The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier's Education

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"One of the most thoughtful and honest accounts ever written by a young Army officer confronting all the tests of life." -Bob Woodward

In this surprise bestseller, West Point grad, Rhodes scholar, Airborne Ranger, and U. S. Army Captain Craig Mullaney recounts his unparalleled education and the hard lessons that only war can teach. While stationed in Afghanistan, a deadly firefight with al-Qaeda leads to the loss of one of his soldiers. Years later, after that excruciating ...

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"One of the most thoughtful and honest accounts ever written by a young Army officer confronting all the tests of life." -Bob Woodward

In this surprise bestseller, West Point grad, Rhodes scholar, Airborne Ranger, and U. S. Army Captain Craig Mullaney recounts his unparalleled education and the hard lessons that only war can teach. While stationed in Afghanistan, a deadly firefight with al-Qaeda leads to the loss of one of his soldiers. Years later, after that excruciating experience, he returns to the United States to teach future officers at the Naval Academy. Written with unflinching honesty, this is an unforgettable portrait of a young soldier grappling with the weight of war while coming to terms with what it means to be a man.

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  • The Unforgiving Minute
    The Unforgiving Minute  

Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
"Were you ready?" a young cadet asks Mullaney, a history teacher at the Naval Academy. Is any soldier prepared for the unforgiving minutes they'll face in combat? July 1, 1996, was stamped on Mullaney's military records with an authoritative finality, the date of his entrance to West Point and the beginning of his education as a soldier. West Point grad, Army Ranger, and Rhodes scholar -- years later, his training and preparation land him in Afghanistan. Was the sum of his experience and education sufficient to face the life-changing test before him?

Mullaney was born and raised in Rhode Island, the son of working-class parents, and his story is the extraordinary account of an amazing journey. Eager for the physical and mental challenges of West Point, his plebe's-eye view is at once hilarious and harrowing. The rigors of Army Ranger School readied him for a military career, and the louche pub crawls and intellectual tests at Oxford provided a two-year respite. Deployed to Afghanistan, Mullaney and his platoon face a deadly firefight with Al-Qaeda fighters in which one of his men is killed, forcing Mullaney to question his years of dogged and relentless preparation.

Now, as he watches his younger brother chart a similar course, he recounts his life path, examining his own unforgiving minutes. In the process, Mullaney tells a remarkable story. (Spring 2009 Selection)
Chris Bray
In this extraordinary book, Mullaney has taken the trouble to look very closely, and has had the courage to discover the limits to his own understanding. Readers will be fascinated to look over his shoulder.
—The Washington Post
Janet Maslin
…[a] brisk, candid memoir…The Unforgiving Minute finds both suspense and pathos in the events that took place under its author's command. Its fierce climactic battle is recreated in searing detail. But what gives this memoir its impact isn't the external events that it describes. It's the inner journey of a man who is at first eager to learn as much as he can from service and scholarship. Later on he learns from his mistakes.
—The New York Times
Young Captain Mullaney's admirable, literate autobiography, that of a veteran of combat in Afghanistan, adds much to knowledge of the modern army and makes a valuable contribution to the ongoing debate over what a "warrior" is these days. Mullaney wryly recounts his years at West Point and as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, then writes eloquently of infantry combat and the persistent burden of guilt for not bringing all his men home even as he makes his account a tribute to his fellow warriors. He concludes with sidelights on his teaching post at the U.S. Naval Academy and the moving story of his younger brother's graduation from West Point and subsequent passage into the ranks of the warriors himself. Almost impossible to put down for anyone interested in the modern U.S. Army or in modern warfare in general.
Kirkus Reviews
Keenly intelligent war memoir whose central question is, "What is a man?"'First-time author Mullaney, a West Point graduate, Rhodes Scholar and veteran of combat in Afghanistan, searches for the answer while investigating a second question: What kind of man is a soldier? At West Point and in the Army, soldier and man are one and the same. Mullaney's intelligence and sensitivity are too fine-tuned for such a simple conflation. Nevertheless, war and the training he underwent to prepare for it provided the instruments with which he takes the measure of his own manhood. The oldest of four children in a working-class Irish-American family from rural Rhode Island, Mullaney was already mature beyond his years as the memoir begins with his 1996 departure for West Point, where he drove himself to excel in both sport and scholarship. The book is divided in three parts of unequal length: Student, Soldier and Veteran. In the first and longest section, Mullaney contrasts his Spartan education at West Point and Army Ranger School at Fort Benning, Ga., with the more Athenian style of scholarship at Oxford, where he read history and world literature, polished his rough edges and met Meena, the Tamil-American doctor-in-training who became his wife. As a soldier in Afghanistan, all of Mullaney's education was put to the test. He took pride in a humanitarian mission he led near Gardez to vaccinate members of the Kuchi tribe and treat their animals to a veterinary checkup. But when his company moved to Shkin, near the border with Pakistan and on the front of the war against al-Qaeda, the death of one of his soldiers made him agonize over his responsibility and doubt his ultimate commitment to the mission. Asa veteran, attending his brother's West Point graduation, Mullaney says, "there was so much I wanted to say to him...[but] I realized how little I could convey . . . the rest Gary would have to learn for himself."A philosophically ambitious account of coming to adulthood, only slightly marred by occasional bursts of sentimentality and sententiousness. Agent: E.J. McCarthy/E.J. McCarthy Agency
From the Publisher
"McLaren's subtle treatment avoids exaggeration while preserving the emotional moods the author intended for his memories of romance, combat, and death." —-AudioFile
The Barnes & Noble Review
In my 20-year career as a sergeant in the U.S. Army, I gradually became aware of one timeless fact about military life: it's an Us vs. Them war. The "Us" in this case are those who wear the uniform, the "Them" are the larger majority of the population who have never served in the armed forces and who don't have a clue what it feels like to lie on your belly at a rifle range in the temple-throbbing heat, gravel digging into your elbows, helmet tipping onto the bridge of your nose while you squint through the sweat waiting for a pop-up target to show itself 300 meters in the hazy distance, with the clock ticking and the M-16 rifle, loaded with 40 rounds, heavy in your hands and the range's safety instructors on the prowl, ready to thwack you on the helmet if your right leg is not cocked at a precise 45-degree angle; and all the time you're wrestling with the sweat, the helmet and the suffocation, you're aware this is only Stateside training -- what will you do when faced with the real thing in Iraq or Afghanistan?

