Soldiering On

Do recent books about the British armed forces offer real insight?

Down a leafy cul-de-sac in Aldershot, southwest of London, tucked away among suburban officers’ married quarters, sits the Prince Consort’s Library. The library, which last year celebrated its 150th anniversary, houses the British army’s collection of specialist military literature. If current publishing trends are anything to go by, it may soon need to expand.

The popularity of military books is sky-high, the constant appetite for military history—particularly of the two World Wars—augmented by the dramatic rise in recent years of books about current conflicts, notably Iraq and Afghanistan. The library also hosts the British Army’s Military Book of the Year Award; an accolade that is all the more keenly sought after because the judges are all soldiers. Last year’s deserved winner was Andrew Roberts’ The Storm of War, but what was extraordinary was the fact that six finalists were drawn from among the several thousand military books published in the U.K. in 2009.

Against this background, General Sir Robert Fry, the former senior British military representative in Iraq, was only voicing the concerns of many inside and outside the military when he was reported to have expressed unease at the “excessive reverence” with which the British military is held. Criticism of the armed forces seems to be off-limits, while soldiers are uncomfortably paraded on The X-Factor—all for excellent charitable causes, of course, but further evidence of the “mawkishness” that worried the general. Whether the slew of military books loading the shelves of bookshops and supermarkets across the country is a cause or a symptom of this condition is not immediately obvious.

A selection of recently published books about current conflicts and one new history of the first world war provides a vantage point from which to survey the now well-established subgenres. Danny Danziger’s We Are Soldiers is typical of the “voices” genre of military writing: a collection of short, first-hand accounts taken from Danziger’s interviews with an impressively broad range of soldiers. Ewen Southby-Tailyour’s Helmand Assault is an accomplished example of the “unit story”, a more focused account of a single deployment, 3 Commando Brigade’s winter tour in Helmand in 2008-09. Patrick Bury’s Callsign Hades is subtly different again, a more traditional memoir, a more personal account of action (in Bury’s case his 2008 tour as a platoon commander with 1 Royal Irish), where the overview afforded by a book such as Helmand Assault is sacrificed for a more detailed and coherent story of a smaller area and a smaller group, offering a little more space for reflection.

It is interesting to contrast these books, one by a civilian, one by a highly respected but reasonably long-retired soldier and one written by a soldier as he was serving respectively, with a more straightforward military history—John Lewis-Stempel’s Six Weeks, a look at the role of the junior officer in World War I—and also, in passing, with recent publications from the United States. What emerges overall is that while there is certainly an appetite for reading about our armed forces, it is more appreciative than analytical. The question is whether or not that appetite is healthy.

Danziger’s book is not strictly about Afghanistan or even Iraq, though both feature prominently; it provides an introduction to the army for the complete outsider. We Are Soldiers is constructed around a series of interviews with everyone from postmen and chefs to hardened infantrymen, from guardsmen to generals, medics to Apache pilots. Its strength is that it allows the many different voices of the army to come across authentically. The most interesting snippets are often the most surprising—the recollections of an army doctor dealing with the horror of the Rwandan genocide, the surprise of a young soldier at the vitriolic hatred in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and reminders of how fierce the fighting was during the Falklands war.

Danziger is obviously a good listener because his subjects are frank, sometimes uncomfortably so. There is a lot to be said for soldiers honestly explaining matters that might be surprising or shocking to the civilian reader, but such explanations invariably require space to develop and need rendering carefully. There are a few howlers—Afghans described as “Arabs,” Iraq as a “shithole” (in both cases, by an officer) —but genuine and often human voices come through: in particular, the honest graft of the posties who put in the extra hours because they know what a difference a letter or welfare package makes to the guys out in patrol bases. Most of the vignettes, whether dealing with the boredom of life in camp or the rush of a firefight, also contain a streak of humor and, although the readability varies depending on the storyteller, the effect is that of an engaging if simple introduction: a sort of Ladybird guide to the army.

Who is its targeted reader? Danziger is honest in his introduction about his own virtually non-existent military experience and the admiration he has for those he subsequently interviewed. But I would question the jacket blurb, which says “anyone who wants to understand why men and women become soldiers will learn” from the book. The book shows, commendably, that soldiers are drawn from a huge variety of backgrounds and are all differently motivated. Yet in touching only on brief and selective vignettes, the formative collective experience of particular tours or units is missed out. The content of the book acknowledges, rightly, that the front line is not all that soldiering is about but the book’s subtitle, Our Heroes. Their Stories. Real Life on the Frontline, aims it squarely at the adrenaline junkies, and there is something curious in the sense of ownership this implies.

Perhaps the current reverence for the military is linked to the general ambiguity about the missions these soldiers are engaged on, as if collective ownership of individual and small group heroism cleanses the collective guilt about the fact that we have put these young people in situations demanding that heroism at all.

