Want to read a complete and thrilling book about training? Try The Junior Officers’ Reading Club by Patrick Hennessey. Don’t be fooled by the title as the book tells you nothing about reading, books or even the real Afghanistan. It is, nevertheless, a book worth reading, as a soldier’s story. Intensely autobiographical, it describes, in detail, his training at Sandhurst, the boredom of the Balkans and Iraq, then the terror of his time in combat, in Afghanistan.
Officer training in the British Army is stuck in a 19th century timewarp, as is arguably its army. Hennessey is honest enough to admit, at times, that his regiment is “stuck in the obsolete mentality of the Victorian era that was our heyday, so obsessed with pageantry and protocol”. He’s smart enough to see the need for tough training, modern enough to see through the antiquated bullshit and honest enough to admit that this model is not all it’s cracked up to be. He comes to love and admire the Afghan army he has to work with, “and fuck me if they hadn’t killed more Russians than we had ever seen”. The current operational model is unworkable, frenzied British regiments arrive and do six months with the Afghan army, who have to work with group after group of fresh British troops. Who’s doing the training here?
Sandhurst “Hogwarts with Guns”
But nothing is as anachronistic as the class-driven, officer training at Sandhurst. The “factory” that is Sandhurst, has a selection procedure that borders on the corrupt, rejecting able people and accepting some who “struggled severely to learn fundamental lessons”. He's scathing about the process, although he never really addresses the apartheid of the officer/men distinction in the British Army, glossing over the obvious snobbery in many, if not most, regiments. To be fair the social mix has changed considerably, but is still, literally 'old school'.
The training itself is a massively, immersive, physical experience punctuated by classroom and (oddly) videos – Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan, Gladiator, A Bridge Too Far. I followed an Officer Training course at Shrivenham and found it laughably formulaic, with dull lectures and a pipeline of short-term memory experiences. As he says, the British army “stubbornly refuses to look round the corner, let alone into the future” with procurement a “Dickensian mess” buying the most expensive ships we’ve ever bough and no planes to go on them, and fighter jets that were obsolete before they were built.
Hennessey is well read and aware of the alternatives, having read The Utility of Force by Rupert Smith, Romeo Dallaire’s Shake Hands with the Devil, Michael Dixon’s On the Psychology of Military Incompetence and Michael Rose’s Fighting for Peace. But he is annoyingly silent on analysis and alternatives
The Cold War framework of the course was one thing, having to polish the soles of your boots another. Then there was the huge effort put into guard duty and tourism in London. Playing Tin Soldiers and being soft-feathered in the expensive mess.
Now Hennessey is a good writer and his descriptive passages of the physical training are excellent. You feel the discomfort, hunger and pain, as well as the pedantry and pettiness. But he is ambivalent about its effectiveness, describing much of it as “irrelevant” and a “mere irritant”, “progress being made in spite of the training that was being done”. He ends this third of the book with a serious and n ominous saying, “Let no man’s ghost say, ‘I wish I had been better trained’.
Weeks of boredom, sunbathing, sit-ups, porn and still the pettiness; flip-flops and shorts were banned, even for guys coming in after 24 hour sweltering patrols. They watch more war than they fight; DVDs, PS3s, Xboxes, boxed sets watched in batches of five or more episodes at a time. It was fascinating that soldiers would play war games after coming in off patrol. Ipods are all pervasive, the sound of this war being rap rather than Nam’s rock. The surreal surroundings of the green Zone, full of steroid pumped contractors and mercenaries.
The book explodes into action as he narrates fire-fights, injuries, the madness of combat and tragically; death. Forget the sanitised BBC reports on yet another couple of ‘they look so young’ casualties in Afghanistan. This is the truth of often fruitless territorial gain through tragedy, territory that is soon lost again, all told in bloody and terrifying detail.
What’s odd in all this is the lack of reflection and analysis. He buckles under the psychological pressure of being loyal to his employer, rather than the truth. In truth, this is a book about how people are trained not to think but to do what they’re told. It’s written by what the Americans call a ‘warfighter’ describing ‘warfighting’. That’s what makes it so interesting. In a way the training works by producing people who fight, unaware of the alternatives.
One could argue that this is the whole point, as it is the politicians that need to decide on policy. On the other hand he starts by reflecting on the anachronistic nature of the training but doesn’t relate it well to the tasks at hand. To be fair he’s being true to himself and his mates, not the war. A sign that he has been indoctrinated is his use of an army of acronyms, which infiltrated everyday speech in the military. For non military readers this can be infuriating as the book has a next to useless glossary.
Other Iraq/Afghanistan books
Lions, Donkeys and Dinosaurs by Lewis page is a superb analysis of hopeless procurement and waste in the military. He has a go at all three services showing the top-heavy structures, wasted expenditure on headquarters, pointless frigates, artillery, aircraft and tanks.
If you want to about the ‘real’ Afghanistan, I’d recommend Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between, his walk from west to east across the country in the depths of winter, experiencing the extremes of hostility and hospitality. Afghanistan, is not really a country, explains Stewart, and needs a deep cultural understanding, before parachuting in crude military or NGO solutions.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City is a depressing account of Baghdad’s green zone, where Muslims are forced to serve pork and “we have no French fries here sir, only freedom fries”. It’s a shocking description of US personnel, the majority of who had never been outside of the US before this posting (they had to get their first passport). A street-cop mentality where appointments were made on political credentials not competence.
My own favourite is Signal Catastrophe, the story of the catastrophic second Afghan war in 1842, where the British invaded, then left having been defeated by the complexities of the culture and idiotic, aristocratic leadership. This one will end in exactly the same way. Plus ca change.