starting in January and really focus on this book pain-free for the first time in probably at least four years.
HH: Wow, maybe that, so you think being better improved your concentration and your writing?
VF: I do. I think my mind was a little more clear. You and I have talked about this before. This disease has brought me closer to my faith, which I think adds a lot of clarity to a person’s life and their mission. And it has taught me definitely what is most important, you know, my faith, family and friends. And in a way, it has allowed me to simplify my life in a very nice, beautiful way. And I, when I sat down to write this book, there was more clarity, probably, than I’ve had…you know, we can allow the world to creep in, and I’ll give you a good example. They were, somebody was on me a couple of weeks ago. You know, why aren’t you doing Twitter. And I said because I like to be married to my wife. And she’ll divorce me. Years ago, before Facebook was popular, she came in the office at home one night, and Simon and Schuster had put up a website for me. And I was in there for about two hours replying, you know, going back and forth with my fans. And she came in with one of the kids on her hip, and another one crying in the other room, and she said this isn’t going to work. This is done.
VF: So what I’ve learned is what’s most important for me on a business front is to write a really good book. And I can’t get too hung up on worrying about what the critics are saying and all that stuff. And so it’s added, I think, some clarity to my writing.
HH: Well, let me assure the audience when I say this is a really good book, this morning I filed with National Review, K-Lo said would you send me three, four, five books that people should want for Christmas. And so I sat down, Vince, and I said this is the year coming up where we’re going to pretty much draw down in Afghanistan, we’re going to get done there.
HH: And so I want people to know the consequences of that. And I said you’ve got to read Jake Tapper’s The Outpost, Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America, and Joby Warrick’s The Triple Agent. These are three non-fiction books, they’re extraordinary books, and then I said you’ve got to read two novels. One is Steven Pressfield’s The Afghan Campaign, which goes…
VF: Oh, I love that book.
HH: It’s a great book. And then I said you’ve got to read Vince Flynn’s The Last Man, because if you don’t have the time for anything else, at least get the story of these sons of a gun in the ISI and the bandits that we have to deal with.
HH: And why reintegration isn’t going to work. And so, you know, sometimes some people just won’t read even the very best non-fiction. But they’ll sit down and they’ll learn, and The Last Man is in Afghanistan, and it’s about Afghanistan. And I want to compliment you. You communicate well what the stakes are and how doggone complicated it is.
VF: Yeah, you know, it’s funny that you mention Pressfield’s book, because I read that years ago, and I remember feeling great unease that we would ever find a resolution in this war after reading that book.
HH: Well, that comes through in The Last Man. As Abdul Siraj Zahir, am I saying how you would pronounce it in your mind?
HH: He kind of represents a lot of characters that you meet in all these non-fiction books, and that I read about all the time. And he’s a perfect, I’m sure a lot of people are going to come up to you who have served there and say hey, I know this guy. Has that already happened to you, Vince Flynn?
VF: Well, not yet, because the book’s only been out a week. But you know, have not been to Afghanistan, unfortunately. I’ve been in the area. But you know, I talk to a lot of people who get over there, and you read the history, and it’s not hard to understand tribal human nature. And these characters, and part of me in a way is a little sympathetic towards these guys.
VF: Because they have been going at this forever. And so to survive, you know, you’ve got to be willing to jump the fence and change sides almost on a monthly basis.
HH: Yeah, Zahir is not an evil guy. I don’t think of him as evil. He’s a bandit, he’s a con man, he’s a survivor, and he’ll kill you, but he’s a product of living in that region of the world where people have to be con men, bandits and cheaters to wake up the next day.
VF: Yeah, to survive, to survive from one war to the next war. And some of them have been masterful at it. Their ability to survive the Soviets, then survive the Taliban, then…and going back and forth between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, and now survive the Americans. And some of them really feel like they’re kind of stuck in the middle. And I have this sense, Hugh, that we are going to end up, when we pull out next year, with a situation that is infinitely better than it was in 2001. You know, in 2001, the Northern Alliance had been driven back to a very small territory in the north of the country, and they had basically lost everything else. Now I think you’re going to find that the Afghan Nationals are going to hold onto somewhere between 60 and 80% of the country. And the Taliban is going to control that swathe of land in between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and they’re going to continue to cause trouble. You know, for people…one of the reasons I love your show is because we go all over the place.
HH: Yeah (laughing). We do.
