"WAS IT WORTH IT?" : AN INTERVIEW WITH FORGOTTEN WAR'S DON BENTLEY
Don Bentley's latest Matt Drake thriller is a military action adventure, mystery, and a meditation on our country's withdrawal from Afghanistan all in one. To clear his buddy of a murder charge and rescue a family member, Matt has to go back into his past to an old mission and back to Afghanistan as it falls to the Taliban. Don was kind enough to talk about the book and share his feelings about the withdrawal.
SCOTT MONTGOMERY: Did you have the story idea click when you heard about the withdrawal from Afghanistan or did you want to write about the withdrawal and went searching for a story that would fit?
DON BENTLEY: That’s a great question. I was in the middle of brainstorming what I wanted to do for the 4th Matt Drake book when the withdrawal from Afghanistan took place. Watching the twenty years of blood and treasure we poured into that country collapse seemingly overnight had a profound effect on me. I couldn’t work for about two weeks, and when I came back to writing, I knew that Afghanistan and the botched withdrawal would play central roles in Matt Drake #4.
S.M. : You are a veteran of that war. Did you writing about this had any effect on your feelings or perceptions about the pull out?
D.B. : Nick Petrie, writer of The Drifter, is a great friend of mine. He once told me that in a good book, an author is trying to work out the answer to a question for themselves in the pages. As an Afghanistan veteran, I was heartsick at the thought of all the sacrifices made to bring peace to the nation over the last 20 years going up in smoke. As I was trading texts and phone calls with fellow veterans, one overriding question kept surfacing in one form or another—was it worth it? This is the question I tried to answer for myself in Forgotten War.
S.M. :Drake has to be a detective as well as a soldier in Forgotten War. Did you notice anything while working that writing muscle?
D.B. : Thank you for noticing that! As you alluded to, the first part of the book reads very much like a whodunit at Matt tries to discover why Frodo was arrested for a murder that allegedly took place ten years ago and who might be able to clear his name. I write organically which means that I don’t know how the story is going to end when I begin writing. This approach necessitated going back to revise multiple times to ensure that the clues leading Matt to the answer he’s seeking were in the right place and revealed by the correct people. I think it adds something unique to Forgotten War, but it certainly was a ton of work!
S.M.: Much of the plot is centered on Frodo, who is a great side kick. How did you go about constructing him when you began the series?
D.B. :The American military really is the world’s best melting pot. Men and women of all ethnicities and creeds are forged into one cohesive team and the friendships that result are both unexpected and often lifelong. When I began writing my debut novel, Without Sanction, I had the character of Matt, but I knew he needed a sidekick. Someone to be the sane to his crazy. I also wanted this person to be representative of the friendships I enjoyed with people very different than me thanks to the melting pot that was the military. Frodo is the result.
S.M. : The story is tied to a mission in 2011. Did you notice any difference between the younger Drake and Frodo and who they are now?
D.B. : When I wrote the 2011 alternative timeline, I wanted to show two characters who were still feeling each other out. As a member of Delta Force, Frodo is one of the world’s top tier operators, and I put myself in Matt’s place as I was crafting the story. Would Matt feel like he had something to prove to Frodo? Would Frodo be angry that he had to play babysitter to a DIA case officer instead of running and gunning with his Unit brothers in arms? I think approaching the alternate timeline from this perspective made the early scenes with Matt and Frodo that much richer. We’ll see!
S.M. : There is a tense situation where Drake's truck goes into a river. I felt the direness of the position he was in and bought how he dealt with it. How do you approach a situation like that?
D.B. : Thank you for saying that! When I was stationed in South Korea as an Army AH-64A Apache helicopter pilot, we had a very unique mission that required us to fly overwater and hunt North Korean boats. It was a fantastic assignment, but in order to fly over the ocean, you had to first complete dunker training. This was not a whole lot of fun to put it mildly. You get strapped into a replica Apache cockpit, blindfolder, lowered into a pool, and spun around underwater. This training was the impetus for the scene in which Matt’s truck goes into the river.
D.B. : Besides a slam bang action thriller, do you hope readers get anything else out of Forgotten War?
S.M. I wrote Forgotten War partly as a way to process my own feelings about Afghanistan in the wake of our tragic withdrawal. While the book is first and foremost a thriller designed to keep readers turning the page late into the night, I hope that it can also give folks who didn’t serve in Afghanistan or Iraq a window into the thoughts and feelings of the men and women who voluntarily did so on their behalf.