No, the average American worker sitting in a cubicle decorated with Dilbert cartoons and worrying about the price of his daughter's orthodontics cannot fully appreciate what it's like to lace up shin-high boots every morning and go to work in a profession whose ultimate goal is to "kill the enemy." Then again, to be fair, I don't know what it's like to be a stockbroker, elementary school teacher, or logger. We're all encapsulated in our particular worlds, boundaried by the limits of our experience.

Still, despite all the "Support the Troops" bumper stickers and the genuinely enthusiastic rallies in small communities as their sons and daughters march off to and come home from combat, there remains an almost geologic rift between those who fight and those who watch (and pray and worry). In the year I served in Iraq, I often struggled to bridge this gap of understanding in emails back home to well-meaning supporters. I could describe in detail what it felt like when terrorist mortars rained down on our camp at the outskirts of Baghdad and how a female soldier walking to dinner was hit by a stray shard of shrapnel and died from the resulting "sucking chest wound," but I couldn't make my correspondents empathize, only sympathize.

In his memoir of life as a young army officer, The Unforgiving Minute, Craig M. Mullaney makes a good attempt to build a bridge across this deep, dark canyon. If he's not entirely successful in his execution, it's hard to fault his intent. The book is subtitled "A Soldier's Education," but it could also serve as a primer for the non-uniformed sector of the reading public. Like many other combat accounts, from Audie Murphy's To Hell and Back to Joel Turnipseed's Baghdad Express, Mullaney's book inches us a little closer to understanding life inside the uniform.

Mullaney, the son of blue-collar workers from Rhode Island, opens his story as he and his fellow 18-year-olds tumble off a bus "like a startled herd of wildebeest" for their first day of training at West Point. As the senior cadets bellow at the new trainees, Mullaney describes a hellish, intimidating world that lies just behind the military academy's famed "Long Gray Line." At West Point, Mullaney writes, "our purpose was to follow, to obey, and to be formed in the image of our leaders." This induction, by turns, influences the rest of the book's pages, which faintly smell of conformity, as if the author wishes not to offend those he writes about. Granted, there are a few individuals who come in for Mullaney's criticism (including, most tellingly, his father, who abandons the family on the eve of his son's deployment to Afghanistan), but for the most part this is a gung-ho, "band of brothers" account from an intelligent, eager young man doing his patriotic duty. Mullaney was raised to believe that "responsibility preceded privilege," so it was almost a given that he'd join the military.

Though some initially join the military to pay back student loans (present company included), secure a steady-paying job, or avoid prison time ("go to war or go to jail," runs a popular cadence refrain), Mullaney's service is entangled with his Catholic upbringing. He sees it as a spiritual calling and writes that West Point's educational experience "offered an almost religious quest for perfection...I wanted to graduate a better man."

Whether or not a killing profession makes for a "better man" is open to debate, but what is clear in The Unforgiving Minute is the intensity of this one soldier's experience. Mullaney takes the reader through a battering round of training regimens, including four years at West Point, Ranger School (where he completes the nine-week course with a dislocated shoulder), the Infantry Officer Basic Course, and Airborne School. The grueling indoctrination to the army is broken only by the time he spends as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford.

His career as a lieutenant really begins when he's assigned to the 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division. The division's motto, "We conquer men and mountains," is soon put to the test as Mullaney and the rest of his unit are deployed to Afghanistan.

The fact that soldiering is no ordinary occupation becomes clear when Mullaney's commanding officer tells him he and his men must always be ready to step into their comrades' boots: "You have to assume you will be killed...or be ready to take over the company when I am. Make yourself dispensable." Coming to grips with the fact that you're a disposable number is not easy for a 24-year-old heading off to combat, but it's a necessity in the army. Mullaney quickly learns how high the odds are stacked against him when he goes out on his first combat patrol and realizes the vast scope of area he and his men are assigned to protect. "I had roughly one soldier for every three thousand Afghans."

The difficult mission is further exacerbated by Mullaney's troubled conscience in the aftermath of the first time he fires at the enemy:

I was uneasy with the excitement I felt about shooting. Shouldn't I have felt remorse at aiming live rounds at other people? Where was the clinical detachment? This had been raw and unfiltered...Discovering this killer instinct unnerved me, challenging my sense of humanity. I could kill -- and I might even like it.

