Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
This is a cracking tale with more or less non-stop action, that presumably has only lain untold for a decade due to MoD sensitivities. The pace is fast, the prose very much in the testosterone-fuelled Andy Macnab style. One imagines that author and typical reader alike both wear Raybans, even on a very gloomy day in Solihull. It will appeal strongly to the reader of Nuts or FHM, somewhat less so to a subscriber to the TLS.
It follows the insertion of a sixty strong squadron of predominantly SBS men into the Mid West of Iraq, who are tasked with going North to find a brigade of the Iraqi Army and persuade them to surrender. Easy-peasy. It was the sort of deep desert penetration mission that had characterised the SAS’s gestation, and entered into its mythology. The desire amongst the sixty men to give that mythology a post-Millennial gloss is palpable.
In the trial mission, Lewis describes how departing Chinooks “were kicking up a dust storm and creating a whirl of static electricity, which resulted in a blue-green ‘fairy dust’ halo marking their flight path.” Although Lewis does not realise this, he is describing the Kopp Etchells effect, so named in 2009 by the brilliant Michael Yon, in honour (note the ‘u’) of US Ranger Corporal Benjamin Kopp, and Pvt Joseph Etchells of the British Royal Regiment of Fusiliers – both died in Afghan in 2009. Read the moving story, with some great pictures on Yon’s always fascinating blog at http://www.michaelyon-online.com/the-kopp-etchells-effect.htm
Back to the book, the trial mission results in a hair-raising ‘hot’ extraction. The details are occasionally telling – the safety of the men is undoubtedly compromised on several occasions because of a shortage of Chinooks with which to transfer them altogether across the battlefield. Slightly unwittingly in some aspects, the author raises all sorts of questions in my mind about the quality and quantity of intelligence (beforehand) and ISTAR (through the mission). Quite why these boys had to travel hundreds of kilometres with no air cover is insane, not to say criminal.
Once the mission proper starts, it soon starts going to ratshit – through no fault of those involved. The sixty men are hunted like rats around the desert by Iraqi troops of surprising skill and determination (exactly the opposite of what they were briefed to expect).
Lewis knows how to turn on his target reader – “They’d light up the Iraqi desert like Blackpool illuminations on LSD.” But the reported speech does not quite ring true – I’m thinking particularly of the pre-mission briefing given by Graeme Lamb the then DSF, and the later, innocent interjections of a TA interpreter (from 3MI, I’m guessing, and portrayed as a one-dimensional caricature) who tags along. At times the conversation is contrived: I find it hard to believe that a member of the squadron would have to explain to an American in their midst what ‘hard routine’ meant for personal defecation. (I will spare you the details, but most soldiers will be aware of what is involved!) And when the action really becomes heart-thumping, Lewis repeats events half a page later – the drama is sufficiently intense not to need such tricks.
The author shares his love of weaponry with his (Nuts) readers, drooling in particular over the MILAN weapon launcher. Strange then that he calls the troop’s personal sidearm as the Sig Sauger (sic). Perhaps just a mis-print – there are others. And some strange uses of English “It was to there that Grey decided to try to charter a route…”
The layman would probably have benefited from having explained to him why members of the Special Boat Service, better known for wet activities such as that described in Paddy Ashdown’s recent book, are sent prowling around an enemy desert. It would also have rounded out the book to learn about the strategic rationale for this doomed mission, and what other options were explored.
Slightly odd that in the author’s note at the very beginning, Lewis says:
“At no stage did the author seek the MoD’s official approval for this book, nor did author or publishers desire or request such…”
A couple of pages later, the acknowledgements end with
“Special thanks to… Lt Col Crispin Lockhart, of the MoD, for his efforts to clear this book for publication.” All rather nuanced….
This book is a yarn, best read with beer in hand (and preferably in a hot sandy place, but one that is more relaxing than the Iraqi desert). What would turn it into a legendary military book would have been to include interviews with the Iraqi opposition to learn how they conducted the hunt. But it is a mark of how the Allied forces who ‘liberated’ Iraq are still loathed by many of the population, that this remains unfeasible.
Zero Six Bravo
Damien Lewis, Quercus, 14 March 2013