Andy McNab on being tortured, facing an execution squad and the upside of being a psychopath
February 17, 2023. Series 7. Episode 58
“I’ve got the ability to kill people and not sort of worry about it too much.”
In this episode, I’m joined by the former SAS soldier, hugely successful writer, campaigner and clinically diagnosed psychopath Andy McNab. Andy’s life began in crisis .. abandoned after birth on the steps of a London hospital, he was later adopted and raised in Peckham. After several run-ins with the law as a teenager, Andy’s life was transformed when he was given a choice – prison or the army. He went on to become one of the most decorated soldiers of his generation.
In 1991 Andy commanded an eight-man SAS squad designated Bravo Two Zero, who were dropped behind enemy lines in Iraq on a mission to destroy Saddam’s lines of communications. His best-selling book about those events has sold over six million copies and has never been out of print.
It told the incredible story of how, after seeing three members of his squad killed, he was captured and tortured. Andy was only released after enduring an horrific mock execution.
Months after experiences that would break even the toughest of individuals, Andy was back to work in covert operations. How he coped, he tells me, is in large part due to his mental make-up. Years after leaving the army Andy was clinically diagnosed with psychopathy. “But I’m a good type of psychopath,” he says whilst admitting that his lack of empathy means that he is capable of killing for money, if his circumstances demanded it.
Thankfully with a further 52 books now under his belt, that is unlikely to happen. Andy’s latest book, Shadow State, the first in a new series focused on the murky world of cybercrime, is out now.
Essentially a psychopath’s guide to resilience, this is an episode you will not want to miss.
- Andy’s face has been obscured in the video recording of this episode. He explains exactly why at the start of our conversation.
– SAS selection
– Withstanding torture
– Stoicism and the power of perspective
– Money and morality
Andy’s Crisis Cures:
1. Don’t start flapping. Just accept what’s going on. There is a crisis. It’s here. It’s happening.
2. Take action. Once you’ve accepted the truth, you’ve got to get on. You’ve got to rectify it slowly to get out of the crisis. Take responsibility for it.
3. Accept that the world isn’t that perfect. You may not come out of that crisis completely clean. You’ve just got to get on with it and try and get some resolution. Because the next one is coming down the road, and you don’t want them to all compound on top of each other.
Shadow State – https://amzn.to/3Xzhcxe
Down to the Wire – https://amzn.to/3I9ixVC
Bravo Two Zero – https://amzn.to/3KdihHP
Twitter – @The_Real_McNab – https://twitter.com/The_Real_McNab?s=20
Stream/Buy ‘Allies’ by Some Velvet Morning: https://ampl.ink/qp6bm
Some Velvet Morning Website: www.somevelvetmorning.co.uk
Your Daily Practice: Sleep by Myndstream: https://open.spotify.com/track/5OX9XgJufFz9g63o2Dv2i5?si=b2f9397c92084682
Host – Andy Coulson
CWC production team: Louise Difford, Ed Isaacs and Jane Sankey
With special thanks to Global
Full episode transcript:
Andy Coulson: [0:00:06] Hello, I’m Andy Coulson, and welcome back to Crisis What Crisis, the podcast which aims to guide you towards a more resilient approach to life and whatever it might throw at you.
We’re joined today, I am absolutely delighted to say, by the novelist, former SAS soldier and campaigner Andy McNab. Crisis came very early in Andy’s life. Abandoned shortly after birth on the steps Guys Hospital in a Harrod’s carrier bag of all things, he was adopted and raised in Peckham.
After what I think he would describe as an unsuccessful school career, Andy drifted into a life of petty crime before eventually ending up in juvenile detention, only leaving on the condition that he joined the Military. It was to be the turning point of his life.
Eight years after enlisting with the Royal Green Jackets he undertook the notoriously gruelling SAS selection and succeeded. He then worked on both covert and overt operations including counter-terrorism and drug operations in the Middle East and Far East, South and Central America, and Northern Ireland.
Most famously, in 1991 Andy commanded an eight-man squad designated Bravo Two Zero, who were dropped behind enemy lines in Iraq on a mission to destroy Saddam’s lines of communications. They were compromised, and in trying to escape to Syria three of his team were killed, one escaped and the remainder were captured and tortured. After six weeks they were released. His best-selling book about those events has sold 6 million copies and has never been out of print.
But Andy didn’t stop there. He has published 52 further books in the years since, including an autobiography and a series of novels. His latest book, Shadow State, the first in a new series focused on the murky world of cybercrime, is out now.
Alongside all this, Andy has also been awarded the CBE in recognition of his campaigning work around the crisis of illiteracy, helping young adults and those in prison improve their reading skills.
So, Andy McNab, welcome to Crisis What Crisis, and thanks for joining us.
Andy McNab: [0:02:05] Thanks for having us, mate.
Andy Coulson: [0:02:07] Great stuff. I’d say it’s great to see you, but of course for those who are watching on YouTube they will have noticed that we can’t see you. And that’s for a very good reason, because since the release of Bravo Two Zero in 1993 you have very sensibly taken precautions against potential recrimination by doing your best to conceal your identity. So no pictures today, but I know the words, the story, will more than make up for that.
Andy, I suppose the fact that you still, all these years later, fear that someone could choose to make you a target, begs a rather obvious question. How do you cope, so far after those events, with the fact that there is this threat? There are practical things. Concealing yourself, as you are here, but how else does it restrict your life, can I ask?
Andy McNab: [0:02:58] Do you know, not as badly as you would think. It’s just really being sensible. So of course, as part of if you like the business of publishing, I’ve got to get out there and do the publicity on the book, all that sort of stuff. So it’s just really being sensible and not showing my face.