The Unforgiving Minute eventually builds to the moment for which we've waited nearly 300 pages: Mullaney's baptism of fire. His personal Normandy comes on a windswept ridge within firing distance of Pakistan's border. Responding to a mortar attack on their camp, he and his men probe the deep-gullied mountains in search of the rogue enemies with their rocket launchers. As his soldiers sweep the area, the hillside erupts "like camera bulbs at a concert" with fire from machine guns, antiaircraft guns, and rocket-propelled grenades. Mullaney's platoon had walked straight into an ambush.

Though the account is breathlessly told, Mullaney holds his storytelling details at arm's length, only seldom letting slip with sentences like "It was loud and chaotic, and I wanted to piss in my boots." Unfortunately, the highest moment of drama in the book comes across like a PowerPoint debriefing; Mullaney divorces his head from his heart. Even when he later confesses to disillusionment with the mission, it's done with tepid caution: "The futility of finding al-Qaeda by trial and error was by now clear to almost everyone. It was like throwing darts in a dark room. Sometimes we hit the bull's-eye, but we didn't deserve to."

While The Unforgiving Minute may prove to be an eye-opening education for the majority of readers, especially those who stand on the other side of the canyon of military experience, it falls short of being a combat masterpiece. If you want a blow-by-blow account of an Army career, then this is the book for you. But if you want to see the resulting blood from those blows, start with Tim O'Brien's If I Die in a Combat Zone or Anthony Swofford's Jarhead, and patrol the jungle of war literature from there. --David Abrams

David Abrams's stories and essays have appeared in Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, and The Missouri Review. He's currently at work on a novel based in part on his experiences while deployed to Iraq with the U.S. Army.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143116875
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/23/2010
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 245,266
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Former radio broadcaster Todd McLaren has been heard on more than 5,000 TV and radio commercials; narrations for documentaries on such networks as A&E and the History Channel; and films. His book narrations have earned him a prestigious Audie Award as well as a Publishers Weekly Listen-Up Award.
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First Chapter

Chapter 1

Reception Day

In case of Sudden and Temporary Immersion,
the Important Thing is to keep the Head Above Water.

A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

"Get off my bus!" screamed the cadet in charge. "You're not moving fast enough. Move it. Move it. Move it!" We stampeded from the bus like a startled herd of wildebeest, clutching our small gym bags with white-knuckled grips. As we poured into the hot July sunlight, chiseled senior cadet cadre aligned our crooked ranks.

"Left, face."

Forty eighteen-year-olds turned at different speeds toward another white-starched cadet cadre. We must have looked ridiculous-a ragtag collection of shorts, untucked T-shirts, and long hair.

"Drop your bags."

They landed on the pavement with a thud.

"You will now begin the administrative portion of your processing. Follow all instructions both quickly and quietly. During this process you will pass water fountains. You are authorized and encouraged to use them. Do you understand?"

I nodded my head with the others.

"Pick up your bags."

July 1, 1996 was stamped on my military record like a wine's vintage-my "date of initial entry into military service." As my high school classmates alternated between summer jobs, afternoons at the beach, and summer reading lists, I headed off to West Point, New York. R-Day, short for "Reception Day," was the first day of a six-week period of basic training. There was absolutely nothing hospitable about this first day of military indoctrination, beginning with an exercise in severing family bonds. After standing in a straggling line of twelve hundred would-be freshmen and their parents, I was herded into the basketball arena with another thirty "cadet candidates." I had ninety seconds to say good-bye to my parents.

After obeying my first military order, I marched up the stairs and through a set of double doors. Even before the door shut behind me, it became clear what my first year at West Point was going to be like.

"What are you looking at, candidate?" shouted a five-foot-five cadet. The volume of his voice was inconsistent with his height.


"Aren't you going to call me sir?"

"Sir, yes, sir."

"Are you at the Naval Academy?"

"Sir, no, sir."

"Then stop making sir sandwiches, candidate. It's 'yes, sir' or 'no, sir.'" He lowered his voice to a vicious whisper. "What's your name, candidate?"

"Craig, sir."

"Is that your first name?" His eyes widened.

"Yes, sir."

"Do you think I care what your first name is? Do you think I want to be your friend?"

"No, sir."

"Just get out of my hallway. Move over to that table and fill out your tag."

"Yes, sir."

I hurried over and wrote my last name in big bold letters. The tag had a dozen boxes to check off as we were "processed" from civilians into military recruits. I hung it around my neck as instructed and boarded the school bus. I sat down on the crowded bus but was too cowed by my scolding to strike up any conversation. What am I doing here?

"Step up to my line. Do not step on my line. Do not step over my line. Step up to my line." A cadet glared at me under the black brim of a white service cap and swung his hand in front of his face, signaling that I should advance precisely to the line of demarcation pasted on the pavement in green tape. This was the first lesson in literal obedience.

He was the "Cadet in the Red Sash"-the first cadre member I needed to report to in order to join my company. I stood before him in a ludicrous uniform of newly issued cadet gym shorts, knee-high black socks, and Oxford low-quarter dress shoes. My head had been shorn of its five-inch locks, revealing a topography of old scars and virgin white scalp.

"Re-port," he bellowed at me from a distance of eighteen inches.

"New Cadet Mullaney reports to the…the…"

"Are you stuttering while you report?" His hot breath dried the sweat on my face.

"Yes, sir."

"Did I give you permission to stutter?"

"No, sir."

