Sean McFate to Talk New Rules of War in CWC Forum


It’s the wee hours of the night, but that barely registers because a fast-paced geopolitical thriller, Shadow War, has a firm hold and has left an unsettling feeling that it could very well be a work of creative nonfiction.

The protagonist, Tom Locke, is an elite American mercenary secretly striving to save the family of an Eastern European oligarch in Ukraine in just one week.

“The whole novel thing started accidentally,” said Sean McFate, principal author of Shadow War, which he wrote with co-author Bret Witter. “I wanted to write a memoir. My agent said, ‘No, no, no; put it into fiction.’ Tom Locke is much more damaged and much more badass than me.”

OK, but what about the oligarch?

At 2 p.m. Saturday in the Hall of Philosophy, professor, “think tanker” and novelist McFate will give a talk titled, “The New Rules of War,” as part of the Chautauqua Women’s Club’s Contemporary Issues Forum.

The talk is based on his third nonfiction book, The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder, published this year by HarperCollins.

McFate’s childhood aspirations had little to do with war. He said that at age 9, he left Ridgefield, Connecticut, to attend the Saint Thomas Choir School in New York City — a “music-feeding school for Juilliard.”

Located in midtown Manhattan and limited to grades three through eight, STCS is one of only three all-boys boarding schools worldwide that exclusively educate choirboys.

“I was a violinist,” McFate said. “My great plan was to perform the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto at Carnegie Hall at 17. I had my first real life crisis at 13; I wouldn’t be Jascha Heifetz. I walked away.”

From a professional music career, that is. But everywhere McFate goes, he brings his “heroin of choice” — his violin.

“Opera and classical music are my lifelong passions,” he said. “I have an encyclopedic knowledge of classical music.”

At Brown University, McFate double-majored in history and religious studies, and participated as a cadet in the U.S. Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.   

“Initially, my goal was to be a professor of philosophy and history,” he said. “I wanted to be a liberal arts professor in New England. But somehow it felt fraudulent without experiencing and tasting the world.”

One of McFate’s grandfathers had served in the Army during World War II. He was initially left for dead at the Battle of the Bulge, but McFate said his grandfather was eventually taken off the battlefield and survived.

“He told me, ‘Whatever you do, you will serve your country. After that, you can do anything,’ ” McFate said. “This was powerful for me. Basically I was Brown’s only ROTC.”

He said he “went from super-liberal Brown to … Fort Bragg, where (many) were to the right of Rush Limbaugh. I learned stuff in the Army that you can’t learn in schools.”

When McFate joined the renowned 82nd Airborne Division of the U.S. Army XVIII Airborne Corps, he became part of an elite airborne infantry division specializing in parachute assault operations into “denied areas” and rapid responses to crises anywhere in the world.

“It was very easy to go from Brown to the Army,” McFate said. “The discipline of (learning the) violin is good preparation for the Army. … I was always a nerdy, poetic kid who liked to spend Saturdays in the library. When I joined the Army, I found I was really good at it.”

So good in fact, that he graduated from elite Army training schools, including Airborne, Jumpmaster and the Jungle Expert Warfare School in Panama. McFate served as an officer for eight years. He said that his military mentors were Stanley McChrystal, David Petraeus and John Abizaid.

As Jumpmaster, he was responsible for teaching soldiers enrolled in Army Airborne School military techniques for jumping from aircraft, and for managing jump operations in the airborne units within all branches of the U.S. military.

“In the airplane, you’re the guy who kicks them out,” McFate said. “In the world of the Army, it’s a pretty tough job. … I was a door-kicker.”

McFate was also Battle Captain for the Joint Task Force Noble Safeguard, an emergency deployment to defend Israel against Iraqi Scud-B missiles; Operations Officer for a 350-soldier Patriot missile brigade in Germany; and leader of a paratrooper platoon and a paratrooper company capable of no-notice deployment anywhere in the world within 18 hours.

When he left the Army in 2000, McFate said he “fell backwards into Amnesty International,” where he was a policy adviser and a member of its Military, Security and Police Working Group in Washington, D.C., until 2003.

At Amnesty International, he advised executive staff on issues regarding human rights, armed conflict and civil-military relationships. He also co-authored policy positions, met with Congressional and executive branch policy-makers, and worked with other non-governmental organizations.

“I … wanted to be a bridge-builder between the military and human rights NGOs,” McFate said. “(I worked on) human rights in conflict zones for two years. (It was) driving me schizoid, so I went to the Kennedy School.”

Three months into his first term at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, he said he was wondering why he was doing problem sets on economics and statistics.