VF: And I have to, I’m going to diverge for a second, because you and I talked about this a number of years ago. How many supposedly smart people that we knew who voted for, and I don’t want this to sound overly political, so I’ll get that out in front. With the best interest, they hoped that simply by putting somebody other than Bush and Cheney in the White House, all these problems would go away. And so we elected President Obama, and these problems have not gone away. And then you take this horrible situation a couple of months ago where the Pakistanis go out and shoots a 14 year old girl in the head because she wants to go to school. Now what people need to finally understand is that’s who we’re dealing with.
VF: That is the level of evil that we’re dealing with. They don’t care if we have a Democrat or a Republican in the White House. They don’t care if they’re African-American, white Hispanic, Latino. None of that matters at all. And so I was kind of hopeful for a while there that the attempted murder of that girl was going to wake more people up. But unfortunately, that story seems to have died away.
HH: Oh, it’s gone, and in fact, waking up the left on this stuff, Vince Flynn, as you well know…we’ll come back and talk about a couple of characters in your book, Senator Ferris to be specific. Unfortunately, they’ve got counterparts in Washington, D.C.
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HH: Vince, in the last couple of Mitch Rapp books, you went back to fill in the back story. We’re in the here and now. We’re in the present day. Duane said to me, he’s awfully glad to be back, because he wants Mitch Rapp back in the field against America’s adversaries. Was it easier to come back and write in the present tense as opposed to filling in the back story?
VF: Well, you know, yeah. The short answer is yes. The long answer is it was a lot of fun to go back and learn things about Rapp in his 20s that even I didn’t know. But it put me in a bit of a different environment. There is a formula, and I don’t like to use that word, but there’s a formula that I’ve used to make these books successful. And the formula is the bad guys are obviously the terrorists. And after that, I have secondary villains, which are corrupt politicians, bureaucrats, reporters, lawyers, what have you. And then the good guys are typically the men and women in uniform, CIA, FBI, although there’s a…
HH: Oh, yeah, Joel Wilson, interesting.
VF: And trust me, I will hear, I will hear, my FBI buddies will bust my chops on this dea something fierce. But the truth is, all of these organizations are so big that they have the good and the bad. It’s like, you know, I’ve got a brother who’s a cop, and he’s a very good cop. And I always say listen, you don’t think there’s such a thing as a bad cop? You don’t think there’s such a thing as a bad doctor or a bad lawyer? Of course there are. So the problem is every once in a while, you’ll get a guy in Washington, or a woman, who is more concerned about their career than our national security. And Rapp, that’s the set up, typically. You know, Rapp has to then butt heads with these clowns who don’t understand what it’s like to go put their life in the line and try to save people. And he has very little patience. So coming back to the here and now, it was kind of fun to have Rapp get back to that speaking truth to power.
HH: I love the Joel Wilson character. I’m going to talk about him in a second. But you redeem him, not a good guy, but you redeem him at the end by having him say that there was no worse fan on the planet than a Philadelphia Eagles fan, and I greatly approve of that because of my law partner, Gary Wolensky. So I wanted to give you a thank you for that. But you have him opposed to Samuel Hargrave, who is, it’s new versus old, rising ambition versus experience and patience. I want to think there are a lot of Hargraves around. So you think your Bureau buddies will say hey, Vince, we’ve got a lot of Hargraves, and not so many Wilsons?
VF: Well, I think they all do that to an extent. This Petraeus deal…
HH: I was coming to that.
VF: …was shocking, only to the extent that we don’t expect that out of the military. We don’t expect it out of the CIA, either. We’ve unfortunately grown to expect it out of our politicians. And so yeah, you know, we’ve got, I hate to say it, Hugh, you probably know more of them than I do. There are not a lot of politicians in Washington who I would trust alone in a room with my wife. And I trust my wife implicitly.
HH: Here is an amazing thing about The Last Man, America. There’s an affair in here, this was, had to have been finished four or five months ago, minimum. There’s an affair in here between a senior State Department person and a senior American Army official that is going on in Afghanistan under the pressures of war, and is really simply stunning when you consider the headlines it’s come out against, Vince.
VF: Yeah, and both married, by the way.
HH: They’re both married, yeah. And so I thought wow, we’re doing some pretty good research. You were ahead of the curve here. Tell us about Senator Ferris, because you know, this is, it sounds like ferret for a reason. Any particular Senator in your mind, I don’t know if you can name him or not, when you wrote this character?
VF: No, you know, I try to stay away from that, although there have been some times in the past where let’s just say I’ve come dangerously close to either a Congresswoman or a Senator from California, that it’s so brutally obvious, everybody knows who it is.
HH: You’ve also got a character named Arianna. Any coincidence there?
VF: Well, you know, it’s a very, it’s a big name. Arianna is a very big name, and that is someone who, well, I don’t want to get into this.