I began again: "New Cadet Mullaney…"

"Stop. What did you do wrong?" My newly bald scalp burned under the midday sun."Sir, I don't know.""I don't know. I don't know," he repeated. "Is 'I don't know' one of your four responses?""No, sir.""What are your four responses?" he asked, testing whether I remembered another cadet's instructions on answering questions."Yes, sir. No, Sir. No excuse, sir. Sir, I do not understand.""That's right, New Cadet. Why did you stutter? Did you not have sufficient time to practice?""I forgot, sir." I could almost see smoke billow out of his ears." 'I forgot' is not one of your four responses. Try again.""No excuse, sir," I responded correctly. I must have replied "No excuse, sir" a thousand times that first year, hammering into my head an acknowledgment of personal responsibility that eventually became second nature."Try again, New Cadet.""Sir, New Cadet --""Aren't you going to ask to make a correction?""Yes, sir. Sir, may I make a correction?""Yes.""Sir, New Cadet Mullaney reports to the Cadet in the Red Sash for the first time as ordered.""Are you going to salute when you report?""Yes, sir. Sir, may I make a correction?""Make it."I raised my fingertips to my eyebrow as I saluted and repeated my report."New Cadet, that is the sorriest salute I have seen today." I couldn't believe how many mistakes I was making. I am better than this, I told myself.The red-sashed, barrel-chested cadet manipulated my arm into a better approximation of a West Point salute: fingers closed and extended in a straight line to my elbow, arm parallel to the ground, palm canted toward my eyes."Move out, New Cadet. I haven't got all day."A line extended behind me, other sheep waiting for the slaughter. I picked up my laundry bag of new clothing items, ran up six flights of stairs, and walked briskly down the hall toward the room indicated on my tag. Inside the room were a coat closet, several dresser drawers, three bare desks and bookshelves, and three mattresses on metal frames. The linoleum floor, dull and drab, smelled of Lysol. For that matter, everything in the barracks smelled of Lysol. Outside the window a green parade field stretched to a copse of trees and a steep drop to the Hudson River, a half mile across. It wouldn't be such a long swim, I thought. Before I could introduce myself to my roommates, two knocks at the door preceded the entrance of a cadre member."Call the room to attention, dammit." I looked at his name tag. "You," he pointed at my chest, "the one eye-balling me.""Room, atten-hut." We sprang to attention."You sound like a goddam Marine." He looked down at the tag still hanging around my neck. "Mullaney, do you think this is the goddam Marine Corps? There is no 'hut' in the Army.""Yes, sir.""I'm Cadet Bellinger, as Mullaney here found out by investigation, and I am your squad leader. I am not your friend, your counselor, or your coach. Do you understand?""Yes, sir," we answered in unison."Say it like soldiers, goddam it.""

Yes, sir." "Much better," he said, satisfied for the moment. "I want you down there" -- he pointed from the window down to the concrete pavement between our barracks and the parade field -- "in five minutes. You will be wearing the uniform I am in right now. Do you see how I am wearing my uniform?"

"Yes, sir."He strode out the door and slammed the door behind him as we dove into our bags and assembled our uniforms in a flurry of brass buckles, black nylon socks, and gray trousers so abrasive that hair didn't grow on my thighs for the next four years.
We stood in a row under the shade of an elm tree in front of MacArthur Barracks. This was what the Army meant by a formation: any number of soldiers standing at attention and prepared for training, marching, or, more typically, waiting. We were being formed. The ten of us, sweating into new leather low-quarter shoes, would cohere over time into a more competent squad. I would soon learn the Rule of Four, a trick for remembering this strange new hierarchy. Sergeants with at least four years of experience lead squads in the Army. Four squads comprised a platoon, the smallest unit in the Army commanded by a commissioned officer. The focus of military training at West Point was to prepare the new lieutenants it graduated for just this role, to be platoon leaders. With seasoning, officers commanded at higher levels. Four platoons made a company, with around 150 soldiers and sergeants, which was led by a company commander, a captain. For most officers this was the highest level at which they would command before finishing their service. For officers who chose a career in the Army and earned promotions to colonel, they competed to command battalions (four companies) and brigades (four battalions). Only generals got the opportunity to lead entire divisions, such as the famed 82nd Airborne or 10th Mountain.West Point was organized like a brigade. Cadets played the roles of sergeants and officers in order to give every cadet the opportunity to hone his or her leadership abilities. As new cadets, we were the privates. Our purpose was to follow, to obey, and to be formed in the image of our leaders. We had begun our transformation, reduced to a common denominator, at the barbershop. Now, dressed identically, it was time for us to learn how to walk again."I have two hours to teach you how to march like soldiers. Marching is what we do here. Every day. To breakfast. To lunch. After school. On Saturday mornings. Understood?""Yes, sir.""Good," he continued. "Right, face."We turned to the right to form a column. Bellinger looked down at the ground in dismay, "We'll have to work on that. All right now, keeping your fists tight and your arms straight at your side, move your left arm forward and step forward with your right foot."We moved forward with a lurch, frozen in mid-stride."Excellent. Now move your right arm and left foot."Bellinger led us through twenty iterations of this choreographed awkward motion. I had always assumed marching was not much different from walking. I had never worried, for instance, about a bouncy step or gave much thought to swinging my arms exactly nine inches forward and six to the rear. I wondered how many cadre were laughing at us as we robo-walked across the Apron, looking like Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks."Not bad for starters. Let's add a beat." Bellinger began chanting: "Dum-dum-DUM-DUM-DUM, dum-dum-DUM-DUM-DUM."Within fifty feet we were completely out of rhythm."Focus on the man in front of you. Do what he does."This worked better, but I still walked like a marionette doll with no control over my own limbs. In the distance a bass drum beat a steady thump, perhaps alerted that over a thousand novices were trying to will their natural strides into an unfamiliar gait. The tallest had to walk at funeral pace and the shortest legs overreached comically. Around and around we marched-column left, march, column left, march, mark time, march, forward, march, dum-dum-DUM-DUM-DUM.The sun began to sink behind the barracks as our newly constituted platoon streamed onto the parade field. Our families, having completed their own daylong indoctrination into military parenting, awaited us with cameras and binoculars. Our black shoes, peppered with fresh grass clippings, rooted us as firmly to the ground as the guidon flags planted in front of each company. We snapped to attention as the cadet commander introduced our class to the Superintendent, Lieutenant General Daniel Christman, Class of 1965. In an address that was meant more for our families than us, he recounted the accomplishments of the nearly two hundred West Point classes that had preceded us. With hard work and perseverance, we too might join this Long Gray Line of distinguished alumni. The crowd applauded, and we raised our right hands at the command of our cadre. After swearing an oath to support the Constitution and obey the legal orders of superior officers, the band played the national anthem. A hum from our ranks grew louder as we sang along. In front of us, beyond the crowd, the American flag beat against the wind whipping between Storm King Mountain and Breakneck Ridge, down the Hudson River, and up the bluff where we stood -- anxious, exhausted, and terrified. At the moment, joining the Long Gray Line seemed less important than surviving the first day.With identical uniforms and shaved heads, we were virtually indistinguishable from one another. The transformation was a testament to the efficiency of military indoctrination. As the parade concluded, we marched past proud and nervous parents. At the command of eyes right, I searched for my own parents in vain. We turned our backs to the stands as the wind whistled past Trophy Point's cannons and drove us forward. We headed toward arched passageways marked with the names of hallowed battlefields. LEYTE GULF. CORREGIDOR. NORMANDY. The letters faded into shadow. The ranks of white in front of me merged into gray stone, and a hail of terrifying commands grew louder with each perfectly measured step. The barracks, backlit by the setting sun, jutted out like boulders carved from the hill beyond. At the crest of the hill, two hundred feet above our uniforms of white and gray, stood the chapel -- a mass of granite blocks soaring to a crenellated bell tower. It was impossible to imagine West Point built of anything other than granite and steel.
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Reading Group Guide

