By Ray McPadden
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Ranger Nick Burch carried a 240B machine gun during the invasion. He once fired from the hip just to say he did. Most nights he fell asleep on his gun with rocks in his ribs. Shivers woke him before the ambush patrols set out. It was hard living among the fleas, stones, and sharp-eyed mountain people. But there was something in the Hindu Kush, a life force felt but unseen, like static in a storm. Today, Burch was sure of it as he eyed the roaring cataract in the Blue River.
Burch’s Ranger platoon held a house with cracked mud walls. He was sitting behind his 240B, voice hoarse from the last gunfight, broken glass under his boots. A fly fresh off the dead landed on Burch’s knuckle and eagerly rubbed its front legs together. Swatting it away, Burch surveyed the cratered slopes above the river.
He spotted an Afghan kid named Sadboy romping toward the house with a bag of potatoes swinging in his hand. Sadboy was ten, or about that age. One couldn’t be sure with the Afghans. Burch’s platoon called the kid Sadboy because of the tear-shaped birthmark under his eye, and because his real name, Habibullah, was a mouthful. Today, Sadboy wore homemade sandals and a skullcap. A green parka issued by the U.S. Army hung from his shoulders down to his knees.
Burch strode into the courtyard to meet the boy. “Sadboy, how’s it hanging?”
Sadboy defended his Afghan name. “Habibullah, Habibullah.”
Pointing at the boy’s spruce-root sandals, Burch said, “I gotta get some of them go-fasters.”
Sadboy nodded and announced he was going to make chipas—Pashto for “french fries.”
Burch said, “You really shouldn’t be here,” and gestured like he was firing a rifle.
Sadboy said, “Chipas quick.”
Burch said, “How much?”
“That’s a dollar more than last week.”
Sadboy drummed his fingers on a rock.
Burch said, “Listen, we might go knuckles up here in a minute. How ’bout I just give you two bucks and you piss off?”
“Then I’d be a beggar. No good.”
“Your English is coming along.”
“Thanks,” said Sadboy. “I learn from you—skin flute, meat curtain, pooh-see.”
Burch said, “Thatta boy. Start cooking.”
Sadboy unrolled his green blanket, revealing an iron skillet, a rusty knife, a lighter, and a vial of grease. He then weaved up the hillside and returned with kindling. The boy set up in the courtyard, sitting on his haunches near a low stone wall.
Sadboy’s potatoes sizzled and popped. Burch paced over the boy, one eye on the hills. The wonderful perfume of french fries wafted into the main room of the house, where Burch’s squad pulled afternoon watch, their elbows resting on stacked sandbags. The scent drifted into another room, where the squad on night ambush rustled in their sleeping bags. The scent curled into a third room, where a fire team sweated on their cards playing Texas Hold’em. As the winnings moved between men, the sun set pink behind a mountain, throwing shadows up the valley’s east wall. A granite reef seemed to catch fire for a moment in the fading light. Night’s black hand touched a rib on the east side.
Just then, the staccato sound of machine guns erupted from the hills. Enemy bullets mushroomed on the house walls. Rocket-propelled grenades came in like comets. Burch’s cell membranes were screaming Flee, flee as he ran headlong for his machine gun. His ears stung from gunfire and explosions. Echoes bounced off the valley walls and spun together. Burch couldn’t tell incoming from outgoing. The bedlam of a mountain gunfight was upon him.
The muzzle of a heavy machine gun flashed from a ridge at eight hundred yards. The gun was tucked between two rocks that looked to be gargoyles. In came plunging fire on the Ranger platoon. The house courtyard was horribly exposed. It became a magnet for 12.7 mm rounds, which pinged and cracked and bounced about. The house protected the Rangers. They had hard-baked mud and sandbags for cover. Burch thought of Sadboy in the courtyard. Perhaps he had reached one of the rooms. Burch imagined Sadboy jumping through a window with cannonball velocity.
The hills kept on sparkling with fire. The Rangers kept on pumping bullets at the enemy. Finding his nerve, Burch went turbo with his machine gun. He was scared for himself, his friends, and Sadboy. Faces swirled through his mind, but he soon forgot them. Burch became intoxicated as his 240 shook his brain. The violence was grand. He didn’t expect a gunfight to feel so good, and now a single glorious image ruled his awareness—he saw a burning zeppelin. And down it went in brilliant flames.
Burch fired in six-to-nine-round bursts. His special technique for controlling the gun’s rhythm was saying Die motherfucker die in his head. Finishing the phrase, he eased off the trigger to reset his aim. Then he mashed down the trigger again. Die motherfucker die. The barrel was glowing. A pile of brass clinked at his boots.
