Review: The Junior Officers’ Reading Club

by Ross Grainger
by Ross Grainger

The war without end


If Patrick Hennessey’s eponymous club still exists it will certainly feature his book, though presumably it will be in e-book format and not in paperback. The pages of the latter, Hennessey points out in this exhilarating and frenzied story of front-line life, simply wither and blow away in the 50-degree heat of Afghanistan, one of several reasons why reading is difficult in a war zone and why it actually forms just a fleeting part of Hennessey’s blazing narrative.

A former Grenadier Guards officer, Hennessey refers several times to Dispatches, Michael Herr’s vivid chronicle of the Vietnam War that is still regarded not just as the finest description of that conflict, but as the 20th century’s superlative account of war (Hennessey calls it simply ‘the war book’). His own story, while not the prose equal, brings you closer to the mind of a combat veteran and further into the psychological hole that confronts a returning soldier.

The book’s accompanying glossary of military terms is a handy reference, though one or two passages still remain as opaque as an Afghan dust cloud. Amongst the array of acronyms are two that, in very different ways, mean the most to Hennessey and his fellow soldiers. The first is ANA – the Afghan National Army. For much of the Afghanistan-based portion of the book the ANA occupies a role somewhere between comic relief and bumbling liability. Gradually, though, one warms to them as Hennessey does, even to Commander Qiam:

He was almost certainly a bully and maybe a thief, and I knew that without me watching him like a hawk he’d be pounding the crap out of the latest guy he was interrogating; the problem was that, for all that, he was a one-man army… He was fearless, tactically astute and obviously cared for his men far more than any other Afghan commander (more than plenty of British officers for that matter), but when he flew into one of his rages… I knew he was slightly unhinged.

The ANA soldiers enjoy napping, drinking tea and smoking joints, and unnerve the British with their philosophy of inshallah, but show suicidal bravery and determination when it comes to attacking “Terry,” aka the Taliban. When his six-month tour of duty ends, Hennessey is moved to tears by the farewell offered by his ANA counterparts. He has, after all, seen many of them blown up by the Taliban’s most prolific killing device and that second ubiquitous acronym, RPGs, rocket-propelled grenades. The Junior Officers' Reading ClubImprovised explosive devices (IEDs) are equally feared, and take the leg of one of Hennessey’s comrades just as the company thought it had grown into a charmed and untouchable force.

Hennessey does not attempt to make us bond with his fellow soldiers; the book contains almost no dialogue. And yet, the brutality strikes like a 2,000-pound bomb with lines such as, ‘in the chaos one of the stammering and panicking new guys is practically crying as he picks up LSgt Ball’s perfectly intact foot, thirty metres down the road.’ Like the millions of soldiers who came before him, Hennessey’s thoughts flit between one or more of the following: food, entertainment (mostly TV series such as 24 and, curiously, Grey’s Anatomy), women (or rather the lack thereof, which is especially acute for the ANA soldiers, one of whom he catches having sex with a donkey) and cigarettes. Reading his account of a soldier who’s just lost a hand (another RPG) and desires a fag more than morphine I was immediately reminded of a scene from the Battle of Gallipoli in Louis De Bernieres’ novel Birds Without Wings in which the character Karatavuk tends to his friend who, holding his own severed arm and aware that the end is near, asks for a cigarette.

That war – the First World War – was at the time almost universally popular. The same was once true of the conflict in Afghanistan. Now, more than 10 years later, opinion is a great deal more divided and success as elusive as ever. Hennessey does not offer any solutions to the many problems facing Afghanistan. Instead he presents the dilemma that haunts him and his comrades and many other soldiers. The late Christopher Hitchens describes the same problem in his memoirs, Hitch-22. One may think that an Oxford-educated hack would not have had much in common with a front-line soldier, but Hitchens dodged many a bullet in many a war zone, including one that Hennessey mentions several times, Northern Ireland. Hitchens was having dinner with some local trade-unionists one night during the height of the Troubles when there was a ferocious explosion outside. He emerged to find that a nearby local pub ‘was no more.’ Surveying the damage, he writes:

I had that terrible inward feeling that I have since had at bullfights and executions and war scenes, of wanting this to stop while simultaneously wishing it to go on, and wanting to look away while needing to look more closely.

Despite the dust, the rabid dogs, the baking heat, the illness and the battles with the ‘boy-raping’ Taliban, Hennessey can’t quite relax when he returns to Britain. ‘We trained the Royal Irish for the forthcoming deployment,’ he writes in the final pages, ‘and all we wanted was to go back out with them, as if we had unfinished business.’ A second, deeper problem comes after returning home. The US Army recently asked all psychiatrists to drop the word ‘disorder’ and to leave it as ‘post-traumatic stress’. Hennessey doesn’t employ any of these words, but then, he doesn’t have to; others suffice: ‘angry’, ‘drinking’, ‘glass-smashing’ and ‘off the rails.’

The progress Hennessey bears witness to in Afghanistan is incremental, but achieved with the help of an army that is determined, brave and highly skilled. He employs those same qualities in this brilliant story.

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