HH: (laughing) Look, I knew Arianna five Ariannas ago. I’ve been watching her evolve in real time, so I just got a kick out of this.
VF: I have, too, and I’m going to try to be nice. It’s been strange…
VF: …watching her evolve, along with [Katrina] vanden [Heuvel], or whatever her name is. It’s very strange to watch somebody on television. You and I have similar upbringings, education-wise. And for me, so much of what I learned was based on a liberal arts education and taking logic and philosophy. It is bizarre to watch somebody on television contort all of those things. It’s like you’re watching a bad version of Plato’s Republic. And you’re just saying how can you say this on national TV and actually think that you’re correct?
HH: Yeah, unless it’s just all an act to sell. I think it is. You know, Mamet in his new play, The Anarchist, up in New York. When you go to New York, drop in on that, and you’ll get the left down.
HH: Hey, I want to talk to you about the very serious part. The theme of The Last Man is whether or not ‘reintegration’ can work. This is really whether or not COIN, counterinsurgency, can work in Afghanistan like it did in Iraq, or whether it’s simply this century’s version of A Decent Interval…
HH: …that phrase that went into Vietnamization. That was not what Nixon intended, but a lot of people said he just wanted a decent interval so the American troops could get out, and then it could collapse. I kind of got the sense, Vince, in reading The Last Man that you just don’t think this stuff is going to work, and that we’re crazy to be treating a tribal culture as primitive as this one as though it was a tribal culture as well-educated as Iraq’s was.
VF: Yeah, you pretty much summed it up. I have, and I’ve talked to Langley folks and military personnel person who have been over there, and I’m going to be cautious for a second. I have a lot of admiration for what General Petraeus did. But he kind of became the poster boy of something that we weren’t all very sure, you know, they were going to sell it to us. And because of the way the military operates is you don’t get to hear a lot of the other commanders tell you that they think it’s a bunch of hooey. They don’t go around and interview the Marines on the front lines who are saying these rules of engagement that he’s giving us are impossible. And we’ve but buddies getting killed because we can’t smoke a target out of fear that we might cause too much damage to someone’s hut. So there’s a side to reintegration that, and General Petraeus, I know why he thinks it, I know why he tried to do it, but I do think that Iraq…
HH: Oh, we lost Vince. We’ll get him back and we’ll finish this segment, America. Don’t go anywhere. That’s the perils of phone traffic.
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HH: We’ve got Vince Flynn back. His cordless phone dropped on him, there. Vince, we knew Duane could go find you. By the way, do you know Duane is battling cancer as well?
VF: I did not.
HH: Yeah, he can tell you about that during the break. You can give him some pointers on winning. That’s what we like.
HH: Vince, I want to go back now and praise you for one character. Not a lot of people will pick up on this, but Command Master Sergeant Sheila Sanchez in The Last Man, that’s an homage to a bunch of command master sergeants who run the military. And I thought you’re going to get a lot of kudos for this character.
VF: Well, a lot of people in civilian life don’t understand how command master sergeants really do run the military, and how there is more than a few officers out there who, maybe afraid might be too strong, but they’re smart enough to steer a wide berth around command master sergeants.
HH: I also want to thank you for the portrait of Major Nathan, who is a neurosurgeon here. And we’re not going to tell anyone, I never give away the plot of Vince’s books, but someone gets wounded, and you’ve got to have a neurosurgeon involved, and it’s important. And I like your discussion of PTSD and what happens when people get wounded. But the American military’s medical corps, I was talking with Tapper about this last week in The Outpost, and you’ll love that book when you get done with your book tour and you’ve got a chance to read it. These are incredible, the best in the medical profession take care of our troops.
VF: They are, and there’s been a couple of books written about this, a preponderance of medical advances have taken place during times of war – surgical techniques, fighting infection, all these various things, because…and it’s, I don’t want to sound too callous saying this, but it is the ultimate shop. It’s the ultimate garage where listen, the bodies are coming in fast and furious, and you either need to learn how to adapt and change techniques, or people die. And the military is very good at getting….you know, and hat’s off to the civilian MD’s, by the way, who have signed up to volunteer to come and help out, and come spend months away from their family, and they rotate in and out. It’s…we, you know, with all the bad news we’ve been getting lately, our men and women in uniform are simply amazing.
HH: There are also some people who aren’t in uniform who figure in The Last Man, and these are the CIA operators – Maslick, Coleman, Reavers, you give them names, you give them back stories, you give them key roles in Mitch Rapp’s latest novel, Vince. And I think that’s long overdue as well. They’ve been around a little bit in the background of Mitch’s books, but here, they’re in the foreground, because Afghanistan’s got a lot of the CIA contractors doing a lot of important work that no one else will do.