The Rangers used rifle-mounted grenade launchers. Thump…thump…thump. The grenades leapt from the tubes but kept falling short. The ridge was just out of range. Three Rangers wrestled AT4s off rucksacks and yanked the safety pins. “Backblast area clear.” The first antitank round vaporized a granite statue. The next split a boulder. Another splintered a tree. The enemy ran for defilade.
A ringing quiet came over the hills. Burch remembered Sadboy. Running for the courtyard with his temples thumping in his helmet, Burch envisioned what he would see when he rounded the corner: Sadboy in a pool of blood, with lifeless eyes, his pan and chipas flung about, his cooking fire smoldering. Sadboy would be light when Burch picked him up—just a boy, a hungry little boy.
But when Burch actually rounded the corner, Sadboy was on his haunches, tending his chipas, just as he had been before the fight. He flicked his wrist. The sizzling chipas flipped in the pan. He did it again. The chipas flipped higher. Burch realized Sadboy wasn’t going to run off in a panic and piss away his investment. This little dirt-eating kid was nickel-plated.
Sadboy looked up, showing Burch the tear-shaped birthmark under his eye.
He chirped, “Chipas? Chipas?”
Day 1 of tour
In the Hindu Kush range, the snowline was fourteen thousand feet. The forest started at ten thousand. Everything below that was battlefield. The all-seeing peaks of this range were the tail of the Himalayas. The bellies of the mountains hid wheelbarrows full of jewels—wild topaz, rubies, emeralds, and aquamarines. Snow leopards weaved through cliff bands on snowshoe-sized paws. To the east were the titans that bewitched climbers from around the world, peaks such as K2 and Buni Zom.
It was April 1 when a Chinook helicopter chugged over these mountains with the forty-three men of Newt platoon riding in back. The Newts were mountain commandos. They fought on foot, and on skis if need be. The Chinook carrying them flared over a lone flat spot in the terrain.
The youngest trigger puller in the platoon, Pvt. Danny Shane, sprung from his cargo net seat. Shane was splinter thin but wore his uniform well. He mustered a half smile at the others. Inside he was thrashing like a hooked trout.
The bird touched down and Shane hustled over the ramp. He had the honor of claiming first one on the ground. It was something he’d been waiting for. Shane ran for a copse of pines fifty yards distant and dropped to a knee. At that moment, he was a mere fleck in a valley that ran north–south for fifteen miles. The valley mouth was at the north end; so was the Blue River. On the south end the terrain rose sheer to peaks over eighteen thousand feet. Steep ridges walled in the valley on the east and west. Altogether, it was a jagged culvert lying sinuous among giants.
The Chinook throttled up. Downwash blasted Shane. The rucksack he wore almost matched his body weight. He teetered backward, arms windmilling, and fell over a downed trunk. Lying on his back, he flailed to get up, all the while thinking, Stupid, stupid. After struggling to a knee, Shane glanced at his squad leader, hoping he hadn’t seen.
Sergeant Burch was shaking his head.
A minute on the ground and you’ve made a fool of yourself, thought Shane.
Four more Chinooks landed. They carried supplies and two more platoons. The full 145-man company was on the ground in three minutes. They had just been injected into the heart of the Hindu Kush. The company’s mission was to subdue a ferocious tribe.
The Newts had the honor of a special mission: Kill an Al Qaeda commander who’d for many years evaded Western pursuit. His name was Abdul Rahman. Everyone called him “the Egyptian.” He’d married the daughter of the tribal chief and now called the valley home. Back in ’02, the Egyptian rose to prominence after leading an ambush on a Green Beret patrol. His guerrillas killed six and captured one. On video, the Egyptian took a scimitar to the prisoner’s head and sawed it off in a spurting mess. And so began the manhunt. Later the Egyptian orchestrated a rocket attack on Bagram Airfield that killed a gray-haired two-star. The brass shit their pants. No opponent had killed a U.S. general since ’Nam.
Shane leaned into swirling dust and ferried crates of bullets and batteries from the choppers. Going back for more, he lugged tuff boxes brimming with snowshoes, ropes, webbing, carabiners, nuts, cams, and hexes. He shouldered nylon cases holding Rossignol powder skis.
As the din of the last chopper faded, Shane again looked to Sergeant Burch, who lifted his goggles. Dust powdered Burch’s face, save the rings around his eyes.
Burch said, “We won’t be wearing those skis anytime soon.” He knifed the tie on a bundle of sandbags and passed them out to his squad, saying, “Alpha team, drop your kit. You’re digging first. Bravo pulls security.”
