Patrick Hennessey. The Junior Officers’ Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars. New York: Riverhead Books (Penguin), 2009.
During the British Army’s training season here at CFB Suffield you can spot them in the officer’s mess – young Brit officers with big hair, a certain languid grace and a devil-may-care attitude. They fall into two groups, the young subbies (lieutenants) here with their battlegroups, training to go over to Helmand province in Afghanistan, and slightly older captains who have already been over there and are now here as trainers, imparting their hard-won lessons to the first group. Reading Patrick Hennessy’s book gives me a sense of what their lives and their army is like.
Patrick Hennessy is a bright young man (born 1982) from a family of soldiers who did well at Sandhurst, was assigned to the Grenadier Guards, and went from Iraq to Afghanistan, where he mentored a piratical group of Afghan National Army soldiers. In the process he did very well, saw an insane amount of combat, got badly burned out, and came to realize that he and his peers had followed the trajectory of each generation before them, learning lessons the hard way, by personal experience and coming of age. As he writes in the introduction, his cohort could only learn so much from their seniors, not because the seniors couldn’t teach, but because the juniors had to walk that road themselves.
“Too Cool for School” was what we’d been called by the smarmy gunner colonel on a course down in Warminster, congratulating through gritted teeth the boys who’d picked up gallantry awards, too old now to win the spurs he never got the chance to while he was getting drunk on the Rhine and flying his desk.
But in a way he was right: what did we know just because we’d had a few scraps in the desert? The bitter, loggy major who sat next to him had probably been to the Gulf back in ’91, when we were still learning to read; probably had been patronized himself when he was a crow by returning Falklands vets who in turn had been instructed by grizzly old-timers sporting proud racks of World War Two medals, chests weighed down by Northwest Europe and Northern Desert Stars, which told of something greater than we could comprehend, the stuff of history imagined in black and white when no one was anyone without a Military Cross. Our grandfathers were heroes, whatever that meant, and they had taught the legends who charged up Mount Tumbledown in the Falklands and had returned to teach us.
We who didn’t believe them.”
I suppose that excerpt repeats a cliche as old as Achilles, that each generation in turn must go to war to prove itself as their elders did, and in turn must experience war and its many disillusionments first hand. Hennessey is a bright young man, and he tells this old story in the language and context of his generation: ferociously skeptical, media astute, cynical but wanting meaning. There are times when, as a chaplain and a person of faith, I find myself wincing at his honesty, as when he writes that he “was overcome by a surge of revulsion at the hypocrisy of the thing, the crap being peddled by the padres that somehow makes it all right for a nineteen-year-old to die if he’s going to heaven. That surely can’t have been the same heaven the suicide bombers who blew up the UN workers were off to. After the Old Testament trials of the week I’m done with the religious bullshit dimension of what is going on” (24-25). Brutally honest, but I’m grateful for it. It’s good to know your audience.
Despite its title, this book is more about combat than about literature. The Book Club in the title was the author’s initial peer group, but they are only briefly sketched characters and we soon lose sight of them. However, Hennessey was himself an avid and eclectic reader in theatre, and his choices are interesting. Some of his reading connects him with a long tradition of adventurous British soldier-scholars, such Wilfred Thesiger’s The Marsh Arabs. As something of a satirist himself, it’s easy to see why Hennessey enjoyed military send-ups such as Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies and Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. More contemporary choices included Brett Easton Ellis (himself once a bright young man). And of course there are the 21st touches, ipod playlists, DVD series, email and videos.
I won’t spoil the ending. Along the way, one admire’s Hennessey’s love for the Afghan soldiers he served with, and shares his unease as to the West’s longterm commitment to the Afghan people. As an addition to the genre of military memoirs, it’s a useful update, even if the tropes (alienation from former civilial friends, resentment at rear-echelon types, disillusionment with the experience once so eagerly sought out) are familiar. If war is indeed a cliche, then each generation it seems must discover that truth for itself, and Hennessey is an apt spokesman for those who came of age in the War on Terror. My hope is that somewhere out there, a similarly articulate young Canadian soldier is working on his or her own account of Afghanistan.
A quick final note on the cover art shown above. The choice of a pile of dog-eared paperbacks, some suspiciously resembling the old Penguin Classics, is inspired. It reminded me of the chapters in Paul Fussell’s chapters in his book Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (1989), on how paperbacks, miraculously suited to the pockets of battledress, helped soldiers pass the time and stay sane. Regretfully, Penguin has seen fit to adorn the pile of books on the cover with little soldiers who, from their weapons and helmets, are conspicuously US. Could they not have used images of British soldiers? Surely the North American market could stomached that.