Recently retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Hunter “Rip” Rawlings IV spent much of his nearly 23 years in the Marine Corps in the trenches with the grunts.
The career infantry commander and light armored reconnaissance officer just retired from his last post as warfighting director for the Marine Corps Command and Staff College.
But it was an unexpected assignment and an even more fortuitous friendship that has led to his post-Marine Corps career as a military fiction writer who co-authored the recently released “Red Metal” with #1 New York Times bestselling novelist Mark Greaney, writer of The Gray Man series who also continued Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series going after the author’s death.
Rawlings spoke recently with Marine Corps Times about his time in service, early obsession with reading and budding writing interest over the course of his military career.
Editor’s note: The following question and answer format was edited for clarity.
Q: Was military fiction always something of interest and how did reading in general fit into your early life?
A: Some of the very first fiction books I read were military themed. Embarrassingly old stuff, the Horatio Hornblower series, classic 1700s naval fiction. After that the spigot was turned on. I read Tom Clancy, “Red October,” “Red Storm Rising,” W.E.B. Griffin and Dale Dye’s Vietnam books. Dale Dye later became a good acquaintance and Charles Henderson, retired Marine warrant officer, who wrote a biography of famed Marine Corps sniper Carlos Hathcock, was a friend of the family. My father was a classics professor so he made us read the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey.”
The Odysseus is for an intents and purposes a Marine. And the “Iliad” has men landing ships and laying siege to a foreign power.
Q: What about writing? Did you write much beyond what was required for school or in your early military professional writing assignments?
A: I wrote in grade school, junior high, high school, but college is where it really took off. I did two and a half degrees, English literature, German literature and studio art. I’ve written the whole time while in service, combat writing, poetry, made up fiction stories while on deployment for my children. The only publishable writing was professional military stuff. I hid the other writing from my compatriots.
Q: How did you meet and end up writing with Mark Greaney?
A: About six years ago I was back from deployment and had been selected for command. I was wondering who took over the Tom Clancy books and found Mark Greaney. I contact him through his website and asked if he’d be interested in seeing some of my writing.
Mark said no.
I thought that was going to be it but later I was based in the Pentagon working on strategic issues and told him if he were in town I could show him around. About a month later he took my offer. I dropped asking him about writing but we started hanging out from there. I’d share some sea stories and talk about stuff I saw downrange.
In 2015 I invited him to be a guest at the Marine Corps Birthday Ball. While his wife and my wife were shopping we stopped for a 15-minute coffee and I started talking through some ideas. Two and a half hours later Mark said this is a really good idea, maybe a book deal. He’s a political science major so he saw the geopolitical themes of the military story.
Q: Without divulging any spoilers, can you talk a bit about what you and Greaney came up with for “Red Metal?”
A: The premise is that there are these rare Earth metals which are extremely good for miniaturized electronics, especially missile guidance systems, GPS systems, etc. They’re worth an exorbitant amount of money and only mined in a few places and of limited quantity. In the story, Russia loses a rare Earth mine to the United States and the West. They realize if they don’t do something then they’ll have to buy these from the West and that will leverage their future.
Q: Sounds like it presaged some of the “great power competition” that has been tossed about for the past few years and made official in the National Defense Strategy.
A: I try to look at dwell times periods between wars. We tend to think that we’re going to fight the exact same war again. We put our young lieutenants and staff sergeants through that training. And the United States is the penultimate counterinsurgency force right now. But that then begs the question, then what happens if you fight a near peer? There’s a scene in the book where a lieutenant colonel is talking with his sergeant major after a battalion operation in Afghanistan. The sergeant major says we’re finally winning over here. But the officer says the next group we fight will be much different. When I took 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, through Mojave Viper a lot of my mid-level officers with time in Iraq were asking me why are we fighting with artillery and tanks? Because the next war will be a hybrid war.
Q: How did you find time to write and what advice would you offer aspiring authors still in the ranks?
A: I multitask. I credit the service, it forced me to read and write and do all of these things at a rapid rate. I never worked for a general who was forgiving on rapid timelines. But some things I would say to new writers: rank is no object when it comes to writing.
If you’re a lance corporal, go write and try to get published. Number two is to use the rich experience that the service provides us. I’m not sure I’d have been as interesting to read if I hadn’t heard lance corporals talking to admirals, gunnys talking to colonels. A third thing I’d add … go take some writing classes. Pay the money, it’s worth it.
Q: Lastly, what are your post-retirement writing plans?
A: I have a two book contract of my own and the first deadline is in 45 days. Also, “Red Metal” has done well already so we’re making inroads for a book two.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.