Shane loosened his helmet and body armor. He tied a snakeskin across his brow and unfolded a collapsible shovel known as an e-tool. Shane commenced digging, the e-tool clanking against crumbly gray earth. The veins in his forearms were blue-green ropes. Overhead, a rock formation jutted from the hillside like a ship’s prow. Seams and dikes of quartz had zigzagged across the prow at a time when all was molten. Shane’s eyes wandered over the face, landing on three black streaks running down. They could have been the claw marks of a prehistoric beast.
The clatter of tools bounced off the prow. Shane hacked away, his e-tool vibrating with each bite into the slanted earth. One by one Shane stacked sandbags at his feet. His snakeskin headband glimmered in the sun. Salt ringed the collar and armpits of his brown shirt. Forty sandbags were now piled by his hole. He’d bested the others by at least ten bags. He kept close count.
Sergeant Burch strolled by with an M4 slung across his chest. The gun was tricked out with a scope, laser, and suppressor, and painted with tiger stripes for camouflage.
Shane had painted the same pattern on his own gun, but it didn’t look nearly as sexy.
Burch looked at the stacked sandbags beside Shane’s hole, then said, “Slow down, Shane. We got fifteen months left. Don’t blow your wad on the first day.”
Shane said, “Roger, Sar’nt.”
Burch asked, “You got any more deer jerky?”
“Break me off a plug.”
Shane had made the jerky himself back home and brought five pounds to the Stan. To oblige his sergeant, Shane dug into his pack, ripped off a piece the size of a ham, and handed it over.
Burch asked, “What’s that shit wrapped around your head?”
Shane removed his headband and kneaded it in his fingers. “This is an eastern diamondback rattlesnake, Sar’nt. I hit it with a twelve-gauge shotty under the steps of my trailer. I was ten at the time…no wait, nine. This skin is my warbonnet. And I’ll tell ya, if you want to see if a man’s got grit, have him crawl under a trailer in Tupelo, Mississippi, in mid-July. You’ve never seen so many creepy-crawlies.”
With a mouth full of jerky, Burch said, “Keep it on the down low. If Sergeant Vasquez sees you wearing it, I’ll be sunk.”
Shane was a cherry, meaning this was his first combat tour. Assigned to Newt platoon nine months before the deployment, Shane had reported for duty wearing a Bart Simpson shirt and clicked his heels in front of Sergeant Burch, who had been sitting over a disassembled machine gun in the barracks. Burch looked up and went ghostly white, his bottom lip quivering for a long second. Then Burch bolted from the room.
It was the damnedest thing. Shane was still getting his head around it.
* * *
The morning sky was stained glass on day number two. Shane lined up for his first patrol, radio intercept. It was simple enough because the enemy communicated with unencrypted walkie-talkies. The patrol would range south to get the enemy talking. “Stir shit up,” was how Shane understood it. Perhaps they’d hear the Egyptian, and they could start collecting on him, building a profile so they could later strike with a capture/kill mission.
Standing at the camp perimeter, Shane turned on the walkie-talkie clipped to his shoulder. His stomach was tight, his eyes alert.
At the perimeter, Burch inspected the squad, giving orders around a cigarette clenched in his front teeth. When Burch came to Shane, he pointed, saying, “Drop this, this, this, and this. The side with the simplest uniform wins.”
Shane nodded and ditched his crotch and neck armor, Oakley sunglasses, kneepads, and gloves. Then Shane jawed a twist of tobacco so big he couldn’t close his mouth.
“Move out.” The squad set off, nine soldiers passing the wire one at a time, each taking his position five yards from the next. They followed a southern azimuth toward the heart of the valley, snaking past the gnarled boughs of holly trees. Shane moved in back of the column, halting every so often to scan the flanks. Up front, the point man picked through a maze of boulders, probing here and there for a route, sometimes backing out and starting over. Progress was painfully slow, and Shane felt exposed, naked. He cussed the point man for his route selection. “Stevie Wonder’s leading this fuckin’ patrol.”
After a few minutes they found a break in the maze. The squad surged ahead. They had just reached checkpoint one when they came upon a broken slope of granite. A narrow ledge offered passage down to a landing. From there it looked to be easy going again.
One by one, the squad boys balanced onto the ledge. Shane brought up the rear, sidling with one hand on his gun, the other gripping rocks at his shoulder. Down Shane went, grabbing tree roots when he could. He was still on the ledge when the first fire team reached the landing. They called up to the rest of the squad, saying, “You’re good to here.”
Those still on the ledge began shuffling faster. The man in front of Shane, a SAW gunner named Cassidy, pulled loose a rock the size of a microwave. It rolled twice before going airborne. “Rock,” yelled Cassidy, and the team below dove for cover just as the rock crashed by. “Assholes,” called someone from the landing.
