Passing the Time in Hell or Helmand

Review of Patrick Hennessey’s exellent book The Junior Officers’ Reading club. Appeared in the Sunday Business Post a few weeks back.

‘When all else fails, a blind refusal to look f acts in the face will see us through.” Blackadder’s feckless General Melchett was a hilarious send up of Lord Kitchener, but his fatuous words take on a grimly contemporary ring when Patrick Hennessey uses them to underline the British Army’s current shortcomings.

junior-officers-club-flatSince the start of the year, British forces have lost, on average, 15 men a month in what the red-tops often refer to as ‘Afghanistan’s lawless Helmand Province’. Whitehall responded to the latest surge in fatalities – at one stage recently, eight soldiers were killed in 24 hours – by wheeling out the tried and trusted war propaganda. There is nothing like images of flag-covered coffins and grieving relatives on the streets of Wootton Bassett to shore up support for a bloody military campaign.

Young, articulate and independently-minded, Oxbridge educated Hennessey gives a soldier’s account of life behind the colour parades, 21-gun salutes and dignified burials. Drawing on his three years in the Grenadier Guards, he has produced an unswervingly honest, and often brutal, account of Iraq and Afghanistan that is refreshingly free of both government spin and Andy McNab-style histrionics.

Despite his protestations to the contrary, Hennessey was almost predestined to join the army. His father and paternal grandfather served in the forces, and reading English at Balliol and swanning around society parties did little to blunt his desire to enlist; if anything, they were ideal preparation for the Old Colleges and New Colleges of class-ridden Sandhurst.

The book’s opening 100 pages or so are driven by Hennessey’s burning desire to get onto the battlefield. Here we find the young cadet frustrated by Sandhurst’s endless dry runs and training exercises (‘‘Hogwarts with guns’’), and genuinely elated at the news that he is being sent to Helmand.

‘‘All anyone wanted to know was: were we going to be shooting people? And: would we get into trouble if we did? The answers, to everyone’s relief, were ‘yes’ and ‘no’.”

Founded to pass long, empty days in Basrah and Baghdad, the reading club eventually founders in the dust and dirt of Sangin. While Iraq is largely frittered away in Hunter S Thompson’s Kingdom of Fear and surfing magazines, Afghanistan is too alive, too dangerous, too visceral for such heady pursuits. Instead the Taliban (nicknamed ‘Terry’ in a convoluted nod to the Viet Cong) gives Hennessey and his cohorts a bloody introduction to the deadly, staccato rhythm of modern warfare. ‘‘As quickly as everything starts, it stops,” a diary entry notes after one desert skirmish.

While the combat scenes are intense and frenzied – over all too quickly, it seems, for men addicted to action – the dead time between engagements is filled with gnawing ennui and endless waiting. In scenes reminiscent of Sam Mendes’s celluloid classic Jarhead, bored soldiers swap box-sets of Grey’s Anatomy and 24, flirt on internet dating sites and endlessly refresh the BBC Sport website – anything to pass the time until the armour next rolls out to the sound of Metallica or 2 Many DJs.

This is modern war from a combatant’s perspective, with the author’s contempt for his superiors, the ‘‘unthinking, rank-driven inflexibility of the upper-echelons’’, matched only by the opprobrium he heaps on reporters who come in search of contentious sound bites.

We also get a glimpse of how difficult it is to return to civilian life: in a series of powerful passages towards the end of the book, Hennessey finds Echo & the Bunnymen’s Nothing Lasts Forever a disconcertingly apt soundtrack for a Britain he no longer understands, and which no longer understands him.

He offers no solutions to the quagmire that Afghanistan has become – there is plenty of sympathy for the Afghan National Army, but it is clear they lack training, resources and are too fond of marijuana to fashion into an effective fighting force. Instead, in vivacious, expletive filled prose, he animates all too graphically the horrific situation on the ground.

Long after sententious politicians have tired of scoring points off Britain’s latest Afghan adventure, The Junior Officer’s Reading Club will remain a classic of modern military writing. Hennessey has left the army to study for the bar, but doubtless Graham Greene’s words from Brighton Rock still ring in his ears: ‘‘This is hell, nor are we out of it’’.