Obviously you get all the- the MPs and everybody get all the fruits who are going to come out and kill you, all that sort of stuff, but over the years I’ve had some credible threats and warnings from the police. So it’s not all cloak and dagger stuff, it’s just being sensible where the fact is it’s not only my own safety but the safety of the family.
Andy Coulson: [0:03:49] We spoke with Bill Browder, the author of Red Notice. He faces a different threat of course from Vladimir Putin. He doesn’t hide his face, but he does take real measures to protect himself, particularly his movements. There’s no forewarning, he’s very careful about his security.
When we recorded the podcast he got an unexpected knock on the door while we were talking, and you could see his expression change, you could see him tighten. Do you fear the knock on the door, Andy?
Andy McNab: [0:04:25] No, do you know, I don’t? I think I’ve got systems in place, and in fact the Ministry of Defence have been very helpful in that anyway over the years. There’s just systems in place that make that really unlikely, so if you like it’s all the preparation more than anything.
But both of us really are high-value targets, HVTs, because it’s not so much about the individual, what it’s about is what it represents. So people who are in that high-profile area, it means that if they can get a hit, they can get an attack, they can get a death, it sort of heightens whatever their reasoning is, whether- again, they’re just sort of- there’s something mentally deficient where they’re just going head out on a whim or it is some sort of organised event.
Andy Coulson: [0:05:29] Yes. This issue came into the news quite recently obviously with Prince Harry’s book. And then argument there was this was quite frankly a- depending on who you read, a mistake, let’s put it that way. Because it created a target. By talking about the amount of people that you killed in combat, by describing in the way that he did, that he put a sort of target on his back and on the backs of others. Do you agree with that?
Andy McNab: [0:05:59] Yes I do, but more at an individual level, I think that clearly all through the book the ghost writer was given a bit too much freedom in the way that he wrote. But I think that first of all, all young soldiers talk about- certainly within the environment, talk about it if they’ve had a kill that day. That sort of stuff. And that’s natural stuff. I think going out and talking about it in a book, not so much in the way that he thinks about it, just a chess player and obviously politically that was- everybody’s jumping on board of that.
But actually what happens, again, high-value target, you’ve got somebody who has for the first time said that he’s killed about twenty-five Taliban, so that again just opens you up for attacks. So if you’re looking at the general security of the Royal Family, nine out of ten times it’s obviously to keep them away from people who have got mental issues and you know, these are the new targets.
But now what he’s done is actually put a framework on a group of people that, again, he’s a high-value target. So if they could hit him or anything around him, they’ve achieved the aim.
Look at Salman Rushdie last year. He’s bouncing around for years, in effect sort of feeling that he’s free and he’s doing his events, but actually it caught up with him. So yes, it’s basically just more or less as a personal target and the people around him rather than in general. But yes, I think he has.
Andy Coulson: [0:07:44] Yes. So you see something like Salman Rushdie, does that make you- the day you saw that, what was your internal reaction to it, if you like? Did that make you think, “Oh God, actually I can’t relax”?
Andy McNab: [0:07:58] Twenty or thirty years, when the Satanic Verses came out? And again, he’s had that sort of period where he’s had very tight security and I’m sure there’s been threats bouncing up and down over the years, and then actually he’s just opened himself up, there was a bit of a slack period, and bad timing because there was somebody there who wanted to do something.
So I think again, it’s not being uber vigilant all the time because you couldn’t sustain that. But actually it is being vigilant. The original people that were jumping about with the fatwa trying to get to him, well there’s a newer generation now. And a lot of that newer generation really don’t care if they caught afterwards. So you know, the threat is still there.
Andy Coulson: [0:08:46] Can we talk a little bit about your reaction to crisis in the moment, though? The resilience that you’ve just described is a sort of over time process, but in the moment, for those- I suspect about two dozen people who haven’t read Bravo Two Zero, in 1991 behind the enemy lines mission to cut Sadam’s lines of communications, your team is spotted by a young boy herding goats, no less. And after a pursuit, three of your colleagues are killed, you and others are incarcerated and tortured over a period of about six weeks I think.
Is the memory of those days still vivid in your mind?
Andy McNab: [0:09:32] No, I don’t dream about it, I don’t think about it. Clearly, I think about it when we’re talking about it, and I’ve got the imagery still there if I want to have a look at it. But it’s not avoiding it, it’s really- it’s done. You know? I don’t want it to happen again, but I got over it. And in fact part of the system- I served another three years in the Regiment. The Special Air Service, or the SAS, it’s not known as that. Within the environment it’s simply known as the Regiment.
I served another three years, and what I think helped me a lot was that you’ve just got to get on. You know, so it’s like, “That’s done,” you get sorted out, there was some medical treatment that had to be done, and then you’re back straight on operations again.
Andy Coulson: [0:10:29] In summary Andy, if you don’t mind, would you just explain what happened to you?
Andy McNab: [0:10:38] Yes. Basically I was in charge of an eight-man foot patrol that was sent to the north west of Baghdad just before the ground war started, you know, the air attacks and the allied forces moving towards Kuwait to liberate it. Trying to find a fibreoptic cable that was passing the coordinates for the scud missiles that were in the western deserts of Iraq at that time that were firing into Israel.
So we went up there trying to find this cable and then we were compromised, as you said Andy, we were compromised by a young lad, a goatherd. And for us the problem was that our biggest weapon was concealment. It’s not the weapons we’ve got, because we’ve got assault rifles and 66 rocket launchers each. But it’s concealment, so we’re compromised.
So what we had to do was try and get out of that hide area, because we were very closed up in the bottom on a watershed, get out on the desert and try and make distance. That all went wrong and we had to put in what was called our E and E plan, which was Escape and Evasion, which is going to the American or the British Embassy in Syria. Ironic really, that was the closest country of safety for us.
