We live in a time when war has long since been viewed as a fight for England’s green and pleasant lands. Now, it is a remote and foreign struggle with an invisible enemy producing images that are as contentious as they are unromantic. The Junior Officers’ Reading Club has emerged from the abyss of incomprehension to give a frank, honest, and deeply unnerving autobiography of one young officer. Patrick Hennessy’s detailed memoirs of his military career note every moment with poignancy: from his jubilant arrival at Sandhurst to the profanity-laden, grime-ridden desperation of a seventy-two hour battle with the Taliban. It is a personal story which, unlike other autobiographies, projects outward onto his contemporaries and the army as a whole.
The progression from the Dickensian, boarding-school-like Sandhurst (where there are only two lessons: P.E and detention) to the deserts of Helmand charters a startling mimesis. The press only ever reports on the part of the army that is fighting, killing, and being killed. But if this book reveals anything, it’s that this army is fluid rather than static, where individuals progress and mature, and that fighting, whilst the most important aspect, is sometimes the smallest. Hennessy treats the long months of boredom awaiting deployment with subtle humour whilst maintaining the lasting impression that life within the armed forces can unwittingly become a senseless paradox. Deployment is projected as the pivotal point at which all prayers are answered and all dreams come true; not to be deployed would be to waste invaluable skills. Yet, in reality, post-deployment only engenders alienation and a longing to revert to “normality”. Hennessy presents a constantly unpleasurable, necessary and unavoidable cycle.
He appears to reflect a widely broadcast social problem for soldiers returning from a tour, whose adjustment back to civilian society is plagued with alienation. In fact, Hennessy projects the beginnings of this alienation that stem from far before any fighting takes place. In his story, and the story of so many others, the minute their deployment is announced is the minute they become markedly different from civilians. His rapturous description of the moment he is posted to Iraq is simultaneously heart-wrenching and revelatory for the non-military reader. But rather than leave his emotional journey out in the ether, he addresses the discrepancies between his unadulterated excitement, and the blank, ashen faces of his family. He becomes an eloquent translator of all the emotion that seems so alien to a civilian and an articulator for those who understand completely.
In the wake of so many so-called “green on blue” attacks, the exposé of the collaboration between NATO forces and the Afghan National Army is fascinating. Despite the impression proffered to the public by news sources, the Afghans are portrayed as trustworthy and capable. Sadly, though, Hennessy’s tour of Afghanistan was made in 2007, and his captivating personal affinity with his Kandak of Afghan soldiers is tinged with the somewhat sourer knowledge that this presents a time when the relationship between the two fighting forces was far more cohesive than it is presently.
On a far more basic note, a civilian’s attempt to navigate their way around a book where a FOB is not something one hangs one’s keys on is challenging. The autobiography is, for obvious reasons, riddled with Army-specific acronyms and mnemonics. Whilst Hennessy provides a Glossary of Military Terms, it becomes increasingly frustrating to have to turn to the back pages at least once a sentence, if not more frequently, to attempt to find meaning in the jumbled letters. So it becomes a guessing game whereby the RSM (a sandwich?), GPMG (a teaching qualification?) and DTDF (a small Welsh village?!) remain baffling.
It would be easy for The Junior Officers’ Reading Club to review itself with its handy four-word by-line – “Fighting Wars and Killing Time” – but in reality it is so much more than that. It bridges a long unspoken gap between civilian and soldier, both explaining and supporting those either side of the divide. It is transparent, at times comic, and at others brutally honest. Ultimately it reads as a personal cathartic release.