“I was going across the yard, when I got a phone call,” McFate said. “(A voice) said, ‘You don’t know who we are, but we know who you are. … We want you to come overseas.’ ”

The call was from a senior vice president of a private military firm, Blackwater, that had a contract to raise an army in Africa. He wanted McFate to handle the fieldwork for them.

“I asked myself: Econ exam, or raise an army?” McFate said.

Leaving Harvard, he signed on as a program manager for DynCorp International, which he said was larger but less visible than Blackwater.

“I became their man in Africa,” McFate said. “I was doing, running, planning operations that would have been done by the CIA or other U.S. (intelligence agencies).”

For instance, while based in Kenya and Washington, D.C., he supported the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army.   

In Burundi, he helped prevent imminent genocide in the Great Lakes region when the rebel group tried to “re-trigger the 1994 Rwanda-Burundi genocide with the Burundian president’s assassination.”

In Liberia, McFate safely and fully demobilized warlords and rebuilt the country’s new army.

He also rode in the Sahara with armed groups, “conducted strategic reconnaissance for oil companies, (and) transacted arms deals in Eastern Europe.” Information about other operations cannot be recorded.

“I realized there were no old people in my line of work,” McFate said. “I was in my mid-30s. I was doing really crazy things. When I say, ‘no old people,’ (I mean) they get killed.”

“Sweet-talking” his way back into the Kennedy School, he graduated in 2006 with a Master of Public Policy.

He then served for a year as a consultant to the United States Institute of Peace, where he was instrumental in founding its Security Sector Governance Center.

The following year, as a business advisor at BearingPoint (now Deloitte), McFate counseled the company’s emerging markets practice on international relations and strategic positioning. In addition, he directed the “Stabilizing Fragile States” project for the Bipartisan Policy Center in 2008.

The following year, he consulted on U.S. inter-agency operations and national security policy for Booz Allen Hamilton, and began teaching graduate courses to senior military and civilian leaders at the National Defense University, where he is currently a professor. 

As a Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow at the centrist public policy think tank, The New America Foundation (now New America), from 2009 to 2010, McFate conducted independent research on the future of war.

“I’m seeing a facet of the world that no one’s seen — the private world of warfare,” he said. “Everyone’s talking about terrorism. No one’s talking about private wars and … private armies,” which are owned by corporations, such as multinational oil companies and investment banks.

After completing a dissertation — Durable Disorder: The Return of Private Armies and the Emergence of Neomedievalism — McFate earned a doctorate in international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2012. 

From 2011 to 2016, he worked as an adjunct social scientist at The RAND Corporation. There he provided expertise on U.S. foreign policy and national security strategy, geopolitical threat analysis, defense structure, irregular warfare and the future of war.

In 2012, McFate also began working on a range of ongoing projects and activities as a senior fellow with the centers on international security and Africa at the Atlantic Council, an international affairs think tank and member of the Atlantic Treaty Association.

He served as vice president and acting chief operating officer at the strategic advisory and political risk consultancy TD International from 2012 to 2013. There he applied quantitative methods learned at the Kennedy School.

“One thing leads to another,” McFate said. “Nothing’s wasted.”

Beginning in 2013, he became an adjunct professor in the Security Studies Program of Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. Among his other academic responsibilities there, McFate developed and still teaches the graduate seminar on “The Art of War and Grand Strategy.”

After spending a sabbatical year as a visiting research fellow at the University of Oxford in England, in 2017 and 2018, he became an adviser to Oxford’s Center for Technology and Global Affairs.

Through the years, McFate has also produced written commentary — for instance, “Billionaire Warlords: Why the Future is Medieval” for in February 2019 — as well as academic articles, book reviews and book chapters.

His nonfiction books began coming out in 2013 with Building Better Armies: An Insider’s Account of Liberia and The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for the World Order two years later. The New Rules of War has just been published, and Mercenaries and War: Understanding Private Warfare Today is forthcoming.

Shadow War emerged in 2016, and its sequel, Deep Black, in 2017. Currently McFate is editing the second draft of his third Tom Locke novel. Its title is yet to be determined.   

“States rule the world because they have militaries,” McFate said. “What happens when armies loosen their bonds from states? … Warfare has completely changed. … We have a low strategic IQ. War has moved on. We have to move on, too.”

Given the existential challenges that McFate has been illuminating, walking away from his youthful dream of becoming a concert violinist was the right move.

Tags : lecture

The author Deborah Trefts

Deborah Trefts is a policy scientist with extensive United States, Canadian and additional international experience in conservation. She focuses on the resolution of ocean and freshwater-related challenges and the art and science of deciphering and developing public policy at all levels from global to local.