So off we went. On the way we had a series of contacts, running out of ammunition, three were killed, four were captured and only one made it eventually to the British Embassy. So we individually were held in an interrogation centre in Baghdad, and by now the air war had started so we were getting bombed every night. They wanted us to say we were Israelis initially.
There were three of us in there, as we sort of discovered over the period. We were all stripped of clothing, handcuffed, blindfolded, whipped, burned, had some teeth pulled out by a guy who said he was a dentist from Guys Hospital but he’s come back to Iraq because of the war.
Andy Coulson: [0:12:44] Did you point out to him that that was a significant location for you?
Andy McNab: [0:12:50] Exactly yes, that was the weird thing. And obviously we were taking hits in the compound as well so you know, we might get killed by our own air power. They wanted us to say that we were Israelis.
Interestingly, some of the military interrogators had been to Sandhurst, the UK’s military academy. Because obviously we backed them in their war against Iran for ten years. It’s amazing, isn’t it? One of the interrogators- we had cover stories that we were medics from different regiments that had been amalgamated as part of search of rescue teams for downed pilots, and obviously we were all medical trained so we can talk about that. We can talk about our old units, so it gave substance to the cover story.
One of the military interrogators said, “You was in the Green Jackets? What battalion?” I went, “2RGJ, second battalion.” He went, “Do you know Captain Vivien Smith?” I went, “Yes, I do. He used to be in the same rifle company.” He went, “Yes, I was at Sandhurst with him.” That’s how crazy it was.
Andy Coulson: [0:14:04] Can I ask, Andy, at what stage in the process are you finding yourself having this, “Ah, do you know-?” conversation? Is this after he’s stubbed cigarettes out on your arms or pulled your teeth out?
Andy McNab: [0:14:16] It was. There were two sets of interrogators. You had the secret police guys that really went for it, and then you had the military guys that were really- there would be a few slaps and all that, but they weren’t doing the whipping or the burning. And again, part of the process is trying to have empathy with you and all that sort of stuff, which we- I must say, what we call ‘resistance interrogation training’, that what we call ‘prone to capture’ troops get, you know, United Kingdom special forces and air crews get this training, it really did help actually.
But yes, you’re just in this bizarre situation where one minute you’re talking to them about second battalion in the Green Jackets, and then the next time you go in- and again, you’re always blindfolded and handcuffed, and then you know there’s not going to be too much talking this time because it’s the civilian guys, the secret police.
But going back to that resilience thing, your original question, was that you get to a point, and it’s just not in this situation- or I get to a point, it’s not just in the Bravo Two Zero situation, where you think, “Fuck it.” It’s like, you’re there, there’s not a lot you can do about it apart from trying to get out.
Andy Coulson: [0:15:41] What you’re describing Andy is something that comes out in this podcast quite frequently, is the sort of basic tenet of stoicism. I don’t know if you’re a stoic fan, but it’s calculating in the most extreme circumstances, “Here’s what I’ve got control of, here’s what I do not have control of. I am going to put all the stuff that I don’t have control of in the bin and I’m going to focus only on what I have total control of.”
Andy McNab: [0:16:09] Exactly.
Andy Coulson: [0:16:07] And in this circumstance, when you’re sat in an interrogation cell in Iraq, the only thing it seems that you had control of is your thoughts, is your mind. And so that’s the bit I’m really interested in. Because obviously your training- we’ll get into this perhaps a little bit later. There’s clearly something innate in you, right? But there’s also this layer of training, that you reference a moment ago. And that training, as I understand it, includes kind of studying the testimony of others who have been tortured, right?
Andy McNab: [0:16:43] Yes, yes.
Andy Coulson: [0:16:45] So, tell us a little bit about that, please.
Andy McNab: [0:16:48] Part of that training, which is a continuous sort of process, and you do some of the physical part of it. We can’t be naïve about these things, all countries have their own interrogation centres, all that sort of stuff exists in the UK and everywhere else. So we go through if you like the physical part of that training as well with the guys who do it for a living for the UK. So it’s training for them, training for us, all that sort of stuff.
But one of the interesting parts, where I didn’t really think about it at the time but obviously later on it sort of- I could draw on it, was that we spent a week listening to people who had been prisoners, held against their will. Whether they’re political hostages, prisoners of war. And one thing they would explain was their situation, what they would think about, and then it was questions and answers.
The argument was that if there was just one sentence or one point somebody said during the course of this week that helps you if you’re captured, great.
For me, it was an American Phantom pilot from the US Marine Corps. So he’s on an aircraft carrier and they fly 80 missions and that’s the end of their tour. He’s on his 77th mission, and the way he describes it, literally, he’s on an aircraft carrier, so he’s playing volleyball, drinking coffee, donuts, get in his Phantom, go off for a couple of hours, bomb something and come back. That’s what he does.
So he’s on his 77th mission, gets shot down and has six years in solitary confinement, and every major bone in his body had been broken. Just beatings, just getting beaten. When he was talking to us, no hair, no teeth and no muscle mass on his arse because he literally was just beaten with frayed bamboo and all that muscle mass was just beaten away. But he was still alive. And what he said, which really helped me, was that- and again, probably going back to being a stoic, was that he couldn’t do anything physically to affect his situation. Because if he resisted something with two guards they would just bring in four.
So he said the only thing they couldn’t get was his mind. So he had fantasies of building a house- he’s never built a house, but he built a house, he painted it, all that sort of stuff. And actually for me that was it. The only thing they can’t get hold of is your mind, and when you’re captured you still have a job to do anyway. It’s called ‘conduct under capture’ and that’s to give a window of opportunity for the headquarter element of the regiment to go, “Okay, we haven’t heard anything from Bravo Two Zero for one, two, three, four days, so what we have to assume is that everybody has been captured and everybody is saying everything they know.” So what they do from that threat assessment then is change or maybe cancel other operations. So you’ve got to give them time to do their threat assessment.
