Book Review: The Junior Officers Reading Club

Book Review:

The Junior Officers Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars by Patrick

Hennessey.  Published by Riverhead Trade; reprint edition (September 7, 2010),

336 pages. ISBN 1594484791

Reviewed by Michael Gates

After nearly nine years of conflict, the grandchildren of the "Greatest Generation"

have earned the right to tell their story from the frontlines of the Long War. This

generation of junior officers and soldiers from more than forty countries has experienced

persistent conflict, irregular threats, and unpredictable futures.  Combat

tours have not ended in victory parades, but in training to prepare for the next

scheduled deployment. Numerous contemporary authors have struggled to articulate

the experiences of this new generation of warriors; however, former British Grenadier

Guards Captain Patrick Hennessey has definitively captured the voice of the newest

generation of veterans.  Hennessey's remarkable memoir, The Junior Officer's

Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars, is likely to stand the test of

time as a brilliant and cathartic perspective from one of the young leaders of the

conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond. If you are looking for classical and

polished prose you will not find it here; this book does well by keeping the rugged

structure and tone of the conflicts that served as its' inspiration. The language

is brilliantly gritty and harsh, yet this work exquisitely frames the true essence

of the experiences, realities, and wisdom of the young Digital Age veterans fighting

in distant corners of the world.

Hennessey's solid contribution to the history of contemporary conflict demonstrates

how interconnected the modern world has become as nations have partnered to counter

common threats. This firsthand account of a young officer bouncing between conflicts

could easily represent the story of a young soldier from any of the coalition partners

serving in contingency operations around the world.  The individual events

of this narrative only serve a secondary role to frame the most important aspect

of this memoir, the evolution and maturation of a modern soldier forced to grow

wise beyond his years in the complex and uncertain environments of modern conflict.

Hennessey's combat chronology traces the history of modern coalition warfare from

the relative simplicity of Balkan peacekeeping missions, to the stark intricacies

of Iraq and Afghanistan.  The detailed accounts vividly describe his four year

journey from an optimistic Sandhurst cadet, boredom as a lieutenant during deployments

to Bosnia and Iraq, and his christening under fire in Afghanistan as the "youngest

captain in the army." 

In the opening pages of his book Hennessey describes his formative early development,

seeking to live up to the legacies of his grandfathers. One was a career military

officer and veteran of the Normandy invasion, the other a respected college professor.

This contrast foreshadowed his later internal conflict as he weighed volunteering

his service at a time of war against his academic and occupational pursuits. Hennessey's

decision to join the military was motivated by shock evoked from the 9/11attacks,

boredom of civilian life, and a desire to tackle student debt.  His early expectations

of military service and combat were framed by Vietnam War movies and the tales of

his relatives and neighbors from World War II, the Falkland Islands, and Desert

Storm. During his training at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, Hennessey

bristled with frustration over cadet training in conventional tactics, instead of

the "three-block war" and irregular threats he expected to confront.  Following

Hennessey's graduation and commissioning as an infantry officer in the Grenadier

Guards, he conducted a brief deployment to Bosnia in late 2004. Hennessey characterized

this deployment as "the perfect blend of operational realism to sharpen professional

skills without anyone seriously thinking that everyone might not come home."

 Following the Bosnia deployment, Hennessey and the Grenadier Guards bristle

in anticipation with the news of a battalion deployment to Iraq in the ongoing conflict

and expanding insurgency. The expectations of the deployment were muted by lackluster

pre-mission training focused on peacekeeping operations, tactics employed in Northern

Ireland, and the persistent shadow of Falkland Islands vignettes.  The Iraq

deployment left Hennessey frustrated and bored running a British detention facility

and prompting the creation of the book's namesake "Junior Officer's Reading Club."

Discussions of works like Joseph Heller's Catch 22 and Michael Herr's

Dispatches were punctuated by sounds of combat in the far distance, further

emphasizing the tedium and perceived shame of being assigned a supporting role in

the war. Hennessey unabashedly recounts his unit's frustrations of missing the glory

and excitement of direct combat operations. This portion of the book beautifully

captures the eagerness and naivety of a junior officer who has never experienced

the true horrors of combat. Hennessey next finds his unit back at the Grenadier

Guards' barracks in London performing ceremonial guard duties, embarrassed for his

failure to be involved in "real combat," and anxious for a chance to prove himself

in future deployments. 

