The Junior Officers Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars

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We are often told that the battle against the Taliban has pitched the British Army into some of its hardest fighting in decades and Hennessey's vivid account of a rollercoaster tour of duty in Helmand province amply confirms this.

The Junior Officers' Reading Club

It also serves to underline the fact that even as British casualties in Afghanistan begin to rise ominously - seven dead in recent days - most soldiers will still be eager to test themselves under fire. When Hennessey's Sandhurst intake was posted there in , following dreary stints of parading for the tourists' cameras and disappointingly quiet spells in Bosnia and Iraq, all they wanted to know was: 'Were we going to be shooting people [and] would we get in trouble if we did? To universal relief, he recalls, 'the answers were yes and no', and the resulting memoir provides a testosterone-charged, expletive-spattered portrait of survival in isolated and vulnerable outposts under constant attack by a tough and resourceful enemy.

There was a time when someone like Hennessey - public school, Balliol, degree in English - would have been an exception in the Army, but these days our young officers are overwhelmingly university graduates. Hennessey's book only really comes alive when he makes the acquaintance of 'Terry Taliban' as part of a British team mentoring the emergent Afghan National Army, nominally a partner in the military campaign.

He is ambivalent about 'his' Afghans, admiring their reckless bravery - even when it is powered by the potent local marijuana - but fuming at sloth, ingrained corruption and near-terminal incompetence at the top.

Lust for life | The Spectator

After an Afghan officer he much respected was demoted in favour of a cowardly and incompetent rival, Hennessey observes: 'I think I knew at that moment that we couldn't win - no matter how we mentored and enabled. Lean, super-fit and piratical in strictly non-regulation bandana, Hennessey readily confesses to being 'gobby' and dishes out plenty of stick to porky rear-echelon staff in their crisp uniforms, calmly assessing the cost-effectiveness of bases 'which we've just been fighting tooth and nail to hold', clueless politicians and visiting journalists.

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Fair enough, but his put-down of an Afghan interpreter who dives for cover during a brisk firefight does him no credit. We're talking, after all, about a modestly paid volunteer who runs much the same risks as the troops and faces summary execution, often by decapitation, if captured by the Taliban.

The Reading Club, originally founded to stave off the boredom of rear-echelon duty in Iraq, continued to function intermittently during the relentless fighting in Helmand, tattered paperbacks providing momentary 'decompression' for its increasingly wired members. I should not have read this book I certainly should not be reviewing this book I firmly believe that British troops should not have been sent to Iraq and certainly should not be in Afghanistan.

A young Oxford graduate's tale of heat, boredom and adrenaline-rush warfare in Afghanistan. Now in his late 20s, Hennessey became a captain in the Grenadier Guards at age 22 and soon learned to love Patrick Hennessey.


Hailed as a classic of war writing in the U. Attempting to stave off the tedium and pressures of army life in the Iraqi desert by losing themselves in the dusty paperbacks on the transit-camp bookshelves, Hennessey and a handful of his pals from military academy form the Junior Officers' Reading Club. By the time he reaches Afghanistan and the rest of the club are scattered across the Middle East, they are no longer cheerfully overconfident young recruits, hungering for action and glory.

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