Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
We Were Warriors One soldier’s story of brutal combat
Johnny Mercer Sidgwick & Jackson 29 May 2017
The Plymouth MP (and now Minister) is known as one of very very few members with strong and recent military experience. This autobiography paints a picture of an officer with whom one would be very proud, indeed lucky, to serve.
The early chapters, describing his childhood, are bleak (and indeed there are few shafts of light in the later ones). His parents’ strong Chapel background fomented a domestic life that was constricting, punitive, and might have irredeemably twisted the minds of less resolute characters than Mercer. Like many, he was drawn to life in the Army by the physical outdoor nature of the daily grind, but in addition it enabled him to escape his family and find his true soul. He scraped into Sandhurst by the back door, so to speak, and never looked back. The Commando unit of the RA provided the extra physicality he sought.
The British Army’s experience in Afghanistan is the river that courses through this book. Mercer’s first tour was in 2006. Particularly given his subsequent career, he makes some interesting observations on the calibre of senior UK politicians that visited his unit in theatre – Hague and Cameron receive good reports.
The corollary of fighting hard, is playing hard (the Commandos would probably put it more brusquely), and Mercer is very frank in relating toe-curling tales of his decompression periods. Throughout the book the reader is shown the demons with which Mercer is tussling, in early years because of his warped upbringing, in later years because of the strains of combat.
This is one of the better books (from authors on the ground, so to speak) to explain the role of the infantry in the Afghan conflict. In Mercer’s case he ends up commanding a Fire Support team (FST) in 3 RHA on Herrick 12. This is when the hairs on the back of my neck began to stand on end, and I perhaps became a less than objective reader. Some One Dear to me (SODtm) was in a FST on that Herrick tour in a patrol base a few miles from that of Capt Mercer…
Mercer’s account of the loss of his colleague, and mate, Baz in a firefight is spell-binding. The cocktail of descriptions of tactics used to extract from an almost impossible situation, and the emotions of cradling a dead comrade, is extremely powerful prose. At the end of the Herrick 12 tour, he describes returning to a cold Teeside airport, and later a bleak parade at a Yorkshire base – presumably Catterick; I remember a similarly chilling medals parade there. It is a mark of the man that Mercer turned down his CO’s offer of a (Distinguished Conduct?) medal for that tour.
He had latched on the idea of seeking to become a MP after wisely concluding he had had enough of combat. His story of selection for the Plymouth constituency and subsequent lack of support from Conservative Central Office, does not reflect well on the latter (I understand such strategy still exists, one hopes their executive behave better). Men of lesser mettle would have thrown in the towel. But he succeeded in the 2015 election, and the rest is history.
The author clearly relished the inordinately strong bonds of comradeship forged in combat, and one wonders whether he finds the House of Commons a somewhat bleaker environment in that regard. Too many MPs these days have had little experience of the real world, having graduated to the Commons via think tanks or SPAD roles. We should all be extremely grateful that men of the calibre and experience of Mercer choose to serve their people as MPs. I am old enough to remember when the majority in the Commons was of men who had served in WW2; grounded they were.
We Were Warriors is a great story of a life journey. High literature it is not – Mercer’s prose is unburnished. But this adds to its immediacy and power. As a portrait of the stresses and dangers of a British officer on the ground in Helmand it stands alongside Capt Harry Parker’s (fictionalised) account in Anatomy of a Soldier. WWW is highly recommended. (And it renewed my respect for SODtm).