One haunting afternoon on Losano Ridge in Afghanistan, Captain Craig Mullaney and his platoon were caught in a deadly firefight with al-Qaeda fighters when a message came over the radio: one of his soldiers had been killed in action. Mullaney’s education had been relentlessly preparing him for this moment. But when it came, it was more affecting than Mullaney could ever know. Afterward, the hardest questions remained. When the call came to lead his platoon into battle and earn his soldiers’ salutes, was he as ready as he had hoped to be? Had his education been sufficient for the unforgiving minutes he faced?

A fascinating account of an Army captain’s unusual path through some of the most legendary seats of learning straight into a brutal fight with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, The Unforgiving Minute is, above all, an unforgettable portrait of a young soldier grappling with the weight of his hard-earned knowledge while coming to grips with becoming a man.


After leaving the military in 2008, Craig served as a national security adviser on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and was the Chief of Staff for the President-elect’s Department of Defense Review Team. Craig is currently serving in the Department of Defense as the Principal Director for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife Meena.


  • Discuss Mullaney’s experiences at West Point, Ranger School, and Oxford. How does each of these institutions influence his development as a student, soldier, and leader? To what extent is the man Mullaney becomes a mixture or personification of these distinct institutions? What are the wartime challenges that his formal education does not prepare him for? What are the lessons Mullaney could only have learned on the battlefield?
  • Who are Mullaney’s most influential educators, both in and out of the classroom? How or why are these educators able to teach him so effectively? How do they impact Mullaney’s maturation? What lessons do they impart?
  • Discuss the role of travel and multiculturalism in Mullaney’s education. How do his travels through Europe, Asia, and the Middle East affect his worldview? How do his cross-cultural experiences with Meena and her family further encourage his growth?
  • How does the study of literature and history inform Mullaney’s education? What roles do language and the thorough examination of the past play in his emerging sense of what it means to be a soldier, leader, and public servant?
  • Discuss some of the leadership challenges that Mullaney faces in Afghanistan. How is he ultimately able to gain the respect of his men and superior officers in the face of these challenges? Are his leadership skills acquired and learned or are they an inherent and intrinsic part of his character?
  • In the midst the chaos, death, and uncertainty of the war in Afghanistan, how does Mullaney maintain his sanity and humanity? To what extent are old familiars such as family, friends, literature, and the study of history able to sustain him in Afghanistan?
  • How does communication—what is said and not said, what can be expressed verbally as opposed to through the written word, what can be expressed in English as opposed to a foreign language—affect Mullaney’s growth over the course of the book? When he returns from Afghanistan, what role does communication play in Mullaney’s transition from soldier to veteran? In what ways does Mullaney adopt a new lexicon or language to fit each place he inhabits?
  • How does Mullaney’s theme of being an outsider manifest when he returns from Afghanistan? Where does this theme also appear in his home life, at West Point, in Ranger School, with his relationship with Meena, and in Afghanistan? Why does Mullaney keep coming back to this theme?
  • Though The Unforgiving Minute chronicles Mullaney’s own education as a soldier, what can everyone learn from his experiences in Afghanistan?
  • By the end of the book, what has Mullaney learned about leadership and authority? How do his men, his family, his teachers, and his superiors teach him these lessons? How do these lessons build on each other? How do they conflict with each other? How does Mullaney reconcile these conflicts in order to emerge as a veteran with an intact and unified sense of himself?
  • What are the most important lessons Mullaney learns in West Point, Ranger School, Oxford, Afghanistan, and upon his return?
  • Why did Mullaney originally join the military? At West Point, in Afghanistan, and at the Naval Academy, did he find what he was looking for?
  • To whom did Mullaney feel he had duties? When did these duties collide? Was Mullaney able to resolve these conflicts? How?
  • “The closer you look, the less you understand.” How did this apply to challenges Mullaney faced in Afghanistan and elsewhere? What were the characteristics Mullaney possessed that allowed him to survive and succeed in the diverse challenges he faced?
  • The book is titled The Unforgiving Minute. Over the course of the book, people offer and withhold forgiveness, to and from one another, and to and from themselves. What were the terms of the forgiveness that was granted? What were the circumstances of the things that went unforgiven?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 87 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 87 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 18, 2009

