the observer Sat 12 September 2009
When Patrick Hennessey read his lively memoir of army life on Radio 4's Book of the Week, it was accompanied by tracks by the Lostprophets, Metallica, Coldplay and others. The book also comes with a spectrum of audiovisual material: this is a world where tooling along a road in Helmand to engage with "Terry" (the Taliban) is impossible without an iPod blasting away through the speakers on the dashboard; where Hennessey's platoon psych themselves up by watching the Spartans versus Persians gore-fest 300.
From Homer onwards, literature has been buffing up the glamour of military life, but today movies, TV and computer games are the things that teach young males that violence is the raw material of glory.
Literature is here too, of course - the Reading Club of the title isn't (just) a joke. There's an epigraph from "Dover Beach", references to Heart of Darkness, WH Auden and Hunter S Thompson, and the cover shows a pile of scuffed 60s Penguin paperbacks.
Hennessey, now 27, joined the army in 2004 after reading English at Oxford and left it earlier this year. He served in the Balkans, Africa, south-east Asia and the Falklands and on operational tours of Iraq in 2006 and Afghanistan in 2007, where he was commended for gallantry.
His narrative vividly captures a young man's experience of battle, fuelled by testosterone, supported by male-bonding, mediated by every war film ever made and run to a pounding soundtrack. The questions of why we are in Iraq and Afghanistan are scarcely addressed, but there is a growing awareness that soldiering is a young man's game - only they have the necessary sense of invulnerability. By the end of the book, Hennessey realises it's time to leave the army and its arrested, adolescent world, grateful to have been there and grateful, as we all should be, that it is still there.
the guardian Fri 14 August 2009
As if to rival (or overwhelm) the range of voices on Afghanistan - from the anguished cries of Wootton Bassett to David Cameron's cynical attempts to blame Gordon Brown personally for helicopter shortages - comes this extraordinary memoir by a young Grenadier Guards officer fresh from the Middle East combat zones (via peacekeeping in Bosnia, guard duties at Buckingham Palace and a posting to the post-conflict Falkland Islands). Should we take it seriously? Well, yes and no.
Yes, because its exhausting, testosterone-driven narrative may tell us some things (not all palatable) about the mindset of young recruits going to war in our name. No, because despite the fact that this unrelenting book is packed full of its writer's adventures, at a deeper level it may not be about the army at all. Being of a generous spirit, I want to believe that the subtext here is a talented young man's journey from late adolescence towards emerging maturity, in which military service is merely a theatre of operations for personal growth.
Hennessey does not present as a sympathetic figure. A self-confessed "wise-arse Thatcherite kid", he joins up in 2004 after public school and Oxford, attracted by a £1,000-a-year student bursary, to escape the "boredom of everything else". There is a military tradition in his family, but he seems drawn to the Brigade of Guards principally by the "glamour and polish" of the officers' mess. He wants to cock a snook at fellow students and "tedious student protests", and impress the girls with tales of derring-do - to be, as he puts it, one of "the guys who 'travel the world, meet exciting new people and kill them'".
His wish certainly comes true. After officer training at Sandhurst (during which time "[Prince] Harry rocks up"), he serves as a platoon commander and ops officer with the Inkerman Company in Iraq in 2006 and, the following year, in Afghanistan's Helmand province. When he first engages "Terrence" (the Taliban) - "that split second it takes me to snatch for the radio and whoop with delight 'Amber 63, Contact, Wait Out'" - he virtually ejaculates on to the page with excitement. "And then we're bounding gleefully from the vehicles and firing, actually firing real bullets . . . Actually firing our weapons in glorious and chaotic anger. Actually firing . . . I knew, deep down, it was always going to be like this."
Unfortunately, "this" goes on for around 300 pages in a suffocating, airless narrative that makes almost constant reference to such movies as Hamburger Hill, We Were Soldiers, 300, Full Metal Jacket, Jarhead, Star Wars, Blade Runner, Band of Brothers, Platoon, and, inevitably, Apocalypse Now. Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" is the soundtrack of choice on his section's first desert foray in their stripped-down, gunned-up Land Rover, beating the Prodigy's "Smack My Bitch Up". As Hennessey puts it: "We went into battle in bandanas and shades with Penguin classics in our webbing, sketch pads in our daysacks and iPods on the radio." The reading club of the book's title was set up in Basra in 2006 to fill idle hours, but precious few books get read, though there are references to Michael Herr's Dispatches and Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty
This is all a pity. Hennessey has a reporter's eye for detail and a soldier's nose for bullshit. His thoughts on Sandhurst, the death of comrades, the Afghan National Army and the business of soldiering show the potential of a reflective mind. He has, as he reminds us, done and seen more "in five years than our fathers and uncles packed into 22". Sadly, though, indulgence overwhelms all in a helter-skelter account, based originally on his emails home from the front. It is a cliché that the soldier's experience of war is "nine-10ths boredom, one-10th fear". How I yearned for a little more boredom.
I have a particular problem with Hennessey's use of expletives. Of course soldiers swear, though not, in my experience, any more than the rest of us. But in accounts such as this they are expected to swear - to behave "like troopers". So, once the fighting gets going, everyone has to say "fuck" at least twice in every sentence. Even the company sergeant major reportedly tells a young officer distraught about his injured buddy: "Do some press-ups, then, you fucking HOMO." Well, maybe. I always thought the point about company sergeant majors was that they don't swear; indeed, their authority depends on restraint. That's what makes them interesting, though it is perhaps an insufficiently sexy truth for Hennessey to explore.
Hennessey left the army earlier this year and is now reading for the bar. One day he may write a great book; it would be the better at half the length of this one.