Andy Coulson: [0:20:07] So you’re literally not just thinking- you’re saving lives, basically, in those early days. You’re saving your colleagues’ lives.
Andy McNab: [0:20:18] Totally, yes. There were a couple of lads who were still out on the desert in D squadron who were trying to physically find the scuds. And two of those lads, I’m godfather to their kids and all that sort of stuff, so you’re not naturally going to be saying. And before you go out on jobs, you go into isolation. So you only need to know what you need to know. So you don’t know about other people’s jobs, you don’t know the bigger picture. Again, because of operational security. So they can say, “What does Bravo Two Zero know? So this is what we’ve got to change.” So if there are lads that have been caught and get interrogated, they’ve got to give us that window.
Andy Coulson: [0:21:00] Astonishing, Andy. Going back to the Phantom pilot, what we’re talking about really there is an extreme example of the power of perspective, and that is something actually. Your story is extreme, right? None of us are going to go through what you’ve gone through, but it does filter down to people who are suffering a different kind of crisis: the ability to think about others, to compare your situation with difficulties that other people have gone through, and to reach the conclusion, always, which is a terrible cliché but is an absolute truism in resilience, is that it could be worse.
Andy McNab: [0:21:36] It could be worse.
Andy Coulson: [0:21:39] It could be worse. And the power of being able to say that to yourself is huge, isn’t it?
Andy McNab: [0:21:44] Number one, it could be worse. And number two, you’ve just got to accept the truth, which is that it’s a crisis. It’s here, it’s happening. You know, culture is very good at putting the blame elsewhere because no one is- we’ve all got shoulders like Coca Cola bottles, you know? All the problems come off and they go elsewhere.
Andy Coulson: [0:22:07] More and more. More and more, that is the case.
Andy McNab: [0:22:09] More and more, you know. And the more avoidance, the more it’s going to get worse for you. So it’s almost embracing the problem. Accept it. It doesn’t matter if you’re to blame, or it’s an event that’s taken over, it could be a family member that’s dead, you’ve just got to accept it. And then get on with it.
Andy Coulson: [0:22:29] So the power of perspective, the integrity of the mind, what about in grief, Andy? How did you cope when you lost your colleagues? You’ve lost a number over the years, but in the Bravo Two Zero scenario those are guys who had literally stood next to you. You’re running for the border together and you lose three of them. How did that impact you?
Andy McNab: [0:22:52] Do you know, it’s not as- within that sort of environment, within a military environment it’s not as emotional as people would expect. I think that obviously we’re all watching films on TV so they’ve always got to show the drama and the emotion. Of course, people are dead, and you know them, you know their families, you know their kids, all that sort of stuff. But one of the things that people forget is that nobody is making them be there. Everybody is a volunteer, and the argument is there, “If you don’t like it, get out.”
So there’s if you like that baseline of they’re in the business of- they’ve signed a sort of non-conditional, non-liability contract. Because people do get injured and killed.
So it’s certainly when people are getting killed on operations there’s really not too much time to think about that. It’s when you get back, and then obviously the bodies can be recovered and all the- depending on the situation, the funerals with the families. And what happens is that the grief is taken over by making sure that the families are alright. Again, because they live there, the kids go to the same school, all that sort of stuff, you’re making sure that’s alright.
We have bizarre situations, it’s called ‘dead man’s auction’. You get all the guy’s kit together and there’s loads of beer, loads of curry, everything is laid out and everybody is bidding for- a lot of it is a load of old crap, but what happens is that you’re bidding outrageous amounts of money, I don’t know, for a sweatshirt or something, because all that money goes to the families.
Andy Coulson: [0:24:49] Goodness.
Andy McNab: [0:24:49] So what happens is, if you like, the practicalities of death take over more than the emotion.
Andy Coulson: [0:24:57] So that’s actually a sort of cultural- within the regiment that is a sort of cultural process, something that happens to- it’s cold and it’s also deeply emotional. It’s not cold, it’s practical but it’s also deeply emotional. The idea that there is this gathering around someone’s possessions, an auction held, people over-paying so knowing that that money will go to the widow and the children. That’s an astonishing thing.
Andy McNab: [0:25:34] Yes, I know. I think it’s a fantastic system, and it’s- because there is a more, if you like- because we can always mope around and like, “Oh, it’s shame.” The fact is, he’s dead.
Andy Coulson: [0:25:46] I think we should just wrap up the story. Just explain how it is that you were released.
Andy McNab: [0:25:49] What was done, there was a deal done between the International Red Cross and the Iraqis to bring Algerian medical staff over to deal with the civilian casualties. And there really was, the estimates- easily 100,000 civilians were killed and injured. I can explain it in a minute as we’re sort of bumping over bodies to get out of Abu Ghraib.
So there was a prisoner exchange because the Iraqis hadn’t made the list and done what the International Red Cross require of people. So there was a prisoner release which myself and two American Harrier pilots, US Marine Corps Harrier pilots weren’t part of. What happened was when the Red Cross get prisoners of war, again there’s another round of interrogations. “Who do you know that is still there? Can you describe them?” All that sort of stuff.
And then what was happening, the Red Cross held back the Algerian medical staff to get- there was about a dozen of us, to get the remaining dozen out of Abu Ghraib. And that’s when we were all put in a truck. And again, we didn’t know this at the time, we just realised there was one lot of prisoners that went and there was people that stayed. And literally as we were driving through, the truck was trying to avoid dead bodies in the streets because they still didn’t have time to clear everything up. You know, civilian bodies.
So we were put into an aircraft hangar, which we thought, “This is great,” you know, near aircraft, there could be a real prisoner exchange. We were put up against the wall and we had a mock execution. So we was all facing the wall and the Iraqis started cocking weapons.
