Jonathan Yardley

Jonathan Yardley reviews "The Junior Officers' Reading Club"

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, September 19, 2010



Killing Time and Fighting Wars

By Patrick Hennessey

Riverhead. 310 pp. Paperback, $16

In 2007, toward the end of his seven months' service in Afghanistan, Patrick Hennessey of the British Grenadier Guards celebrated his 25th birthday and his promotion from lieutenant to captain. From home he received "the sheer twelve-year-old joy of birthday parcels and cards and goodies galore," and from his platoon "the gentle ribbing of the boys that I might be the youngest captain in the army, but I'm no longer 'young.' "

That, if anything is understatement. Early in his Afghanistan posting he had recalled "the vivid imagery of the First World war poets," in particular Siegfried Sassoon's powerful "Suicide in the Trenches" and its "vituperative lines" to which his fellow soldiers "nodded approvingly when I managed to drag them up from memory -- 'You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye/Who cheer when soldier lads march by/Sneak home and pray you'll never know/The hell where youth and laughter go.'"

In significant measure "The Junior Officers' Reading Club," first published last year in England when Hennessey was 27 years old, is intended to bring down "the wall that's been quietly built between those of us who are here [in Afghanistan] and have lived these things and everybody else, no matter how close to us they previously were." That reflection comes after a satellite-phone conversation with Jenny Dean, "my amazing girlfriend," leaving him "not sure how a phone conversation can go so quickly from sexy whisperings and longing for clean sheets and sturdy double beds to tearful recriminations and complete lack of understanding," but deepening his awareness of the unbridgeable gulf between soldiers at war and civilians back home.

"The Junior Officers' Reading Club" isn't going to eliminate that misunderstanding, even for those who read it closely and take its lessons to heart, because nothing except the experience itself can bring home the true nature of warfare, but it certainly conveys "the way the further you got into the war, into the jungle, into the heart of darkness, the more the scales of normality fell away." It takes the readers into a place where "normal parameters were meaningless, rules didn't exist, time bent, and only the heat and exhaustion were real enough to remind you that this wasn't a dream sequence." The two books from which it most directly draws inspiration are Michael Herr's "Dispatches" (1977), the classic account (by a noncombatant!) of the Vietnam War, and Anthony Swofford's "Jarhead" (2003), about the second Iraq campaign, and it deserves to be ranked with both of them.

It takes a bit of getting used to, at least for this much older reader who suffers from exceedingly limited familiarity with heavy metal and rap, British youth slang and military acronyms (fortunately a glossary is supplied). Almost all readers will need some time to adjust to Hennessey's prose, which is quirky, unconventional, at times stream of consciousness, at others obscure. But be patient and make the effort. It's worth it.

Hennessey was 18 years old, wrapping things up at Oxford in 2001, when he applied for officer training school. He was part of a wave of post-9/11 enlistments, but his motives had less to do with patriotism or a desire to serve than with "boredom with everything else." Indeed, boredom is a theme that runs throughout "The Junior Officers' Reading Club," as summarized when Hennessey and his unit arrive in Afghanistan in March 2007: "I was bored. As bored as I'd been when I decided to join the Army, as bored as I'd been on public duties, guarding royal palaces while friends were guarding convoys in Iraq, as bored as I'd been once we got to Iraq and found ourselves fighting the Senior Major more than Saddam. Stone-throwing, chain-smoking, soldier-purging bored."

Boredom is of course a salient if not dominant fact of military life, evidence of which can be found in everything from "Goodbye to All That" to "Mister Roberts" to "From Here to Eternity" to "Catch-22," but Hennessey puts an especially vivid spin on it, if anything about boredom can be said to be vivid. The reading club referred to had been formed "in the heat of the southern Iraqi desert" by junior officers seeking "quick half-hour escapes from the oppressive heat and boredom routine," members of "a newly busy Army, a post-9/11 Army of graduates and wise-arse Thatcherite kids up to their elbows in the Middle East." It wasn't a reading club in the received sense of the term -- white wine and cucumber sandwiches most definitely were not served -- but a way to keep boredom under control and to discover, in novels of wildly varying quality, "a sense of the surreal, an acute sense of the slightly mad," or, in a phrase, the world of war.

It wasn't until Hennessey got to Afghanistan that he found that world, which in truth is what he had been seeking all the time, "the contact battle that ramps the heartbeat up so high and pumps adrenalin and euphoria through the veins in such a heady rapid mix . . . the ultimate affirmation of being alive." That's strong stuff, and readers of a pacifist inclination aren't going to like it, but it gets to a truth about the human mind and heart. John Hersey called a now-forgotten novel of his "The War Lover" (1959), and its portrait of a man who lived for and reveled in combat touches the same themes as Hennessey does.

"I suddenly know that I hate this and love it at the same time because I can already feel both how glad I will be when it is over and how much I will miss it," he writes. "How difficult to convey to anyone that matters something which they will never understand, and how little anything else will ever matter." And, a few pages later: "I would probably rather be anywhere in the world right now other than here, but if I was anywhere else in the world I would just want to be back here."

Some may be tempted to take this as posturing, but the temptation must be resisted. It's an honest acknowledgment of the darkness within us, of the unwelcome emotions that combat can bring about. "Eight dead Taliban today so we celebrate with a precious tin of hot dog sausages," Hennessey reports at one point, then adds: "I'm more amused than worried that this seems now to be a perfectly natural reaction to things." To admit that takes not merely honesty but courage. It doesn't mean that Hennessey is intrinsically more bloodthirsty than any of the rest of us, only that when put in a violent and deadly situation, he responded as circumstances required. War does that.

Before this wraps up, though, we need to shift gears. "The Junior Officers' Reading Club" is a dark book at times, but it's also smart and funny. Hennessey's account of his training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst is absolutely delicious, self-mocking and irreverent. His portrayal of a drill sergeant is a classic:

"The CSgt was best, his stream-of-consciousness rants by now the stuff of legend among thirty of us who had as clear a case of Stockholm Syndrome as ever you're likely to see. Hanging on every word of this man whom we had feared and hated in equal measure but now worshipped and envied, his professionalism, his experience, his implied hardness and the fact that he would come grinning in to work after a leave weekend with impressive bar-brawl scars, growling at us that we'd better not piss him off that day because he loved his wife and if we annoyed him he'd have to beat her because he wasn't allowed to beat us."

Et cetera. "The Junior Officers' Reading Club" is a humdinger.

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