Hennessey's wishes are realized when his unit is sent to Helmand, Afghanistan

in 2007. In this remarkable portion of this book Hennessey candidly describes his

own transformation as a soldier and leader during his Afghanistan deployment. 

Through detailed accounts of intense combat, numbing casualties, and a mixture of

frustrations and admiration for his Afghan National Army comrades, the reader witnesses

the maturation of an officer witnessing the human toll of war. In this section Hennessey

is most effective at truly describing the dualities of modern conflict. Excerpts

range from descriptions of the excesses of Kandahar Airfield food concessions, the

primitive combat outpost of his fearless Afghan comrades, the impact of devastating

casualties within his unit, and whether his element was achieving any long term

gains. Captain Hennessey may have entered Afghanistan an eager young officer searching

for adventure and glory, but returned to ceremonial duty in London a man hardened

and mature beyond his years. Upon his return, Hennessey realizes he has grown increasingly

distant from the civilian world during his participation in several "small wars." 

His dispatches poignantly describe the difficulties of his reintegration, and his

debate of whether the progress made abroad was worth the heavy human toll he witnessed.

Hennessy ends his Afghan account with a brilliant, yet ominous quote from the local

Afghan Army commander; "They sicken of the calm, who knew the storm." This prophetic

wisdom foreshadowed Hennessey's candid self introspection, as a young man making

sense of his recent experiences and debating difficult decisions involving his future

military service, and ultimately why he left.

Patrick Hennessey's great contribution to his generation of young officers and

soldiers is his frank and open self-dialogue illustrating the complex web of frustrations,

pride, and honor of coalition soldiers serving on the front lines of the Long War.

This work realistically captures the experiences and emotions that have shaped the

perspectives of modern soldiers, balancing constant communication with loved ones

with stark realities of combat thousands of miles away. These men and women share

bonds that defy international boundaries and language barriers. Veterans of these

conflicts will recognize the authenticity in Hennessey's account, while other readers

will gain great insight into the conflicts that have shaped the perspectives of

today's citizen soldiers and tomorrow's political and societal leaders.

Major Michael Gates is currently assigned to the Defense Analysis Department,

U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. He was commissioned a U.S. Army officer in 2000,

with subsequent service in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

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Comments

To the two previous commentators, I couldn't agree with you more. Although it is not as bad as Exum, Fick, or the other self-important young officers who had these books in mind when they were 10.

These were my comments on the book:

"Its a horror story of everything that can go wrong with how a young officer can develop on his first combat tour. The rank arrogance comes through strongly from playing the old soldier after 2 months in Helmand to the know-all attitude virtually from the outset. This should be required reading on how to recognise a head case. (I tend to agree with Tukhachevskii that the book was "packaged".

Its like he read Rumors of War, Dispatches and John Masters' Bugles and a Tiger and then watched Apocalypse Now 10 times then wrote the book. The horror... the horror... give us a break Hennessay)"

Er.... think I must have read a different book. Funny that. It had the same title and author. Personally, if you want to get a feel for a Brtiish perspective on war read either Blood Clot (written from the perspective of a Para patrols Plt cdr) or anything by David Beattie. My comments on the above named work haven't changed since the review I wrte for SWC (brief but to the point)....

"There is something remarkably unsatisfying about this book; though I am certain his friends will enjoy it immensely. To be fair one learns an awful lo about life at Sandhurst, about regimental life in general and about the culture junior officers are socialised into bit it stll reads much less like a memoir of war and more like a cleverly marketed and pitched faux-memoir/diary for the iPod generation. Some may find that tone and style refreshing but I for one found it self-indulgent with a whiff of the flippant. The author is apparently now reading to become a lawyer and his bok reads very much like a publicity exercise in preparation for a life of (self-) importance"

Obviously American's find it more interesting. Different strokes I suppose...