Andy Coulson: [0:27:39] Jesus.
Andy McNab: [0:27:39] Again, it was going back to that stoic, if you like, mindset. I’ve got no control, so all you can do is- all I did was rested my forehead against the wall and let them crack on. There’s nothing you can do.
Andy Coulson: [0:27:56] Andy, let’s just pause there for a second. Do you remember how you- what was the internal commentary?
Andy McNab: [0:28:03] Yes, it was, “Fuck it. Fuck it, we’re going to get-” and that’s it. “Fuck it.”
Andy Coulson: [0:28:09] If it happens, it happens. Were you convinced that it was real, that it was going to happen?
Andy McNab: [0:28:15] Yes, yes. I thought we were going to be killed. I thought- again, because we were always handcuffed and blindfolded, and we were facing the wall, and then you could hear all the magazines being put- we know these sounds, military people know those sounds, magazines being put in, weapons being cocked. Interestingly I was next to one of the Jump Jet pilots just mentioned, a guy called Joe Small, obviously I met him later on, and he was mumbling. I thought he was flapping a bit and all that, but what he was actually doing was praying. Because he had just become a grandfather but he’s never seen the kid. Afterwards he said, “What I was doing was praying,” to this grandchild that he hasn’t seen.
And then you get different reactions down the line. Some people were shouting out profanities like, “Fuck you,” all that sort of stuff. A couple of people were begging. And what Joe Small done, so I was just leaning my forehead against the brickwork, and what Joe said he just shouted out, “Shut the fuck up,” do you know what I mean? Because it’s all going to happen, he said, “The last thing I want to hear is you lot.” Because he wanted to sort of pray.
And it sort of affected some of them, not all of them. And then all the Iraqis started laughing. So you think, do you know what I mean? You’re like, “Thank fuck for that,” it didn’t happen. But you know, again, you’ve got no control.
Andy Coulson: [0:29:48] Now, Andy. Later in life you went through a psychological screening process which resulted in a diagnosis of psychopathy. A diagnosis that defined you as a psychopath, in other words.
Andy McNab: [0:30:01] Yes.
Andy Coulson: [0:30:01] But a good one. You wrote a book about it: The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success. A hell of a title. Tell us about that diagnosis please Andy, because the defining trait of a psychopath is a lack of empathy, an inability or difficulty to understand how other people are feeling. This news, I gather, was not a surprise to your wife or people who knew you well. But tell me about that diagnosis, please.
Andy McNab: [0:30:28] Basically the Department of Experimental Psychology was doing some research on where what they call ‘functioning psychopaths’ are in society. Because there’s a theory that functioning psychopaths actually help society rather than like the Ted Bundy of real life or the Dexter Morgan of TV. And you know, their research was showing they would be where you would expect. They were in law, they were in politics, finance, the medical profession particularly neurosurgery, and the military. They said, “Do you want to do these experiments?” and I said, “Yes, okay.”
You get all rigged up with 64 sensors that go on a skull cap, you’re all gelled up and you’ve got different sensors over the body, and it’s certain parts of a body that can’t bluff it. You can’t bluff that you’re not being affected in some other way.
So you get sat into this chair, almost like a dentist’s chair. You’re all strapped in with all this kit on and you’re subjected to all these different visual and audio stimuli. What happened was that you got all the guys- it was a bit like a film scene. They’ve all got white coats on, it’s all sort of quite strange with all the machines. After it we was sitting there and they was undoing me and all that, and basically the results were quite unique in a way that it flatlined, and they became quite famous in academia, these results. Because what happens, I had to go back and redo it with a different compliance group.
So you’ve got the scientists who-
Andy Coulson: [0:32:13] Because they doubted the clarity of the result?
Andy McNab: [0:32:16] They doubted the data. So you have the scientists and then you have a compliance group that are watching it. So what they done, they re-done it with a different compliance group, and it was the same reading.
Andy Coulson: [0:32:30] And the reading was that you are undeniably a psychopath. How do they define the good versus the bad psychopath? Is it purely based on your actions or is there also a path that they can follow from a data perspective?
Andy McNab: [0:32:51] There is, there’s both. There’s actually reactions from certainly if you like from the verbal sort of therapy-type sessions that you do before. And the data that they’re collecting from the clinical trials, because obviously they can see the brain, they can see the bits of the brain that are lighting up. Again, the stuff that you can’t cheat and bluff through a verbal system. And they’re seeing the neurons making pathways in different parts of the brain as opposed to where they should go.
Because there’s a small almond shaped- it’s about the same size as an almond, as well, part of the brain called the amygdala, and the amygdala gives you fight and flight, obviously in the olde part of the brain. Fight and flight, empathy, all those sorts of things that we take for granted in everyday life. So what happened, the amygdala didn’t work.
Andy Coulson: [0:33:52] Andy, I listened to a Desert Island Disc interview you gave many years ago to Sue Lawley. In it, she asked you if you could kill for money. You said, almost without hesitation, that you could. That you were perfectly happy with your now very successful life, a life that doesn’t require you to kill anyone, but that if that changed, if that life went wrong, that, well yes, you could kill someone. The difficult bit, you told her, would not be the killing, it would be the getting away with it.
Andy McNab: [0:34:23] Getting away with it, yes.
Andy Coulson: [0:34:24] I mean, is that really how you felt? Is that really how you feel?
Andy McNab: [0:34:28] Yes, and still now. I think it’s very clear-cut. I think it’s like- and I’ve got the ability to kill people and not worry about it too much, so that’s fine. I think one of the problems with psychopathy is that life is- well, it’s a problem within society, it’s not for people who register high on the spectrum. But it’s almost- not as flippant as a game, but everything is like a game. It’s like, “Let’s give it a go.” So if there was an opportunity to say, “Okay, well-” again, we’re all sort of been grown up on watching TV on the way that these things work. It’s really, really clear-cut.
