Patrick Hennessey is a graduate in his 20s. He reads Graham Greene,
listens to early-90s house on his iPod and watches Vietnam movies. He has also, as an
officer in the Grenadier Guards, fought in some of the most violent combat the British army
has seen in a generation.
This is the story of how a modern soldier is made,
from the testosterone-heavy breeding ground of Sandhurst to the nightmare of Iraq and
Afghanistan. Showing war in all its terror, boredom and exhilaration, The Junior
Officers' Reading Club is already being hailed as a modern classic.
"Soldiers who can write are as rare as writers who can strip down a machinegun in 40 seconds, but Patrick Hennessey is one of the few." Sunday Times
"The military memoir of the moment" Times
"A very fine book, a powerful dispatch from the front line … what impresses is the sheer candour and immediacy" Spectator
"An extraordinary memoir . . . Hennessey has a reporter’s eye for detail and a soldier’s nose for bullshit" Guardian
"Outstanding . . . A classic of its kind" William Boyd, Sunday Herald, Books of the Year
"Remarkable . . . conveys vividly what it’s like to experience combat" Jeremy Paxman, Daily Telegraph, Books of the Year
From Despatches from the Battle of Adin Zai p.242
“From somewhere, one of the ANA sergeants found a rainbow umbrella, an enormous, bright Joseph’s-Technicolor-Dreamcoat of a thing with which, noticing the sweat I’ve got on, he follows me around for the rest of the day, a walking parasol man attracting fire from all directions. But the gesture was too kind and we’d gone past the point where that sort of thing was going to make a difference, and there’s no point in wondering why Will got shot correctly crawling up the bun-line and I was fine walking around all day under a multi-coloured target. Our entire lives, our entire world, had filtered down to crossing off compound after compound in our progression through the objectives, and when night drew in we literally stopped where we are, put sentries out and collapsed in the dirt.”
On the Dam
And suddenly we’re on the dam.
Four wizened Pashtu Gandalfs sit impassively sipping chai* around a dining table in the middle of a rose garden, and my first thirsty thought is not the obvious WHAT are we going to do? nor the reasonableWHY are these four improbably old whitebearded guys sitting taking tea in the middle of a fire fight? but HOW is there a dining table in a rose garden in the middle of the dam? It’s an interesting point of speculation, but one cut short by another burst of fire, and to the cracking above and the
thudding as bits of crumbling masonry and rose petals drift down into the broiling water beneath our feet is suddenly and worryingly added the melodic pinging of bullets bouncing off the sluice-gates and rusty turbines below.
Qiam, wisely, is already across the now perilous structure and gesticulating wildly for us to follow, but something holds me back, and I just have to have a sip of the chai, I hope out of respect for the Pashtunwali codes of hospitality, but maybe it’s just the thirst.Mymind is a whirlwind of half-remembered training nonsense, and I catch myself trying to work out who the senior man at the table is, because he’s always furthest from the door, only there isn’t a door, and he’s usually a mullah or at least haji,† and so maybe I should apologize for having my boots on, even though we’re not strictly indoors.
God this is difficult.
I’ve lost track of time in the ambush and am trying to work out if it’s still sob bahir or now char bahir** when another burst rattles out, and the wall behind me becomes a cartoon of bullet holes everywhere but where my head seems – inexplicably – still to be. I’ve been an eternity on this extraordinary fucking dam (which wasn’t even an objective, only a landmark), even though it’s only been a matter of seconds, when I’m grateful to the elderly sahib who, taking stock of the situation and possibly sensing my general confusion, calmly finishes his tea, produces an AK47 from under the table and, smilingly, gestures me across the dam as he stands up and sprays a wild and deafening burst of covering fire in all directions.
It was surely never meant to be like this.
It was never meant to be like this in the orders group as we patiently explained how it would go to the childlike Afghans. Moving the little blocks of wood which were US up the little ribbons which were TRACKS and over the coloured powder which was CANAL into the little tins which were the VILLAGE where we would spend the quiet little night ‘SECURING’ the line of departure.
It was never meant to be like this in training on the Plain, where the enemy were always in BMPs, and I could never remember whether they were the scary armoured personnel carriers or maybe those were the BTRs, and none of it mattered because the worst course of action was always the Russians reinforcing with the seriously scary T80 tanks, which you always sensed were just behind the woodland in the direction of Hampshire, and hopefully they don’t have an AGS-17, whatever one of those is, but either way the right plan was always left-flanking with bags of smoke and avoid the machine-gun post.
It was never meant to be like this as with deep euphoria we rolled the entire kandak*** out of the gates of Shorabak and drove them bold as brass down the main road, the only road, with i-Pod blaring from the WMIKs and all the excited chatter on the radios of Gereshk and the crazy market and the stares of the locals and our firepower and the fact that we’re leading the operation and the fact that we haven’t got lost and the fact that we’re nearly at the objective and the fact that there suddenly was the dam.
And then it was chaos.
I noticed Will on the other side of the canal, and everything was going so much to plan that the first rattle was almost offensively incongruous, and the temptation was to ignore it because if we didn’t really hear it then maybe it didn’t really happen. Then, rudely and undeniably, RPGs boom in from the front and the flank, and the ground and the hedgerows are alive with the sudden intensity of fire that’s now bouncing like popcorn off the vehicles, and before we’ve even registered where it’s coming from the Afghans are in the ditches to the side of the track pouring back fire and answering boom with boom. And the frozen pallor of our faces might be fear or adrenalin or just the excitement and realization that the three-year, ten-year, twenty-year expectation of various military careers is finally being fulfilled but it only lasts that split second it takes for me to snatch for the radio and whoop with delight ‘AMBER 63, CONTACT,WAIT OUT,’ and I’ve said it.
I’ve said it.
I’ve said it first and I beam across at LSgt Rowe, who understands, and up at LCpl Price, who’s ecstatically letting rip with the GPMG, and then we’re bounding gleefully from the vehicles and firing, actually firing real bullets, at the invisible and unperturbed enemy. Actually firing our weapons in glorious and chaotic anger. Actually firing.
I knew, deep down, it was always going to be like this.
** Sob bahir: good morning/day. Char bahir: good afternoon/evening.
*** Kandak: an Afghan National Army battalion, consisting of about 500 men.
† Mullah: a preacher. Haji: one who has been on a pilgrimage to Mecca, a term of respect.