VF: Well, and you know, you kind of saw shades of it in Benghazi.
VF: These people, most of them, almost, exclusively have Special Forces or special operations training – Navy SEAL, Delta Force, Rangers, Marine Recon. And the CIA recruits them for a reason. And what you saw happening in Benghazi is one of those reasons. They are brave enough to run to the sound of gunfire. And you know, on the Benghazi note, there’s been a lot of people, and this actually figures into the Petraeus story as well, there were, you know how Washington works, Hugh. These various groups love to try to spin it. And the truth of the matter is this is 100% the State Department’s fault that this happened. And they were trying to spin their way out of it, and they were loving that the CIA was getting beat up on, and Defense was getting beat up on. Well, guess what? The CIA never has and never will be in charge of protecting diplomatic missions overseas. In fact, if you went and talked to the State Department prior to 9/11, and asked them do you think it would be a good idea to have the CIA protect your diplomatic mission, they’d tell you you were crazy.
HH: Right, right.
VF: They don’t, there is, now every outpost is different, but there is often an extremely tense relationship between the diplomatic corps and the clandestine service at the CIA at these various outposts. And I’ve witnessed it in countries where you’d think they’d be getting along. So it’s a serious problem. The Benghazi deal? Oh, man, I just…nobody’s asking the million dollar question, which is why on 9/11 does an ambassador who has already written in his journal that he’s feared for his life, has already reached out to Foggy Bottom back in Washington, D.C., State Department headquarters, and said I need more security. Why on 9/11 does he leave our fortress-like embassy in Tripoli and go down to Benghazi with a light detail? Why? Nobody’s asking that question, and it blows my mind away that I haven’t heard anybody push the State Department on that issue or the White House.
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HH: Vince, I was reading The Last Man with Benghazi going on in the headlines. And I began to ask myself because of the nature of the plot, which I don’t want to talk about too much, give it away, if someone else got snatched in that, if someone, if there isn’t a major element of the story…this is what good fiction does. It makes you reconsider that which is real. And given what you write about, I just got to thinking, is there something here, because it was so inexplicable the administration’s actions. Is there something here we don’t know? Did that occur to you that you might have anticipated not only the tawdry side of people deployed for a long time, but also the downside of having secret services everywhere?
VF: My, what I was trying to predict there was that as this, as everything falls apart on a tactical retreat like we’re about to pull off, things rarely go smoothly. And we’re going to see, unfortunately in Afghanistan, more and more stuff like Benghazi happened as we reduce our footprint. And our greatest fear at Langley or State, or DOD for that fact, is to lose somebody who holds a lot of secrets.
VF: Because…and some of your listeners will know this, because you’ve got a well-educated audience, we lost our CIA station chief, Bill Buckley, back in Beirut in the 80s. And Hezbollah took him, they brought him to Iran, Iran interrogated him. Nobody knew this at the time. Some people guessed. And over the course of about six months, they bled him absolutely dry. It’s a horrific tragedy. And they sucked out everything they could from that guy’s brain. And within months, we started to lose our assets all around the region. Guys were getting killed, kidnapped, you know, people were fleeing for their lives just to get out of harm’s way, because they knew we’d been compromised. And it…some people argue that we still haven’t built the network back up and got back to where we were before the Buckley kidnapping.
HH: Yeah, on Page 236 of The Last Man, this is actually very important for people to understand. You’ve got the CIA director thinking to herself even though it felt like he knew it happened from the start, in the agents’ names, there were hundreds of names, and those names represented real people who were assets of the CIA. Some of them were American deep cover operatives who were operating in foreign countries without the aid of diplomatic cover. If these people were exposed, the likelihood was they’d be killed. And then there were the agents, the men and women who work for foreign governments. They came in every stripe from politicians to bureaucrats to scientists to financiers to military personnel to intelligence operatives and janitors and secretaries. I love the fact, Vince, because I hope the New York Times reporters who routinely compromise national security get a sense from The Last Man, if they will read it, of the damage they do when they allow intelligence services to find our people, and to then unravel our networks, because those people end up dead.
VF: Yeah. Well, don’t hold your breath waiting for somebody from the New York Times to read one of my books. Beyond that, I agree wholeheartedly.
HH: Now I just mentioned the CIA, and we are now on either our fifth or sixth director since 9/11. In all of the Mitch Rapp novels, there have been two CIA directors. One of the great mythical fictions, but it illustrates how continuity would help. Can you imagine how demoralized that agency is? Petraeus was going to come in and do a turnaround, and how we’re going to have another turnaround. It’s incredible that in a time of war, we’ve gone through, if you count acting directors, a half dozen CIA directors in 12 years.