Cassidy turned round with pleading eyes and said to Shane, “Don’t tell.”
Shane said, “I won’t,” and Cassidy pressed on.
At that moment an image popped into Shane’s mind: the Egyptian on a ridgeline observing the patrol, laughing himself silly.
At last, it was Shane’s turn to finish the descent. He checked handholds, then downclimbed, ladder style, and soon touched down beside the others.
Nine men sat panting on a strip of rock above a cliff. It had taken a half hour to cover three hundred feet, and they’d walked into a dead end. There was no doubt in Shane’s mind that he could do better walking point. But a cherry had to bide his time. Left of Shane, the squad boys were searching for a way off the landing.
Shane examined the options: They could downclimb a vertical slab for thirty feet to easy ground, or go back the way they came. There would be no going back. Shane was sure of it. After all, the others at camp would have much to say if the squad had to retreat and start over. Shane dug in his pack for a hundred-foot coil of climbing rope. Then he doled it out and doubled the line.
Smacking a holly trunk, Burch told Shane, “Anchor it here.”
Shane knelt. Pointed holly leaves matted the ground, stabbing his knees as he wrapped one-inch webbing around the trunk and finished the anchor with a water knot. Using a carabiner, Shane secured the climbing rope to the anchor. The squad began rappelling in the Dulfersitz technique, where the rope was wrapped around the body in such a way that no climbing gear was required.
With the first team safely down, Burch grabbed the rope, threw it over a shoulder, and threaded it under one leg.
Burch told Shane, “Good work setting the rap. Steady hands will serve you well.”
Then Burch muscled over the ledge.
When Burch was out of sight, Shane whispered “Yes” to himself. Then Shane followed, the rope burning his skin as he inched down the rock face with his gear jangling. Minutes later Shane pulled the rope, and they put the first obstacle behind them.
Ahead Shane saw gullies fluting the rises on both flanks. He hopped rills and climbed up a boulder train. Under another cliff, little blocks were lying here and there, as if the cliff had vomited. Shane picked through the blocks, blowing sweat beads off the tip of his nose.
Enemy radio chatter kicked off. They spoke in code. Shane could hear a dozen different voices saying things like, “The children are here.” “They’re in the place.” “Bring the donkeys up.” “We’re beside the bend.” At least they aren’t laughing, thought Shane, but there was no mention of the Egyptian.
Shane kept marching, sweeping around the shoulder of another cliff band and polishing off his first canteen. All around, the land was raw with crumbling schist, wind-tortured ridges, and dashing streams. This was the adventure Shane had been waiting for. Here was the home turf of a formidable Afghan tribe. The barbarous terra isolated these natives. At the center of the universe, they called themselves the People. And somewhere in their smashed terrain, they hid the Egyptian, a man chased for so long that the chase became an end in itself.
The Kush sprawled farther than the eye could see. He saw a collage of mountain figures: some table-like, some pyramidal, some shaped like horns, turrets, and dragon tails—and not a flat spot anywhere. Storm King Peak was the patriarch of this land, marking the southern terminus of the valley. Gilded by glaciers, Storm King was ancient, solemn, and shining down on everything. Spindrifts curled off its ridges. On the north face, a patchwork of polished walls and cirques stood testament to the genius of some mad architect.
Shane’s patrol kept on their southern azimuth, climbing upslope most of the day. But the ascent was more like tunneling; they were going deeper, away from everything. The valley got tighter. The streams got swifter. The peaks built up while the forests crept down.
Twelve hours later, Shane and the others returned to camp with sunburned faces and dry canteens. Shane hadn’t seen a lick of action nor heard a whisper from the Egyptian, but the mountains rang through him. He wanted more. He asked himself why. The answer was jumbled in his mind. He strained to decipher it. In the hills, there was freedom, a world unconfined, and something else. Just beyond Storm King was a thing he could not name, something hungry.
The days slid by. Shane lived on the ground and under it, smearing it on himself. They burrowed day and night. Bunkers, earthworks, and trenches took shape around the camp. Shane fought to straighten his fingers. He could not make a fist—too much time swinging that damn e-tool. Day number six passed slow and sweaty. Evening came on. Blue shadows marched across the valley.
Shane ducked into a bunker for sentry duty and sat down on an ammo crate. He squinted into his rifle scope and saw feathers of smoke rising from village flues. About then, the company radioman came over the Newt frequency. “We have a signal from 110 degrees. Two voices. One said the Egyptian put the rockets beside the meadow. The other said it’s ready.”