The technical term- you’re given your principle, the guy you’re going to kill. How much is it worth to the guy who’s going to pay you? If it’s worth a billion dollars say, well you know, you want 10% of that. So what’s it worth to him? So that’s all the pre-work you’ve got to do. Then you’ve got to do the job, and most importantly of course is getting away with it. But it’s all part of the- and again it’s a flippant term and I’ll try and think of a decent term for it, but it’s all part of the game.
Andy Coulson: [0:35:44] You’re being brutally, brutally honest about this. The killing, the taking of another life outside of a military context, right? And let’s be clear, when you’re with your squad in Iraq you are doing a job on behalf of a government, on behalf of a nation. You are representing others. In a civilian context or in a mercenary context or in a contract killing context, that is purely about money. It is without morality. And you can say that about yourself, presumably because of your psychopathy, that you do not have the necessary empathy, or you do not have an empathetic barrier that stops you from considering the moral impact of taking another life.
Andy McNab: [0:36:31] No, the amygdala doesn’t work. And it’s an interesting sort of thing where it’s not in a cold-hearted way of kill, kill, kill, it’s not about that. Basically you’re looking at it and you go, “Well, first of all-” and again, you’ve got to be really basic about it. It is interesting enough? Are they paying me enough? Does it appeal enough to me? If all those answers work-
Even whether we’re looking now at the situation of being paid to kill somebody, or actually being asked to do anything to do with publishing or film or whatever it is, it’s the same sort of free criteria.
Andy Coulson: [0:37:15] It’s the same process for you. But Andy, you’re a father. You know in this imaginary scenario that the person that you might be being paid to kill will have a family, maybe will have children. We talked in a very emotional way about the dead man’s auction, a very visceral description of that where you can recognise the emotional- it’s fundamentally a practical exercise in helping everyone move on but it is also a deeply emotional moment, you recognise the emotion there.
But you really are saying that you would not- if the circumstances of your life led you there, that the emotional calculation just simply would not exist for you.
Andy McNab: [0:38:02] No, it wouldn’t. We were talking about seeing people from the regiment being killed. Just on an interesting note, is that within my troop, 7 troop, more people were killed once they left, committing suicide due to PTSD, than were actually killed on jobs. But if you like, the way that they died doesn’t matter, it’s because just as we were talking about say my family or the military family, as far as I’m concerned they’re one of us. It’s part of the tribe. It becomes all very tribal.
So if you’ve got, and again, it’s sort of a bizarre circumstance where you’d get offered one of these jobs. Well, they’re not part of the tribe, so why do I care?
Andy Coulson: [0:38:52] So the tribal instinct can affect your emotional radar?
Andy McNab: [0:38:56] Yes, they’re one of us.
Andy Coulson: [0:38:58] Andy, we’ve talked about the diagnosis now in some depth. Are you a believer in therapy?
Andy McNab: [0:39:07] No. I think-
Andy Coulson: [0:39:07] One imagines that it doesn’t really work for you, is that right?
Andy McNab: [0:39:11] No, it doesn’t. I don’t know, from the point of therapy to all those affirmations of dolphins jumping out the sea, life and all that sort of stuff, as far as I’m concerned the only way to do it is to do it yourself and you know, just get on with it. I think we’re so- certainly in the West, we’re so caught up in the niceties of life that we’re worried about what other people think and we’re worried about within culture in general if we do something it might not be, you know, what needed to be done, and frowned upon.
Andy Coulson: [0:39:52] Do you think this sort of journey of self-analysis that the world seems to be on, some of it on the softer side, some of it on the more practical, is dangerous? Or is it just a waste of time?
Andy McNab: [0:40:07] I don’t think it’s dangerous, I don’t believe that it works for- we’ve got so much self-entitlement, and that comes from that whole entitlement movement in the ‘70s of everyone is special, everyone is this, everyone is that.
Andy Coulson: [0:40:23] That’s for sure.
Andy McNab: [0:40:24] Actually we’re not, we’re really not. So we’re not really special. There are 6 billion of us out there all running around trying to sort ourselves out. So the fact that all of a sudden we feel that we’re missing out on something because we’re entitled to whatever it may be, without doing the work to get it.
Andy Coulson: [0:40:42] Andy, we’ve had a number of guests on the pod who were adopted. They all went on to succeed, but only after experiencing crisis at one stage or another in their adult lives. Do you think that difficult beginning impacted or accelerated the psychopathy and your innate ability to deal with the difficult stuff, or were you just built that way? It’s the classic nature nurture question, I suppose.
Andy McNab: [0:41:06] Do you know what? I think I was always like it. Obviously there are horrendous stories of being in care and all that sort of stuff, and even if there isn’t sexual and physical abuse, all that sort of stuff, there’s still the whole thing of not knowing your mother and it does affect people.
I liked it. I thought it was alright. Everything that was happening- I was adopted by the cleaner. The lady who became my mum was a cleaner in the home, and she used to- it wouldn’t happen now, but they used to take the kids home for the weekends, “I’ll take him home,” or something.
Andy Coulson: [0:41:47] My gran used to do exactly that, yes.
Andy McNab: [0:41:48] Yes, there was another kid who was older than me who was a physically abused kid, he was burned with an iron and things by his natural parents. But he would go home for the weekends with the cleaner, and so it was just a natural progression because I thought that’s what happened. So I went off, and then me and this older lad would then be there. Again, no idea what was going on. They said, “Well, you live here all the time now,” and I went, “Okay.” Because this older lad did as well, and we were both adopted.