VF: Yeah, and interesting enough, Leon Panetta was a well-liked director. The people at the Agency felt that they stood up for them, and this is what people, a lot of people don’t understand about the way Washington works. There was a great deal of reservation at Langley over General Petraeus. And it stems from the fact that the CIA more recently has felt that the DOD is trying to squeeze them out of the picture, that the DOD has increased their budget on intelligence and paramilitary operations, and all kinds of things. And certain people at the CIA feel like you know, they’re getting squeezed. So all of a sudden, you take a guy who represents the Big Green Machine, the United States Army, who was the guy that put forth the rules of engagement in Afghanistan that would never let anybody like Mitch Rapp go shoot a bad guy in the head. It was all Predator drone strikes. And there was a lot of apprehension. So it’s something that hasn’t been written about a lot, but there was not a great love affair over the General at Langley, and I say that not saying the General wasn’t competent and a good man, and all this stuff. He obviously stumbled in his marriage. But there, I was always shocked by what I was hearing, and how little of it was ever reported in the press.
HH: Interesting back story. People will get a lot of the Seven Days in May kind of political thriller in The Last Man as well as the Mitch Rapp thriller. Before we go to our last break, Vince, I’ve got to ask you. People want to know. What was your reaction to the election? How are you feeling about the country?
VF: I (laughing), I voted for Governor Romney. I’m disappointed. I really do feel like you know, I’m a guy who grew up in a lower middle class family in St. Paul, Minnesota, who had to work my way through college along with my six brothers and sisters, and went and bartended while I wrote my first book, and self-published that first book and sold it out of the trunk of my car. And for the first five years, I didn’t make a dime. And I worked, before I met Lysa, I’d go on 30 city tours for three months. And I worked and built this and built this and built this. And all of a sudden, I’ve succeeded, and I’m the bad guy. I’m the problem.
VF: It just blows me away. I don’t…and Warren Buffett, as an aside, the man, I’m more upset with him than probably anybody in the last couple of years. Warren is an old man now. And when Warren was in his prime income earning years, his 30s and his 40s, he would have never said something like that. So he turns around and says people like me and my generation, without understanding that we haven’t always made all this money.
VF: And now we finally hit it, and…I don’t have a lot of tax deductions, Hugh. I write a book a year. That’s it.
HH: And they want it back.
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HH: Vince, one of the things I appreciated about The Last Man is that you go inside the ISI, Pakistan’s secret service. You slice it and you dice it. You give us an organization chart, and you communicate that there are good men, and there are bad men in there, and that it’s complicated. And I very much appreciate Nadeem Ashan as much as I kind of understand Akhtar Durrani. But I just think it’s a marvelous bit of fiction writing. You can get inside their heads.
VF: Well, people in this country don’t often get the point that Pakistan is a deeply divided country, that there is a side of Pakistan that embraces modernity, and there’s another side of Pakistan that does not. And there are even elements within the military that act this way. And a lot of it stems from where they grew up. If they grew up in the tribal areas, they don’t like modernity. If they grew up in the big cities, if they were educated in Britain, America, Europe, they get it a little more. So this is why you end up with a situation where Osama bin Lade was hiding in their country, you know, just an hour and a half north of the capitol for a good number of years. And a doctor is nice enough to help our CIA operatives in the area to try to get some DNA answers. And they throw the guy in jail. I mean, imagine this.
VF: And by the way, I’m still shocked that we haven’t absolutely just sat down with them with the check. Somebody should fly over there.
VF: …with a billion dollar aid check and say I’ll sign this if you let that doctor out. But if you don’t let him out, we’re not signing it.
HH: Yeah, imagine the damage that does to our would-be friends around the world.
VF: Who do you think’s going to cooperate with us next time? If we can’t go to bat for that guy, and it was brilliant that we recruited him.
VF: You know, someday, and I don’t want to compromise too much stuff, because I get, you know, I hear whispers here and there about how things went down. Some day, we’re going to get far enough away from that night to hear the side of what the CIA did in the run up to that thing. And it is spectacular how they found him, how they surveilled him. It’s just crazy.
HH: And that day, I hope it’s not too long off. In the meantime, America, you can get an intimation of what that’s like. And the people who are fighting the secret war in Afghanistan alongside of our troops, it’s all in The Last Man, the latest in the Mitch Rapp novels, number 13. Vince Flynn is back, Mitch Rapp is back. It’s an extraordinary good and fun read. And it’ll teach you something about the war that we appear to be leaving. The Last Man by Vince Flynn, it’s linked at Hughhewitt.com.
End of interview.