Most helpful positive review
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Should be compulsory reading for politicians sending men and women to war
on 29 August 2011
I recently bought this book, not simply because I have always appreciated true stories of courage and heroism in war, but also because a nephew of mine recently returned from Helmand province, after a six month tour of duty as a lieutenant in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Quite simply, I wanted to gain some appreciation of what he may have experienced during his "tour."
The dust jacket of the book gives you a small idea of what to expect: a prone soldier in camouflage uniform is blazing away with a somewhat bizarely named GP ("General Purpose") machine gun; a cloud of smoke rises from an explosion in the distance: and a Chinook helicopter is lumbering away, doubtless removing one or more seriously injured casualities.
In some ways, this book is similar to others in the genre; eg, working class youth/young man joins up for adventure/escape unemployment/escape a life of crime, (or the consequences), etc. In common with other books (eg, "Hellfire" by Ed Macy (please see my other reviews)), it gives a brief account of the author's early life and career. Unlike some other war non fiction titles, the climactic action does not simply occupy a few pages; it starts at page 81, and reaches page 292 out of 301. However, there the resemblance ends, for this is a book which was not originally intended to make money for it's author or publishers. Rather, it was one soldier's private and personal attempt to cope, single handedly, with nightmarish, post traumatic stress consequent on deadly combat. Perhaps bizarely, in a 25 year military career spent in such places as Northern Ireland and Iraq, this was the first occasion when the author actually killed anyone in the course of his duties.
In its' bare essentials, Doug Beattie's book gives an account of a thirteen day period of action, during which he led a team of men, woefully inadequate in equipment and numbers, in their task of retaking the small Afghan town of Garmsir; a town which had been wrested from the contol of the Afghan National Police by Taliban insurgents.
Because the action is described first hand, by a British army captain who not only led his men, but killed his enemy hand to hand, at a distance with machine gun, rifle and grenades; and also vicariously, through directing mortar and bomb strikes, the reader is right there in the thick of the action. You can taste the dust, feel the heat and danger, and empathise with men who have to make split second decisions: keep firing at the enemy who are closing in on you, or stop firing, to call in desperately needed air support? As always, I am humbled by the bravery and professionalism of our armed forces under fire; amazed by their willingness to make do with less than adequate resources; and angered by the apparent glibness with which politicians commit our armed forces to danger far from home - sometimes on pretexts which are eminently reasonable to them, whilst remaining largely incomprehensible to the public at large. The book also disposes of the myth that all Afghan National Army/police personnel are lazy and/or treacherous; it gives full praise to men like Major Shahrukh of the Afghan National Police, who fought as bravely as any of the British, and who lost their lives just as tragically.
As has been commented on by other reviewers, author Doug Beattie is ruthlessly self critical of his actions, open and honest about the post traumatic stress he endured. His book destroys any cliches about soldiers being automatons, psychopaths, or adventurers; he makes it clear they are anything but a stereotypical group of people. The selection of 34 photographs, all but one in colour, are mostly of the main characters in the action; others show military equipment in use, some the Afghan people, and a few give a taste of the desolate landscape of Afghanistan.
It's certainly an inspiring book, but also hugely thought provoking; not least because our armed forces personally deal with the long term consequences of political decisions, made on your behalf and mine. Doug Beattie comments at least once that he was paid his salary to kill. I recall a recent conversation with a customer wearing a "Help for Heroes" badge. On learning that he came from Colchester in Essex, I said "Ah, you're a soldier!" To which he replied (with the intention to shock, I feel) "One of her Majestys' Hired Killers."
And here is the crux of the matter. We train men (and women) in our armed forces to kill, and destroy property; actions which under any other circumstances would be punishable with imprisonment, perhaps even death. If they succeed, especially against the odds, we applaud them, and rightly decorate them as heroes. If they fail, we are usually at least disappointed; in extreme cases, we may even label them cowards. It seems to me that only the psychopath is capable of killing without experiencing mental anguish and soul searching thereafter. So when a decent, honourable, family man like Doug Beattie lays his soul bare, I cannot help feeling that he is being far too hard on himself. British and American politicians, such as Blair and Bush, seem passionate about exporting western style democracies, to societies which in many respects are still medieval and tribal. In so doing, they conveniently forget that in both cases, our democracies took a civil war, and hundreds of years to develop. Nor can I help the feeling, that if they fully realised the consequences of ordering forces into battle, they would give the matter much greater consideration first. For this reason, Doug Beattie's book should be compulsory reading for politicians sending men and women to war.
Well worth reading.