Regular readers won't soon have forgotten my fawning tribute to military memoirs and, not at all incidentally, to the service members whose stunning stories inspired the stories. However, one peculiarity of that list might have passed your notice: all of the books are by Americans.
Well, it turns out there's another country out there, with a rich and proud martial tradition, and not to mention the world's greatest literary pedigree, and which has also been fighting desperate wars in Iraq and Afghanistan right alongside us. And one whose soldiers, Marines, airmen, and special forces personnel may actually be most especially if you ask them about it the equals or betters of the Americans in skill, professionalism, and rectitude.
I've spent much of the past six months devouring British military memoirs. Here are brief notices for the very best of these which, no surprise at all, are really very stunningly good indeed.
Eight Lives Down, by Major Chris Hunter
If fate is against me and I'm killed, so be it, but make it quick and painless. If I'm wounded, don't let me be crippled. But above all, don't let me fuck up the task. This is the prayer of the EOD operator ('bomb tech'), said before going out to face the dizziness and nausea of heat exhaustion, the likelihood of death by ambush, snipers, and secondary devices and, of course, the improvised explosive devices themselves, even the smallest of which can "blow a man's leg into his stomach and blind him with the shrapnel of his own bone fragments." These meticulously trained and heroic soldiers do this work out of sense of duty; for the gratification of saving the lives of thousands of people they will never meet; and, yes, for the buzz and thrill of it. But it all comes at a tremendous cost.
In his first five days in Iraq, Chris Hunter goes down with heat exhaustion, gets shot, and kills a bunch of militia who are turning his vehicle to Swiss cheese in an ambush. Later on, he's nearly blown out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile, gets caught in the open during a mortar barrage, and sleeps when he gets to sleep amongst giant camel spiders that can run 10mph, jump several feet, and "have been known to chase people." Ultimately, he is personally targeted by an entire network of highly trained and motivated bombers who displeased with how Hunter's team has seized their weapons, disabled their devices, and fingered them with forensic evidence place "come-on" bombs (on one occasion, directly in front of a hospital), intended solely to lure out and kill "the golden-haired bomb man in Basra."
All the while, every bit as dramatically, Hunter is becoming the rope in a tug-of-war between his job and his marriage. After he's wounded, his wife Lucy, all cried out by now, spends the night not knowing whether he is alive or dead. In their strained phone conversations, he finds himself watching hope die in her; she is able to survive only by assuming "that I'm not coming home this time. She's already planning a life without me."
Major Hunter is an amazingly literate and sensitive and moral observer of some very exceptional events; his language is rich and brash and unflinching and intimate and also frequently extremely funny ("don't know whether you woke up on the wrong side of your mum this morning", "couldn't organise a rock fight in a quarry"); and the stories in this book are as thrilling and terrifying as anything you've ever read. Do a favour for yourself, and one for the author (who God knows richly deserves our support), and buy a copy today it's less than a fiver in the UK, which is the best entertainment value you'll get all year.
Sniper One, by Sgt Dan Mills
Cimic House was the British Army's centre of 'Civil-Military Co-operation' activities in the Iraqi town of Al Amarah. Garrisoned by fewer than 90 soldiers from the Y Company, 1st Battalion, the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment (PWRR), isolated from other British forces, and dependent on ground convoys for resupply, Cimic House was also the site of the "the longest continuous action fought by the British Army since the Korean War 50 years ago."
During the height of the siege, over 23 days in August 2004, the soldiers at Cimic House were subjected to 595 mortar rounds in 230 different bombardments, direct hits from 57 RPGs and six 107mm rockets plus 86 ground assaults by waves of hundreds of militia that got within 30 metres of the walls. They were given permission to withdraw if they felt they were going to be overrun. But they never left their posts.
In fact, as related in Sgt Dan Mills' riveting account, they mounted offensive operations in order not to cede the ground to the militias: "The battle group was going to go right into the town centre as tooled up as possible and just sit there on [the militia's] doorstep… Essentially, it was come and have a go if you're hard enough."
But as the attacks continued to spiral upward in volume, ferocity, and accuracy, even the PWRR's sangfroid started to fray. "It was hard to ignore that our shaves were getting closer and closer," writes Mills who in one twenty-four hour period had a sangar completely destroyed by a mortar seconds after he crawled out of it; and was shot in the head moments after he put his helmet on. Their kitchen, water pumps, and generator were all destroyed by mortars. Also blown up were the outdoor accommodation blocks, nine of ten parked vehicles, and both boats moored on the Tigris. After an all-out, 360-degree, six-hour assault, they were critically low on ammo and water an attempted resupply column lost five armoured vehicles and had a main battle tank immobilised by twelve direct RPG hits. They still wouldn't leave. They never did until finally handing the ruins of the compound over to the Iraqis in 2006.