But what he said, he said, “Look-” they law was just changing, actually. For him it would be 15, for me it would be 16. He said, “When you’re 16 you’re out, no matter what.” Do you know what I mean? It’s like a waiting room. 15, he was off. So in my head always, when I’m 16 I’m off anyway. But not in a horrible way, “I’m getting out of here,” it’s like-
Andy Coulson: [0:42:50] Sorry, was it that the adopted family had made clear to you that when you were 16 the arrangement would come to an end, or the system was telling you that that’s what would happen?
Andy McNab: [0:42:58] Yes, the system would come to an end. And my brother went, “That’s when it all ends.”
Andy Coulson: [0:43:03] Right.
Andy McNab: [0:43:03] You know, because that’s how he thought. So I thought, “Okay, that’s what happens.” So always, and again not in a horrible way, not that I wanted to run away from this horrible place, it was like, “When I’m 16 that’s the end.”
And again, in later life thinking about it, I also had a great time when I was there, because I was just left to get on with it.
Andy Coulson: [0:43:28] So answer the nature nurture, Andy. Give me your answer.
Andy McNab: [0:43:33] Nature.
Andy Coulson: [0:43:33] It’s nature. You don’t think that environment affected you one way or t’other?
Andy McNab: [0:43:38] No. I think what it done, the freedom gave me to actually mature, if you like, the nature. Because it was so much time. And again, that whole thing of, “Why do I need to go to school?”
Andy Coulson: [0:43:56] Yes, which is explained, the natural part of the Andy McNab operating system.
You’ve never tried to trace your parents. You’re a story teller but you don’t want to fill in the blanks in your own story, it occurs to me.
Andy McNab: [0:44:09] No, I don’t. And again, it came from my elder adopted brother, so years later he got married and he was having his first child, and it was the normal thing, hereditary diseases and all that sort of stuff, and he hasn’t got a clue. So he then started to see if he could find his mother, and bizarrely it didn’t really upset our mum, it upset our dad. And then all of a sudden he went, “Well, I won’t bother. It doesn’t really bother. The fact is, if I’ve got a hereditary disease I’ll soon find out one way or another,” you know?
So then that sort of went on the back-burner for him, and then I thought- again, it was the elder brother who was the if you like consistency as I was growing up. I thought, “Right well, no point whatsoever.” So when I had my own child it was again, you know, hereditary diseases, all that sort of stuff, “Well, I haven’t got a clue.”
Again, the way of thinking about it was that all that stuff doesn’t matter because I can’t change anything. All I can do is change today, make today happen.
Andy Coulson: [0:45:26] Andy, let’s talk about the literacy work if we can for a second. You’ve done so much to improve the reading abilities of so many. We touched on your school days earlier, but when you joined the army I understand you yourself had a reading age of 11 or so.
You’ve had a particular focus on literacy in prisons. Tell me about why that matters to you, because I’m- you’re not a man without emotion, let’s be clear about that, given the conversation that we’ve had. And this is a very clear, very impressive demonstration of your ability to see well beyond yourself and into the needs and problems of others.
Andy McNab: [0:46:09] It all sort of happened through a group called The Reading Agency. Initially I was going into the military training establishments, because for the infantry still now, the same as me, most are what we call in education parlance Key Stage 2, numeracy and literacy between a 9 and 11 year old. So it first started going in there and going, “Basically lads, now’s the time. They’re going to educate you. Use it, abuse it, get as much as you can out of them because it’s going to help you now and it will help you in the future.”
And then it moved into prisons. The biggest occupational group in prison is ex-military, but it’s not as people think, it’s not PTSD and all that, it’s basically young lads who have done between four and a half and six years, they’ve come out, it’s drink and fight and violence. So going into the prisons, there’s a credibility thing of being within what was the Borstal system at that time, because it was quite a strict regime. So there was a bit of credibility there because urban legend has taken over the reality of the Borstal system, all that sort of stuff. And obviously Special Air Service.
So I go in, talk about how my education started, how it helped when I was in the Special Air Service, all that sort of stuff, and now writing. It ended with, “You haven’t got that much to do at the moment, lads. Get an education, because what we want, we want you lot out of prison and earning money, looking after your family and paying tax. It’s as simple as that.” Again, you go into Pentonville, the Governor of Pentonville said it’s roughly 78% of those lads will be back within two years.
Andy Coulson: [0:48:07] Exactly. When I was in prison the Toe by Toe programme was widely used and appreciated. I don’t know if you know that programme?
Andy McNab: [0:48:17] No, I don’t know that one.
Andy Coulson: [0:48:19] It was very effective, and it’s a mentoring thing, so you sit with another prisoner who can’t read and you read with them. It’s a great way to spend half a day, I can tell you.
I was shocked by the amount of prisoners who were unable to read at all, and by the number who got- it seems that they’d got to the age of about 10 or 11 actually with their reading age and then stopped, which presumably is the moment at which they become interesting to the people who are dragging them into gangs or steering them off down another path of their life. You can almost see in a very kind of obvious way the sort of path in their life heading off in a different direction.
Andy McNab: [0:49:01] Yes, totally. And you know, particularly younger men in adult prisons, and certainly in youth offender institutions, there’s still a bit of bravado. But the older people, certainly in particular people with families, all of a sudden you can see it click, and you can see it, “Do you know what?” Because the argument is, it doesn’t matter what you read. Book poster, magazine, it doesn’t matter. Every time you read you get a bit of knowledge and you get a bit of power. And the more power you get, you can do what you want to do as opposed to anybody else telling you.
So it’s not a magic wand, you’ve got to get out there and compete with everyone else, and you’re starting from the bottom anyway because you’re coming out as an ex-felon. But you’ve got to get out there and compete because otherwise you’ll end up back here. And it’s the older ones, late 20s onwards, who sort of get it.