    A Warrior-Scholar

    Not many authors who write first-person accounts of life in the military would include on their recommended reading lists Shakespeare¿s Henry V or Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev. That Craig Mullaney does says a great deal about "The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier¿s Education." This volume is a compelling account of military life at West Point and in Afghanistan, where Mullaney commanded a platoon in that treacherous landscape hard by the Pakistani border. In between his years in uniform, Mullaney had the distinction of spending two years at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar, and he uses his academic side to add unexpected dimensions to "The Unforgiving Minute." He offers a vivid account of West Point discipline¿his experience in Army Ranger training is particularly harrowing¿and real front-line dangers posed by real enemies. That would be enough to make this a fine book, but Mullaney includes themes¿soldierly camaraderie, father-son relationships, even a little bit of romance¿that make it a lot more.<BR/> All of Mullaney¿s training comes into play for one unforgiving minute in Afghanistan. I¿d never fully understood why the Army humiliated and even brutalized its future leaders before sending them out to combat. "The Unforgiving Minute" provides the answer.

    13 out of 13 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 19, 2009

    First time war memoir reader - couldn't put it down

    As someone who has never picked up a war memoir, I was captivated and touched by this book¿s ability to make a new world of experiences accessible to me. Mullaney¿s book spans West Point, Oxford University and the mountains of Afghanistan where he led a platoon of men, and ultimately lost one of his soldiers in one of war¿s unforgiving minutes.<BR/><BR/>Military academies and military life have always been black holes to me ¿ I knew they existed, but had never known anyone who had gone through the experience. Part of me was uncomfortable with the image of an over-the-top fraternity-like experience. To experience West Point and battle through Mullaney¿s eyes was to understand the deeply-abiding love, sacrifices, and rewards of the men and women of our military in a new way. Mullaney¿s ability to weave personal reflection and insights throughout his stories of hardship, laughter, sorrow, excitement and wonder made this book nearly impossible to put down even with a toddler running around my feet. As a mother of two sons who may one day be called to serve with the military, this book provided a meaningful window into an important American institution. <BR/><BR/>This book also provides an important window into the war in Afghanistan. Most media analysis is provided by reporters and writers who may travel with and speak with soldiers but have not experienced life in the field. Mullaney¿s background as a West Point graduate, a soldier and leader on the ground in the highly volatile Afghan-Pakistan border region, and a scholar with obvious intellectual and moral fiber make his reflections on the war and its future required reading for all of us concerned with US foreign policy today. <BR/><BR/>A definite must-read that covers the needs of both heart and mind.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 18, 2009

    A book for scholars and soldiers and anyone else interested in a great read.

    A riveting story of one man's preparation for the ultimate test of a military leader. This book takes you from West Point to Oxford to the battlefield on the Afghan Pakistan border. The stakes are high all along the way. Craig Mullaney melds the soul of a poet with the courage of a warrior. His lyrical account of his personal and professional development sets a new standard for modern battlefield memoir.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 26, 2009

    Destined to become a must-read classic

    Readers will find so many embedded, thought-provoking narratives in Craig Mullaney's outstanding book - what it takes to become a man and leader, modesty and humility in a new generation's story of heroic learning and deeds (a refreshing break from the cartoonish silent super heroes we often have seen), the strength that comes from linking thinking and action, the acknowledgement that training never ends. Life will always have its "Semper Gumby" moments. On another level, one is left questioning how the military can get better information faster about equipment and support needs from the soldiers on the front lines up the chain of command. How can the military meld the value of hierarchical organization structure with the entrepreneurial ideas that come from our fighting men and women? Thank you, Craig Mullaney.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 18, 2009

    The Great American Novel--Except It's a True Story

    Mullaney's memoir brilliantly captures the struggles and triumphs of a junior military officer and places those experiences in the context of contemporary American life. The Unforgiving Minute documents the difficulty and pressure of transforming the best education and training in the world into success in an extraordinarily confusing insurgency, and learning from the mix of courage mustered and cowardice borne on the battlefield. However, it does not stop at shedding light on that facet of the American experience. In reflecting on preparation for the unforgiving minute, performance during that crucible of combat, and teaching those who would follow, it also tells a coming-of-age tale in which love and betrayal lead to untold challenges and immense personal growth. Reflective, but often humorous, The Unforgiving Minute commands the reader's attention from start to finish. It is essential to understanding, at a personal level, our times.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 18, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    A true pleasure to read. This brilliantly crafted memoir of leadership, love and loss has already received glowing praise from more distinguished sources. Still, I feel I have discovered a great young author in Craig Mullaney.