It would be hard to say enough good things about Sgt Mills' book: it's funny, heroic, thrilling, inspiring, and human (and also so wonderfully British in character and language and attitude). In fact, nothing I can say could be as compelling as the simple facts of the battle, related above. And if those numbers don't hook you, then have a look at the famed Cimic House video shot by the soldiers themselves, it's probably the best 'squad video' of all time. And, I don't quite know whether it's the music, or the faces of what Anna always refers to as 'our boys', or what, but this thing just makes me sob pitiably every time I watch it.
The Junior Officer's Reading Club, by Patrick HennesseySomebody else who watched the Cimic House video was Patrick Hennessey, probably sometime between reading English at Oxford and arriving at Sandhurst military academy for his training as an Army officer. The eponymous club was founded "in the heat of the Southern Iraqi desert… Basking in boxers on improvised sun-loungers, we snatched quick half-hour escapes from the oppressive heat and boredom."
Ultimately, boredom would be the least of Hennessey's problems: he would go from "idle Balkan peace-keeping to tense Iraqi counter-insurgency to bloody Afghan combat." The scenes of desperate nose-to-nose fighting in Helmand province are stark and harrowing; the seemingly inevitable injury and loss of friends, heart-wringing; and the language all jazzed-up, hyper-kinetic, Generation-X media-saturated post-modern gonzo war journalism.
This is war writing from, and probably for, the young, educated, media-jaded, and (let's face it) posh and good-looking. (You can tell from the name, and the author photos, respectively. Oh, and also from this. Definitely from that.) But still vivid and honest and exuberant and disturbingly funny. Quite.
Apache, by Ed MacyThe Apache helicopter gunship, particularly the enhanced British AH Mk1 version with its dual Rolls Royce engines, is probably the deadliest fighting machine in the world. It mounts a 30mm electric cannon, which is slaved to its operator's retina, spewing 10 high-explosive rounds per second wherever he or she looks; pods of anti-personnel flechette rockets, each one spraying 80 5-inch long Tungsten darts; and laser-guided Hellfire missiles the shape-charged warheads of which pack a 5 million pound per square inch impact, defeating all known armour. It's got an array of cameras that provide 127-times magnification, thermal viewing, and all-weather radar that can detect 1024 potential targets up to 8km away, classify the top 256, and display the 16 most threatening for destruction all in three seconds. It is 49 feet and 23,000 pounds of swooping, hunting death from above.
Qualifying to fly one requires an 18-month conversion course which is more selective than special forces selection just to convert you from regular old combat helicopter pilot. "Riding the dragon," as Apache pilots call it, requires simultaneously dealing with the flight instruments, four different radio frequencies, the weapons targeting computers, the defensive suite's threat reports, and the cameras and radar plus watching the ground for muzzle flashes and friendlies, and the air for other aircraft. "Taking an Apache into battle," writes pilot and gunner Ed Macy, "was like playing an XBox, a PlayStation, and a chess Grand Master simultaneously whilst riding Disneyworld's biggest roller coaster… Miss one vital element, and you would kill yourself and your co-pilot in an instant."
In addition to guarding emergency casualty evacuation flights, and providing immediate and brutal fire support for beleaguered soldiers on the ground (who referred to them as "the muscle"), Warrant Officer Macy was also ultimately awarded the Military Cross for his actions in the rescue of a wounded and stranded Marine at Jugroom Fort. The MC is not a flying medal he earned the award for his actions on the ground. To be an Apache pilot is already to be a Supreme Bad-Ass of the Universe. Evidently, Macy decided the only way he could better that would be to jump out of his Apache on the ground and start engaging Taleban fighters with his sidearm. Not to be outdone, the gunner in the Apache above (who is called Charlotte), provided cover and held off hundreds of attacking Taleban by expending £426,353.36 worth of ordnance in six minutes, setting a record for then and almost certainly for all time.
Mr Macy's book is enormously strong on high-tech kit and tactics and geeky details; white-knuckle action and suspense; emotion and intensely human drama; barracks room pranks and gallows humour; and totally brilliant and winning writing. I don't remotely have room to describe all the awesomeness. (The two paragraphs above, on the helicopter and the training, come from the first 30 pages of the book alone.) Just buy it and read it you'll soon be zooming a hundred feet above the battlefield, protecting the boys below, and rapid-firing very expensive missiles with a flick of your retina.
[In what's probably a nod to the future, the book comes with supplemental pictures, audio, and video online. Here's some awesome Apache gun-camera footage, narrated by Macy himself.]