At one stage I think we had about 38,000 people on the programme. I’m sure that all of them weren’t a success once they got out, but at least it got a momentum.
Andy Coulson: [0:50:07] An amazing success, and congratulations. And quite rightly your CBE is for those services.
Andy, a quick question on the crisis that our armed services appear to be facing. I saw a graphic this week which charted the reversal in government defence spending versus health from the mid-50s, from just over I think 7% to just over 2% for defence, and it’s an exact mirror for health. Quite rightly health spending obviously has gone up, but it’s the worrying decline in defence spending.
And alongside this I saw an American General warning that the British Army is no longer a top tier fighting force. Are you worried about the future of the army? Are you worried about the future of the SAS?
Andy Coulson: [0:50:54] Yes, constantly. I think that if you’re looking at the Army in general, there’s this reduction in costs when, like every other pillar of society, the costs are going up. But I think that because we’ve had so many reviews and so many- certainly looking at what you call the future conducts of conflict, of almost like the post-9/11 wars, Iraq and Afghanistan, and now we’re changing back to when it was 7%, when we was involved in the Cold War. So we’re going back to what we called sort of the Real Estate conflicts, what was happening in-
Andy Coulson: [0:51:38] As we’re seeing in the Ukraine.
Andy McNab: [0:51:39] Yes, we’re going back to that Cold War where it’s all about big armies, lots of armour, and keep on rolling forward, or being in defence in depth and waiting for the enemy to come. So in that way we wouldn’t be able to sustain a European conflict which we’re part of. You know, we’re legally sort of bound to join in that conflict. We wouldn’t be able to sustain the same sort of effectiveness as we would have done even in the ‘90s, because there’s been so much reduction.
And then looking at these future conduct of conflict, and these small what’s called false projection, where you go off to Iraq or you go off to Afghanistan or you go to Africa or wherever it is. Now, we’re back to if you like traditional Real Estate type of war, that you’ve got to take land or you’ve got to defend it, and we’re not capable of doing that.
Andy Coulson: [0:52:31] So you’re hopeful in fact then that a conflict like Ukraine might put the brakes on, might put the bakes on this trend.
Andy McNab: [0:52:38] I think it has. Interestingly, on a good note about the military though, is if we’re looking at our leadership within the military, it has never been better. The two post-9/11 conflicts got rid of, if you like, the B-team. Because it was constant operations, you needed people that could actually command troops in the field. And those people now have filtered into the leadership of the-
Andy Coulson: [0:53:08] Interesting, right.
Andy McNab: [0:53:10] And we’ve got A-team now in command. And Sandhurst, where we think that everybody, Colonel Blimp, all from Oxford and Cambridge, it’s not. Just over 50% now of all cadets come from state schools, come from comprehensive schools. So there is this change that’s going, that actually we’re going a better quality of people but what we need now is the kit, and certainly the government sort of-
Andy Coulson: [0:53:36] Interesting. And in politics of course there are some quite interesting ex-veterans now in and around politics. Our Veterans Minister himself of course, Johnny Mercer, who was a guest on this podcast.
Andy, fascinating conversation, thank you for your time, really appreciated. I’m going to ask you for your three crisis cures. These are three things that you’ve leant on. Something tells me that these are going to be somewhat practical in nature, which is fantastic because that’s exactly what we want.
So give us please your three crisis cures.
Andy McNab: [0:54:09] Number one, first of all, don’t start flapping. Just accept what’s going on. There is a crisis, it’s here, it’s happening. Again, it doesn’t matter if you’re to blame, it really doesn’t matter, the fact is it’s here. So accept the truth and basically get on with it.
The second one is that once you’ve accepted the truth, you’ve got to get on, take an action. Everybody is so consumed with the big problem that the only way to- solving the big problem is not going to do that. You’ve got to rectify it slowly to get out of the crisis. Take responsibility for it. “Okay, how am I going to deal with this?” Let’s have a look at an example. Your friend owes you money, he knows it but nobody is really talking about it. You then start going, “Have they forgotten? Should I call them and ask for the cash back? What happens if they say no? Will it affect the friendship? I just don’t want that confrontation,” even knowing that you are in the right.
But that first step, if you like, you know, you’re nibbling away at the problem, is you make that call.
Andy Coulson: [0:55:27] Confront it. So accept it, confront it. Start with the small solutions. What’s the third step, for you?
Andy McNab: [0:55:37] And accept that the world isn’t that perfect. You know, you may not come out of that crisis completely clean, or in that case with all the cash. Maybe the relationship isn’t 100% back to where it was, and maybe you only get 70% of the money back, but so what? First of all was he really that good a mate anyway that you’ve had to do this and you only get 70% back? But nothing is perfect. And the fact is, is that once that crisis is sorted out at whatever percentage it is, first of all give it two months down the line it’s all history and people have forgotten about it, because there’s always the next crisis coming up.
Again, like we said in the beginning, that’s why we’re successful as a species, because we can adapt and overcome. The thing is, you’ve just got to get on with it and try and get some resolution. Because the next one is coming down the road, and you don’t want them to all compound on top of each other.
Andy Coulson: [0:56:41] Superb. Andy McNab, thank you so much for joining us, we really appreciate it. Good luck with the new book sir, Shadow State, which is available now. Go and buy it. But thank you for your insights, it was a fascinating conversation about crisis. Thank you, Andy.
Andy McNab: [0:56:57] A pleasure Andy, thank you.
Andy Coulson: [0:56:59] If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please do give us a rating and a review, it really helps. And if you hit ‘subscribe’ wherever you download your podcast from you will find loads more useful Crisis conversations. You can follow us on Instagram and TikTok, just search for Crisis What Crisis podcast. You can also find full transcripts of this and every episode on our website, crisiswhatcrisis.com
Thanks again for listening.
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