Book Review: Tales from the front-line

PUBLISHED: 01:16 17 October 2011 | UPDATED: 20:08 20 February 2013

The Junior Officers’ Reading Club – Killing Time and Fighting Wars, by Patrick Hennessey

The Junior Officers’ Reading Club – Killing Time and Fighting Wars, by Patrick Hennessey

Patrick Hennessey's book is an important piece of literature documenting his progression through Sandhurst, says Katie Jarvis

Book Review: Tales from the front-line

Patrick Hennesseys book is an important piece of literature documenting his progression through Sandhurst, says Katie Jarvis

For all the stories about Iraq and Afghanistan in the papers; for all the films that have been made about war; few can truly understand the thoughts and fears of soldiers on the front-line. And thats one of the reasons why Patrick Hennesseys The Junior Officers Reading Club is being hailed as a hugely important piece of literature.

Eloquent, moving and frighteningly honest, it tells the story of Patricks progression through Sandhurst to both the brutality and the boredom of Iraq and Afghanistan. Now practising as a barrister, Patrick is aiming to specialise in conflict and international humanitarian law. Hell be speaking about his work at a Meet the Author lunch at Calcot Manor hotel, near Tetbury, on November 21.

Patrick, your book, The Junior Officers Reading Club, explores not just what it is to be a soldier but what it is to be human. Did you write it to understand yourself more clearly or to make others think more deeply?

The book certainly started out not necessarily to make others think more deeply but to show them a world I realised was very foreign. I wanted to write something that would be interesting and accessible to people who werent particularly military. The process, however, turned out to be hugely instructive and I think I ended up understanding myself better as a result of writing.

Did you know exactly what you were going to write from the outset?

The book definitely changed as I was writing it, but I was very fortunate that it had as its spine the e-mails which I had written to friends throughout my time in the Army. Not only did they lend the book some structure; they were a very effective way of being ruthlessly accurate about how I felt about something at any given time. In retrospect, I hadnt realised, for example, how difficult Sandhurst was at times, nor how bored we were in Iraq.

You read English at Oxford, and you initially formed the reading club of the title to while away hours of boredom in Iraq. Have your experiences changed your view of literature and its place within culture?

I think, if anything, my experiences confirmed my view of literature; its importance as a way of both escaping and understanding the world around us. What struck me time and again was how accurate great writing was: the depiction of things such as combat, boredom, fear and loss in great fiction and memoir alike. (Im, thinking of books such as Goodbye to All That, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Catch 22, Despatches and Jarhead). Great writing exists in shades of grey and that is something I found useful to stave off any falsely over-simplified sense of black and white, of good and bad.

Ive read that American soldiers are now being given philosophy lessons. Is it a good thing to make soldiers think more deeply?

I think it is something of a fallacy that soldiers dont think deeply in the first place; but anything that makes you consider and reflect is probably a good thing. Its important not to confuse thoughtfulness with indecision, but as long as actions are taken positively and in a timely manner, I struggle to think of an example of a military situation where not thinking is the right thing to do. Very often, what might seem to the outsider to be thoughtless, charging an enemy position, is both the correct and the intelligent thing to do. I was surprised throughout my time in uniform by how true the old motto fortuna fortis favet was fortune favours the brave: bravery invariably requires thought.

Can anyone who hasnt fought have an opinion on the morals of war?

Id go further and say that it was important that everyone has an opinion on the ethical dimension of war: its far too important to be left to the professionals, who may have a blinkered, albeit close-up, view. Where I think we need to be sensitive is in confusing strategic morality was it right to fight such and such a war in the first place? with the conduct of war. There are a surprising number of armchair generals around who dont seem to understand the reality of being on the ground.

And can anyone who has had the extreme experiences you and others have had ever fit properly into a world of Celebrity Big Brother again?

My objection to CBB, on returning from Afghanistan, wasnt that it was on TV its harmless enough, I suppose; my objection was that it was leading out the news when soldiers were being killed: people could name every gurning idiot in a fake TV house but wouldnt have been able to point on a map to the country in which their neighbours sons were being blown up.

We know (or think we know) that war is going, ultimately, to become a question of pushing buttons rather than men and women on the ground. What might that do to us as a species?

Im not sure I necessarily agree with the question technological advances can only take us so far. What has happened in Libya recently is a good example. It may seem as if we have fought a clinical, removed conflict, dropping guided bombs from the safety of fast jets and helicopters, with our pilots based safely in Italy; but the Gaddafi regime only fell because of fighting on the ground: old-fashioned, unpleasant fighting across deserts and through towns, the human cost of which is only starting to become apparent. For all our technological superiority over the Taliban in Afghanistan, we cant bring security to an area without physically being there and, once there, were vulnerable to IEDs and other weapons that kill and maim.

What should we, as readers, take from your book?

Take that what soldiers do is maybe not always what you thought it was; take that it can be unpleasant, but that it can be enjoyable; take that there can be humour in the bleakest of situations, homeliness in the most foreign, light in the most dark. Im not a great believer in writers expecting or instructing readers to take things from their works; it is whatever you make of it so long as you remember that theres a deserted village somewhere in Afghanistan named after my wonderful girlfriend.

Any more books in the pipeline?

Ive been working for a while on a project which I hope is now nearing fruition, telling the story of Afghan National Army soldiers in their own words. Ive spent many hours working alongside and talking with ANA soldiers, many of whom have incredible stories to tell and a different perspective on the conflict. British units spend about six months in Helmand province at a time, but some of the ANA units we work alongside have spent five whole years fighting down there.

Catch 22 or Slaughterhouse-Five?

A really difficult question as theyre both brilliant books. Theres a haunting, poetic quality to Vonneguts So it goes, but its deeply fatalistic. I prefer the mad, hopeful Yossarian lives.

The Junior Officers Reading Club Killing Time and Fighting Wars, by Patrick Hennessey is published by Penguin, price 9.99. For more details of Patricks lunch talk on November 21, contact Calcot Manor on tel: 01666 890391 or visit

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