    As a combat veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, my skepticism of contemporary young soldier memoirs runs deep. Hardly would I have been able to stomach another Rambo-like narrative. Life and war are never so simple. <BR/><BR/>So, it was with some reluctance that I picked up Mr. Mullaney¿s book. And, I am pleased to report back that The Unforgiving Minute is a masterful work. It is a book that will be appreciated by those who want to lead, learn or love (Mr. Mullaney is fortunate enough to have experienced all three in his young life). Its candor is striking, its language moving.<BR/><BR/>For me, the book is most impressive in its honesty and its eloquence. Mullaney may be a proven soldier and accomplished scholar, but he also happens to be a brilliant author.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 18, 2009

    Remarkable book, a fantastic read

    This wonderful memoir gripped my attention from the first chapter and held it all the way to the end, as I accompanied the author on his journey from West Point, through Ranger School, to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, and then to Afghanistan and back. On the way, in a truly readable, compelling narrative, the author invited me to share in his most physically and emotionally challenging moments, to celebrate his successes and deeply mourn his losses. All the amazing advance praise for this book is well founded. I couldn't put this book down and will recommend it to all my friends.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 18, 2009

    Very Different Kind of Military Memoir

    This is really 3 books in one: a fantastic account of the process of becoming a military officer, an unflinching look at the ever topical Eastern Front of Afghanistan, and rumination on the idea of achievement and family. This is not typical of other military memoirs I've read (I got an advance copy from a friend) as this shows a particular vulnerability from the author that I found very refreshing. I hope that the book (and it's lessons about the Afghan situation) get a wide audience.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 5, 2012

    Better example of how not to lead...

    I bought this on the recommendation of "every junior officer MUST read". And honestly, I wanted to like it, but as I got further and further into it the more I regretted it. The author is obviously very well read and that shows strongly in his writing, but he has a little too much chip on his shoulder on his perceived slights about his time at Oxford and his back and forth about whether he really wants to be a soldier.
    I would probably respect his book more if he had done more than his required 5 year stint post Academy, with about 18 months of actual unit leadership. All in all, Nathaniel Fick's One Bullet Away is a far better book if you're looking for junior leadership example.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 28, 2009

    Captivating, Accurate, and a True Story

    I am a West Point classmate of Craig's from the Class of 2000 and first met Craig in the summer of 1996 during Cadet Basic Training. We were in the same Beast platoon and I was initially amazed with the way in which Craig could memorize required Basic Training knowledge with ease and recite 6 or 7 paragraphs verbatim after only a small amount of studying. More than twelve years have passed and I find myself amazed again by Craig, this time by the captivating book he wrote. The Unforgiving Minute is a brilliantly told true story outlining Craig's experiences at West Point, Oxford, Ranger School, and in the Army which prepared him to lead soldiers in combat. As an Iraq veteran from OIF II, I can honestly say that Craig's account of combat and the 'unforgiving minute' are amazingly accurate and a must-read for soldiers preparing to go to combat or anyone who is curious about what it is really like to experience combat first-hand. Craig still has the same amazing memory as he did 12 years ago, and he was able to depict his memories with vivid descriptions and details that make readers feel as if they were there with him experiencing things along his side. A truly great read, it had my attention from the first sentence and kept it throughout the entire book.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 27, 2009

    A soldier's education enlightens all...

    As our Nation fights two wars, the relevance of Mullaney's memoirs cannot be overstated. While reminding readers of the great sacrifices waged by our servicemen and women, Mullaney combines the magic of West Point and the harsh reality of war through the incredible journey of a young man, leader, and soldier. As a veteran, I found The Unforgiving Minute to be extremely realistic yet poetically written. The odyssey from student to soldier to veteran delivers acute details while conveying a story of duty, sacrifice, and love. A must read for current and future leaders of our nation and military. An invaluable education for citizens who want to understand why soldiers serve.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 25, 2009

    A Must-Read for anyone with any interest in Afghanistan, the military, traveling, school, love, death, or American values

    One marathon reading session later, I feel deeply inspired by and honored to have read Craig Mullaney's courageously honest memoir. Peppered with literary allusions, Mullaney clearly illustrates the warrior-scholar connection as he relates his formal and military training from West Point through Oxford, Ranger school, and Afghanistan. His impressive resume is only overshadowed by his great depth of feeling, intensity, and patriotism. He wonders if he had an impact on students while teaching at the Naval Academy; if he taught as captivatingly as he writes, there cannot be any doubt that he did. The book should be required reading for all America's leaders within the Armed Forces for its moving account of one soldier's unusual yet edifying education.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 20, 2009