Certainly, the current crop of American military books, coming from a culture that has traditionally been more respectful of its veterans, seems less encumbered by the new reverence. Whether by academics, such as Nancy Sherman in The Untold War, embedded reporters such as Sebastian Junger in his brilliant War or by the servicemen themselves, such as Matt Gallagher in Kaboom (surely the Jarhead of the second Gulf war), there is a level of questioning analysis and nuance in the American discussion of recent conflict that is curiously absent from the British one. Yet it would be wrong to make a direct comparison between Sherman’s academic treatment of the conflict of military ethics, how innate humanity survives the pull and push of modern warfare, with, for example, Southby-Tailyour’s Helmand Assault, a comprehensive but hardly revelatory account of six months’ fighting in Helmand; the two are very different books.

Southby-Tailyour served with distinction in the units he writes about and Helmand Assault is written most obviously for the marines and those connected to them. It is a largely successful exercise in what might be termed contemporary history, bolstered by Southby-Tailyour’s insider knowledge and understanding. As an introduction for the uninitiated, the narrative structure imposed by the six-month tour is a more convenient framework than Danziger’s broad, career-type approach and more accessible than the personal narration of a Bildungsroman memoir such as Bury’s Callsign Hades.

Helmand Assault sometimes struggles when its military history impulse pulls in a different direction from its campfire storytelling impulse; the predictable nicknames (“Fitzy” Fitzgerald, “Webby” Webster) soon become trying and the repeated description of bullets as “Afghan bees” are far too reminiscent of the TV news spoof Brass Eye to be taken seriously. But, by and large, the injection of reality given by the marines’ humour and honesty strengthens the book.

Explanations of how the brigade deployed its various sub-units are enlivened by splashes of colour and little details: the officers more afraid of snakes than the Taliban, the sarcastic exchanges between tired but irrepressible booties. Exciting phases are well-written but the six-month deployment of thousands of men is still necessarily a disparate thing, and sometimes the attempts to keep the narrative coherent are strained; we jump from one part of Helmand with 45 Commando to another assault with 42 and it is sometimes hard to keep up. Southby-Tailyour makes excellent use of primary material; radio logs from headquarters and contemporaneous reporting enhance the sense that this will be enjoyed as much by marines today spotting their mates as by later generations of military historians studying the mission.

Six Weeks, Lewis-Stempel’s history of the junior officer in the first world war, also succumbs to “excessive reverence”, if for slightly different reasons. One might expect that Lewis-Stempel, writing with a century of perspective, would avoid succumbing to Gen Fry’s “mawkishness” but one would be wrong.

Dealing with the outbreak of World War I, Lewis-Stempel briefly mentions that the standing army was small in 1914 “due to the long British distrust of the military.” The phrase stands out in the context of my wider reading but also against the hymn of praise for the young public school officers who in many ways exemplified that military for subsequent generations. Lewis-Stempel’s book is a timely and well-motivated effort to address a number of historical injustices, not least that which has seen all officers tarred with the same brush as the unfeeling generals in imagined châteaux who are the popular villains of the first World War.

Lewis-Stempel is right to point out that platoon and company commanders, often second lieutenants, lieutenants and captains barely out of school, suffered the highest casualties of all ranks throughout the war; the title of his book comes from the average life expectancy of a junior officer. In devoting an entire book to their sacrifice and challenging the assumptions that they were either unthinking victims or a blinkered social elite, Lewis-Stempel brings some lovely detail to light; no warrant officer in the British army today will be surprised to hear that even in the squalid trenches, young officers were prone to infuriating sartorial iconoclasm.

It is hard to read of these cheerful young men and not be impressed by the uncomplaining way in which so many of them met their deaths but the tone too frequently tends toward a breathless approach to military history. Once it is established that the public schoolboys suffered disproportionately, it seems odd to labour the point; no well-bred young subaltern’s school or title goes unmentioned, and being told that 80 per cent of Guards Division officers were in Debrett’s guide to the British aristocracy adds nothing to the standing of their conduct on the front line.

Where the school-tie spotting is suppressed, Lewis-Stempel writes fluently and engagingly and Six Weeks addresses some important themes—not least the orthodoxy that everyone who fought in the first World War was a victim. What currently worries senior officers such as Gen Fry is that the more soldiers are perceived as victims, the less effectively the armed forces can do their job, a job that all of these books show graphically and eloquently is all too often dangerous and unpleasant.

Public support is important and all books that raise awareness or bridge gaps in understanding and help the wider public to engage with their armed forces are to be applauded; in their own way, albeit at different levels, all these books contribute to that understanding. A library such as the Prince Consort’s should not be forgotten but nor should it become a shrine.

One constant theme in all these books is that peacetime and training are often far less exciting than war. Britain’s armed forces have been busy for at least a decade and this may explain more than anything else why there are so many military books on the market. It is, perhaps, not unfair to suggest that if it means the boys and girls are getting a breather, slightly fewer in the future might be no bad thing.This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.