With a thumping heart, Shane pulled the compass from his vest and shot an azimuth of 110 degrees, all the while thinking, Killing them isn’t so hard. All Shane had to do was identify a meadow along the 110 azimuth and call for bombs. He scanned. High above the foothills, a ridgeline bristled with pines. The trees broke only for a single meadow. Shane studied it from left to right. A band of talus split the grass. This was probably it. Something flashed in the talus.
A single spark came forward in slow motion.
Shane wondered what it was. The spark cleared a rib and a creek and kept coming. Shane got to thinking that he should duck. He had time. The spark closed in. His knees still hadn’t dropped. You’ve got to duck, he thought. A banshee shriek registered in his mind.
The world turned burning white. Sandbags tumbled over. Shane fell in a heap. Smoke burned his lungs. He pushed a sandbag off his head. He could move no further. The terrible weight of sandbags robbed the air from his chest. He was buried for a long time, sucking for breath.
There were confused voices and bootfalls on gravel.
Someone yelled, “The bunker is blown to shit.”
Then came Burch’s steady voice, “Our man’s in there. Start digging.”
They got to it.
Shane’s breathing came easier as the Newts dug and cussed one another somewhere above him in the dark. Then headlamps shined through the haze. The Newts lifted sandbags off Shane’s chest. Someone stepped on his hand. He groaned. They pulled him from the wreckage. Shane was on his feet. The others patted him down for blood. All was dry.
Burch was there smiling. He smacked dust from Shane’s fighting vest and squared his helmet. “Look at you, not a scratch.”
Shane smiled back with dirt in his teeth. “What was that?”
Burch said, “A rocket. Probably a 107.”
Their mortar crews shelled the meadow until well after dark, then called it a night.
* * *
In the morning Shane woke to the sound of the platoon battle flag snapping in the wind. He unzipped his fart sack and climbed out and smacked dew off it. The tangerine globe peered into the valley. Light came in arrows through the teeth and cols of the east ridge. Shane hustled to the bunker where Burch was marshaling the squad. Two fire teams of dusty men formed a half circle. They all stood spitting and scratching.
Shane figured this was news about the mortars the night before. Had they hit the Egyptian?
Burch had his thumbs hooked in his belt when he said, “We’ve got the green light to name the camp. Any bright ideas?”
So no Egyptian. Shane fiddled with the camo netting on his helmet, thinking it best for a cherry to keep quiet. He shifted in his body armor. Someone else will speak up, he thought. No one did. Then an idea came to him. It was ironic. And they all liked the ironic.
Shane ventured, “Camp Holiday.”
With officious looks, everyone agreed.
Burch said, “That’ll do,” and the matter was settled.
Burch pivoted, cast an arm at the mountain mosaic, and said, “Camp Holiday is our middle finger to these fucks. And this is no contest between machines. Terrain and weather have stripped away the robots, engines, and rotors. The might of the mountains is on full parade.” He aimed a finger at the rusting hulk of a Soviet Hind on the valley’s east side. The rocks beneath it were stained orange. Further uphill, a Chinook helicopter lay in rubble. One rotor blade was still lodged in a conifer.
“Some say the Egyptian can’t be caught.” Burch held up a grainy black-and-white picture of Abdul Rahman. They’d all seen it before. The fuzzy image could have been anyone with a beard and dark eyes.
- "A gritty new novel dramatizes the human toll of America's longest war. . . . With its nuanced language, And the Whole Mountain Burned transcends a genre that can easily become formulaic. McPadden creates colorful characters, and his plotting captivates the reader. You want to know what happens to these characters-especially the character present in his absence, the Egyptian. The book paints a drab landscape in bold colors, and its suspenseful pace holds up."—City-Journal
- "And the Whole Mountain Burned is a gritty novel that exposes both the horrors and heroism of war in ruthless detail. Ray has an excellent descriptive voice and his book makes you feel like you are climbing the valleys of the Hindu Kush with his troops."—American Warrior Radio
- "A remarkable portrait of the daily human cost of our longest war. If you want to understand the price our troops pay, this book will grip you."—Newt Gingrich, #1 New York Times bestselling author
- "A riveting, raw, rip-roaring saga of endurance, violence and the quest for redemption. A literary and spiritual achievement on a level with Cormac McCarthy. Destined to be the classic of the Afghan war. Bravo!"—Bing West, author of The Village and One Million Steps: A Marine Platoon at War
- "And the Whole Mountain Burned is shocking in its frankness, powerful in its unceremonious honesty. The most important novel you'll read this year."—J.D. Barker, international bestselling author of The Fourth Monkey and Forsaken
- On Sale
- Nov 6, 2018
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Center Street