    A military memoir, father-son chronicle and Bollywood love story

    Craig Mullaney has taken a step back from his busy record of accomplishments to reflect on his educational journey, from Catholic school in Rhode Island to West Point, where his account of cadet life is almost Harry Potteresque in its adventures and arcane traditions. Next he journeys on to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, to Afghanistan as an officer and back to the US as a Professor at the US Naval Academy. Mullaney is honest about the forces that motivated him to join the military including his troubled relationship with his father, and the challenges of translating education into action on the battlefield. More importantly he is insightful about the larger forces in military policy that prevent his tour of duty from being successful. The account is by turns poignant, funny and insightful, particularly Mullaney's traditional South Indian wedding to a karate black belt Indian-American doctor.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 19, 2009

    Best Book of the Year

    One look at the advance praise for this book tells you all you need to know: Craig Mullaney has created a memoir that qualifies as an instant classic in American literature. Mullaney's book towers head and shoulders about the rest of its genre and has genuine cross-over appear to a wide readership. It is a tale of love and loss, of patriotism and service, and of self-improvement. Mullaney's memoir is told with unflinching honesty and it conveys the essence of American values. <BR/><BR/>You cannot put this book down once you've started, and you cannot leave this book unchanged. If you haven't bought it yet, do so. If you're looking for a good gift, you've found it.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 19, 2009

    West Point to Oxford to Afghanistan

    As we enter into the seventh year of US involvement in Afghanistan, it is a good time to reflect on where we have been as a nation and the costs of war. Mullaney¿s book is a well timed addition to that national conversation and adds a thoughtful, on-the-ground voice to our understanding of the Afghan conflict. If this was all the book did it would be worth reading, but it also delivers a personal story of growth and leadership that inspires as the reader is whisked from Rhode Island to West Point to Ranger School to Oxford and through the rugged terrain of the Afghan-Pakistan border. The reader¿s investment of time will be aptly rewarded with this book.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 13, 2009

    Every young adult, age 18 -25 must read this book!

    Whether or not you support the military, and whether or not you support the military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, you must read this book! This books tells what it is like RIGHT NOW for a young adult in the military. This is a present day coming of age story which will make you cry, ponder, cheer and burst your buttons with pride at being an American!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 2, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    One of the most inspiring accounts I've read in quite a long time.

    I just finished reading The Unforgiving Minute, and in it I have found long lost honor and inspiration I once had. As an ex-cadet of USMA, enjoy reading accounts of cadets and grads, which is why I decided to read Mullaney's. I was in for more than I thought. Mullaney had accomplish nearly everything I had wanted to achieve while a cadet. When I left West Point, having been got the best of by the mathematics and chemistry departments, I had lost much self respect and esteem. I've since picked myself up and contribute much to society, but I have alwys wondered "what if?" What if I had done better, graduated, and gone on to Ranger School? How would my life be different? Before finishing the book, I decided that I would do my best to pick up my dreams where I had left off. As a member of the Army Reserve, I am looking forward to changing to active duty to realize my dreams and aspirations. Mullaney's accounts of not only his achievements, but also his times of self-doubt and personal troubles made me realize that I may have veered off course, but I wasn't down for the count. The book reads almost as if Mullaney took the time to tell his story to you over a few pints. I recommend this book for all Americans, both military and civilians. Mullaney is what I feel defines the ideal American. We are privileged to have men and women such as he who are willing to put "responsibility before privilege".

    Go Army!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 25, 2009

    more from this reviewer


    There is no doubt that this is a good book, and the author has been getting his share of press for it. I liked it as it presented me with information that I otherwise wouldn't have learned, and provided me with a perspective which I didn't have. The author is not without considerable ego, which colors the pages and his actions. For all his gifts, one wonders why we gave him this military education if he was going to give it up the first chance he had. Small criticism, as people are allowed to leave, but he never does seem bound to be a soldier, leading me to ask why he took that course. And to ask that after reading the book means that something still did not come across.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 12, 2009

    A must read

    "The Unforgiving Minute" is certainly one of the best war memoirs to come out of the post-9/11 era. Craig Mullaney's keen sense of his surroundings and his attention to detail allowed him to portray his very poignant story in such a way that any one person can learn a myriad of lessons from his life experiences, military or otherwise. "The Unforgiving Minute" is both a phenomenal tribute to the sacrifice and hardship born by those military members who have served and are presently serving our country in Afghanistan and Iraq and an emotional story of the author's coming-of-age and constant quest for self-awareness. I highly recommend reading this book.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 7, 2009

    A Soldier's Story, A Love Story, and a Life-Affirming Story

    Craig M. Mullaney's "The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier's Education" is for anyone who has ever asked the question in life "What Am I Doing Here?" as he follows "the magnetic pull of West Point." Mullaney answers that question by taking the reader on his extraordinary and compelling journey, coming from a working-class, Irish Catholic family in Rhode Island, to his education as a Cadet at West Point, as a Rhodes Scholar at Lincoln College at Oxford, and through his training at Army Ranger School, and as a platoon leader in Afghanistan. He finds himself in his "unforgiving minute" in Afghanistan on a mission along the Pakistani border, where he is responsible for his soldiers' safety and lives.

    The "Unforgiving Minute" is surprisingly not only a soldier's story, but a son's story, a brother's story, and a love story, recounting his warm and funny romance with the doctor-in-training who he meets at Oxford. All of Mullaney's experiences come alive in his writing, culminating in his time in Afghanistan as he applies his education and training with his platoon and his superiors (who are not all impressed with his Oxford education and his desire to continue to challenge himself intellectually).

    This inspiring memoir is finely written, always intelligent, and at times, humorous and heart-breaking. It is a must read for any American who wants to understand what it means to be a soldier in these difficult times.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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