Regular readers will recall from the review of Ed Macy's book Apache in this space that Captain Madison, then known to us only as Charlotte, set a probably unbeatable record for most ordnance fired (nearly half a million pounds worth) in the least amount of time (about six minutes). She was actually the first Apache pilot to go "Winchester" the expression they use for being completely out of ammo (Hellfire missiles, rockets, and 30mm gun rounds), and which is taken from WWI pilots who would pull out their trusty Winchester revolvers at such times. In addition to that singular distinction, Captain Madison was also the first woman in the UK to qualify on the Apache helicopter, which is probably the most fearsome fighting machine ever built. Now she brings us this thrilling, honest, and extremely winning memoir in which she gives voice to her fairly unique experience of being a woman living, flying, and fighting in a war zone.
However, even if you don't read another word of this review, you should really listen to this eight-minute clip of Captain Madison being interviewed on BBC Radio 4. She will do a heck of a better job making you want to read this book and spend more time with her, than will my poor efforts.
I'll inaugurate my poor efforts by pointing out that, Yes, that is actually her on the cover. (I have it on good authority.) I'd feel much worse about this sexist observation, except that Captain Madison spends a fair amount of ink herself ogling the variety of firm man-flesh in the Afghan expedition. Among others, she notes the 'sexy accent' of a Danish JTAC with the radio call-sign Norseman Two One; regularly admires the man they call 'the Diet Coke ad pilot'; and even spares a thought for her own commanding officer's jaw, sculpted torso, blue eyes and arse! And she's married (or, earlier, engaged)!
This calls to mind my only tiny quibble with this book, which is that it seems to indulge in a sort of difference feminism, in which the author seems very keen, initially at least, to talk about coming back from a battle and getting into her Clinique and new copy of Cosmo Bride. (One gets the sense that someone along the line was thinking about marketing and plumped for more material of this sort.) As a paleo-feminist, I would have been perfectly happy to hear about Captain Madison's amazing experiences which include serving as Flight Leader over two Apaches and three other (male) pilots; Operations Officer, 2nd in command of the squadron; and mission lead on an op with seven helos carrying hundreds of soldiers without all the 'but I'm just a girl' moments. These form a small part of the book, though; and, as a rejoinder to myself, much of the value of this work is in fact that it provides a view of war from the perspective of a person without a Y chromosome.
For starters, Captain Madison seems more able to give voice to her doubts and fears about the human costs of war. This is true from her very first engagement, where she wonders about the lives and families of the men she has killed (she quickly learns to box up those emotions); through three combat tours, at the end of which she finds herself comparing her total of kills against a wide array of serial killers and feeling 'more soiled every time' she goes out. She worries that she now thinks nothing of killing a handful of people, literally before her breakfast. At one point, she's on a job intercepting an important Taleban type; but the target is surrounded by other people.
There are plenty of light moments as well, as there always seem to be in war: games of Extreme Nerf ('JB is clutching his balls through his shorts') in the tent she shares with the boys ('I bolt before the dawn farting chorus gets started'). Some follies with an unintentionally open radio channel while in the air. The terror-inducing mayday call from an aircraft (callsign 'Death 23') that goes down outside the wire; the pilot sounds awfully chilled out for a guy making a mayday call it turns out he's in Vegas (Death 23 is a UAV). There's the man she shot who had explosives in his backpack and took off 'like Buzz Lightyear'. Unfortunately, she tells that last story to someone back home who, rather than laughing, looks horrified and excuses himself.
This underscores a central concern of the book: the difficulty of readjusting to normal life after combat. On her return from her first tour, Madison finds even the physical sensations jarring: 'The different greens are blinding. It's like I've been living in a sepia-tint film… Everything smells as if it's just fallen out of the laundry.' She's tired in her bones in a way we can't imagine: 'overwhelmingly, unbelievably knackered like my body has nothing left inside it'. She worries that she's lost touch with her friends' lives and won't be able to re-integrate and, moreover, that she has changed and they won't know her. She needs to talk about her experiences, but feels the futility of making people understand. She finds it easier to withdraw and just lets her husband read her diary to find out what went on.
The worst moment comes at a family breakfast, discussing the topic of free postage to Afghanistan and Iraq for families of soldiers. Her horrible Aunt says, 'I think it's ridiculous that taxpayers should be paying so that parents can send their kids treats… Why should we? You're not out there for us, we don't want you there.' and then takes a bite of her pie. Afterwards, Madison burst into tears. If people in her own family don't even understand the sacrifices being made by soldiers, what hope is there for people with no connection to the military?
And that's another major theme: her deep concern and admiration for 'the boys' who slog around in the mud and are under fire constantly and who can't just fly home to safety when fuel or ammo runs out. She hears their shouts, and firing, and running, and gasping for breath on her radio. She imagines being in contact as a moment like a car crash but the stark terror lasts not a split-second, but hours or days.
She is in a very strange position: up above the battle and relatively safe but also looking through a 127-times-zoom video camera, which often brings her closer to the enemy than the troops ever get. The second most heartbreaking moment of the book is certainly when she spots a Taleban fighter around a corner from an advancing patrol but has no comms with that unit, and no way to warn them in time. She watches up close as the young Royal Marine turns the corner and is shot dead before her eyes. Later, in the squadron tent, she walks in on a TV documentary about the lives of some Marines in theatre:
I'm only scratching the surface. There's tons of action, for instance: You get the amazing battle and rescue at Jugroom Fort, from the perspective from the air this time. There's the rise of crew-served weapons in Helmand which lead to a terrifying battle when she is tracked with RPGs, AAA, and airburst the whole sky is 'a mass of killer metal'. ('I look back and Stu makes his special "We're going to die, but what the hell" face.') There's the 25 hours of operations that culminate in both her and her co-pilot falling asleep flying. And there's the mission where she escorts Chinooks on a casevac flight to one of the FOBs, landing under fire in a sky so full of tracers her night vision doesn't work. The beleaguered group of 30 soldiers has taken four casualties, including their commanding officer and tactical air controller an 'untrained observer' has to guide them in.
When Captain Madison learns the identity of one of the other casualties I don't want to ruin it here it is the most heartbreaking moment in what is a wonderful, sad, honest, enlightening, and deeply enjoyable book by a remarkable individual (and hero).