War isn't "hell", it's fine really
Killing's not all that bad, once you get used to it. That, in part, is the message of Patrick Hennessey's book, The Junior Officer's Reading Club. It's a war memoir, but one that takes the 26-year-old's time as a captain in the British Army, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and turns it into something far more vivid than the oily gun-porn of modern thrillers, or any number of technocratic analyses by foreign correspondents. It's a book that examines what it is actually, really, properly, like to be young and sentient and killing people on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen in the early 21st century, a lifestyle chosen by around 100,000 young Britons. War isn't "hell", it concludes. Intense, wearying, emotionally rattling, yes, but also – just maybe – the best 18 - 30 holiday you've never been on. Why else did Hennessey find himself hanging out at Sandhurst after graduating from Oxford? He had army in his heritage, but he had prospects elsewhere too. For him, it was adrenalin he was after, and it was 9/11 that set his pilgrim's heart to racing.
"I don't know if Andy McNabb gets paid by the word," he joshes, "but there's always these sentences where he lays out in technical detail the specifications of the gun he's loading ammo into." Hennessey’s goal was to write the antidote to the toys-for-boys genre. Inspired in part by Anthony Swafford's Jarhead (about underemployed US soldiers during the first Gulf War), he wanted something about 21st century kids doing 21st century things. With guns. In McNabb world, Cobra Elite Special Task Force-types spend all of their lives greasing gun turrets and engaging in "deadly hand-to-hand combat". In Hennessey’s, though, a soldier's life is what happens between the battles. They chill out to the sweet sounds of their PSPs, or listen to Amy Winehouse when they're not killing. The Afghans under his command smoke smack, dig their Brit colleagues' surplus Nuts magazines, get hypnotised by the decadent siren songs of MTV. Infantrymen spend their evenings on laptops editing together personal video clips into their own show reels. Then maybe they go off and do some more killing. It's a balanced life. For after-action satisfaction, when the warring day was done, his platoon's vibe was a very modern all-back-to-mine, monging out to Cafe del Mar chillout classics like "Clubbed to Death", or Pink Floyd's bliss balloon, "The Great Gig in the Sky".
It's a rock 'n' roll war out there, though often, in a weird sort of way, its soundtrack still comes pre-packaged to their imaginations. "When I jumped out of a helicopter for the first time, what plays in your head is Jefferson Airplane's 'Volunteers'.” Hennessey also describes going swimming in a reservoir they'd captured. Four days of fighting for this sweet respite, and what was the first thing that hit the stereo when the boots came off? Otis Redding (just like in Hamburger Hill). Try and evade it, but it's still the iconography of Vietnam that has the biggest hold on the modern soldier's imagination – to the point where no one's quite sure whether it’s their natural verbal reaction to intense situations, or whether ceaseless viewing of Platoon is the chief reason they're all so keen on the term "motherfucker".
Hennessey and his unit star briefly in VBS's own Ben Anderson-directed documentary about Helmand Province. In it, they spend a morning defending a fort against Taliban attack, before pulling back, out of ammo, having just called in a Tali-banging air strike against the enemy. One of their Afghan helpers smokes so much opium that he blithely wanders out into the line of fire, randomly unleashing rounds from his AK into the sky before a stray Taliban bullet knocks the casing off the top of his rifle, and he collects himself enough to scuttle back. "They do smoke a lot of opium. But you kind of have to have a certain amount of give an take about it. It's their custom. They've done it since they were kids. I mean, they don't drink. And I think if a lot of them came to an English town on a Friday night, and saw the carnage that alcohol had unleashed, they'd be just as scandalised. Generally, there's always one stoner squad lagging at the back – it's a bit like Buffalo Soldiers in that respect. Sometimes, you come across a soldier who's smoking heroin, which is a bit shocking, but again, you just have to say, 'These are not our ways'."
The British Army itself is still clean as a hat pin – random compulsory drug-testing takes care of that – but Hennessey points out that soldiers who come back on shore leave are drawn to things like Creamfields. The modern dance nightclub, he theorises, is the closest thing our society has to a war simulator. "Finding clarity in the middle of intense noise and intense light and people – still being able to hold your thoughts in that environment – is the closest most people will get to what battle is actually like."
The key thing they have in common with the Vietnam generation was that returning home was the real hell. After six months of dry, dun-coloured everyday life, Britain becomes synapse-bursting sensory overload. "In Afghanistan, all you see is an occasional glimpse of someone floating past in a burkha... So it's all quite overpowering when you return. Walking around London, it's colourful, it smells good, there are all these girls walking by." And then there's all the killing to explain. When he first arrived back, unwittingly, Hennessey found himself in the grips of what he dubs New Refrigerator Syndrome. "It's a name invented by someone who was working for Medicin Sans Frontieres. He came back from a war zone, and ended up having dinner with his family. It was meant to be this great celebration, but it's hard to impress upon people who have no context [of how] you've spent the past years sewing children back together. Halfway through, his mother turns to him, and says, 'Oh, you'll never guess what's happened while you were away... we've got a new refrigerator.' Whereupon he gets up from the table and beats seven bells of shit out of said refrigerator." For Hennessey, it was the trivia of the people blathering on to him about Big Brother that he recalls as the sort of thing that jarred with his delicate state of mind. He span towards a frenzy of aggressive, drunken living, until someone slipped him the number of a good shrink.
But the ex-Oxford Sandhurst grads of this world will always have someone who can slip them that number when they need it. For him, it's the ordinary Tommy he's worried about. The ones who'll bottle up years of trauma, then go postal one quiet Tuesday afternoon in Dudley. "I think post-traumatic stress disorder is a term you have to be quite careful with, because it describes something quite specific. But the fighting we're seeing now is the fiercest it's been for British troops since the Korean War. Something is in the post, definitely. America went through the whole societal fallout thing with Vietnam. We've never really had anything quite like this in our time, where the guy sitting next to you at the bar has probably been through a lot of very weird, different stuff. I spent a lot of time, when I was leaving the army, doing court cases for soldiers. It's very difficult to say don't do this to a guy who's just been had-up for smacking someone who said the wrong thing to him in a pub. Not when you've just given him a medal for killing people."