Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Junior Officers' Reading Club

The Junior Officers' Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars

By: Patrick Hennessey

There are a lot of things I really liked about this memoir, and there was one thing that really disappointed me. I'll start with the negative - let's deal with the bad stuff first, get it out of the way, then really enjoy all the great things in this book.

I got this book for Christmas, after having had it on my reading list for some time. I love books about books and books about reading. Unfortunately, this memoir is not about books or about reading. It is about war. There are references to books, and to the "Reading Club," but that is not the focus of the book. About halfway through I began to realize that this book was really poorly titled. I felt completely misled! So, if you want to read a memoir about a British Army officer's reading list, then you should probably find something else.

But if you want to read something beautiful, poignant, and extremely well written that tells the story of war (any war, really) from a the soldier's introspective and analytic perspective, then this is for you. Even if he didn't tell you, you would know that Patrick Hennessey is well read. No one writes like this without being well-versed in the classics and other literature. He gets it. His writing took me wherever he was - he made me feel like I was part of the war, part of the soldier culture, and part of him.

Full disclosure: I was in the Army. That means I'm going to get things a little more than the average civilian. BUT, I was out of the Army in 2000 - a full year before 9/11. My biggest deployment was basically a reward - a one-month trip to Jordan to study Arabic (most of which I spent sight-seeing and shopping). I never had to go to war, I was never in a battle (I was barely ever in a simulated battle). So while I get the bonding that soldiers go through - especially during training - I had no experience with the battlefield and its effect on people and relationships. Also, for those readers who may be unfamiliar with some terms and acronyms, there is a very helpful glossary in the back of the book.

The memoir starts out with his training and how excited he was about the Army - how he wanted to do something so much more than sit behind a desk in an office, or follow his grandfather's footsteps into the world of academia. He wanted adventure and stories to tell. I relived every minute of basic training in those early chapters - which was the most interesting part to me. I was an enlisted soldier right out of high school in the US Army. He was a British Officer in Training right out of university. But our training was almost the same - the same tactics of breaking you down, to build you up again; the tactic of giving you more to do than you think is humanly possible, so that when you do it, you feel like a god; the tactic of taking everything away from you after a major personal victory so that you remember it's not about you and that you better always be thinking about the team.

He then starts with some deployments - Bosnia, Iraq, and eventually the most brutal: Afghanistan. He tells the truth about himself - his faults, his failings as a boyfriend, his insecurities and fears about leading young teenage men into battles from which they may not come out alive, or if they do, they may not be whole.

But most of all, he tells the truth about soldier mentality. He's not afraid to say things that society probably doesn't want to hear. He wanted to be there, he wanted to kill - it wasn't about politics or wanting to do the right thing. (That may have been the most refreshing part - the complete lack of politics.) When sent back to the base for some R&R after a month on the front lines, all he could think about was wanting to be back out there - angry and guilty that he's been taken from the battle.

He isn't afraid to tell that during the worst battles, when people (his soldiers and enemy soldiers) lay dead in pieces around him, that the only coping method that works is to have a completely disturbed sense of humor. He also admits that the only thing that got him out of Afghanistan alive was luck - in one instance, standing one foot to the left would have meant instant death.

His ability to analyze his actions and his mental state throughout the most stressful situations is nothing short of extraordinary. I feel like I'm just gushing now, but he really just transported me emotionally. I didn't judge him for his faults, I didn't cringe at the brutal and graphic descriptions of the battle field. I understood. I sympathized. You will too.

Please don't be afraid of the graphic nature of this book - it's nothing more than you've seen in any military movie, and it is not detailed. Please read this. I'm going to close with a passage from this memoir that made me laugh out loud. Any of my Army friends or anyone with a close loved one in the military who may read this will appreciate it immensely.

"They sent a US 'Full Bird' colonel from the First Infantry Division, the famous 'Big Red One,' to brief us at the start of our new and hectic training regime. He casually stood in front of the most attentive Army classroom I'd ever seen and carefully explained the concept of 'huah.' 'Huah' was the noise somewhere between a retch and a burp which first the US Rangers, then the US Marines and then with slight variations of tone and emphasis everyone else in the States made all the time. 'Huah' was anything from a battle cry to saying good morning to an officer. But 'huah' was also a concept, a mentality. 'Huah' was apparently holding off 4,000 Zulus at Rorke's Drift; 'huah' was founding the SAS and yomping across the Falklands. As he quickly rattled through a capabilities brief of the US Army and which bits of it we might come across out in Iraq, it seemed to all of us that 'huah' was having an army so big you had more guys sitting in Korea just in case than we had full stop. . . . As it turned out, pre-deployment training wasn't particularly 'huah' at all."


  1. this does sound like a good book. i read a really good war book by...oh my gosh, i can't remember! my brain has not been functioning lately. i want to say cormac mccarthy, but i know it wasn't him. anyway...war books can be awesome.

  2. ooh it was The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien! it was about Vietnam and it was REALLY good!

  3. Well, I'll have to check it out. Thanks for adding yet another book to my list of books to read Bryan!