The Junior Officers Reading Club.

I bought it last week...I'll be reading it soon.
very good interview with him in The Telegraph the other day:

For much of his time in Iraq, the big decision of Patrick Hennessey's day was what to read. While guarding Iraqi detainees, he and young officer friends would lounge around sunbathing in boxer shorts, holding impromptu seminars on the relative merits of The Iliad over Catch 22.

When the idealistic Balliol English graduate defied his parents to join the Grenadier Guards, he expected adventure and was disappointed to find it mostly within the covers of books. After he was shifted to Baghdad, that changed: quiz nights alternated with terrifying patrol duties.

Iraq celebrates US pullout from citiesThen, in 2007, he was sent to Helmand province where the action was relentless. In one 48-hour push up the Sangin Valley, his team of six, without Afghan support, had to take control of 80 compounds. By the end of the tour, his company of 36 had lost 12 "blokes" – one killed, the rest injured – and three of the six officers had been sent home. Hennessey, one of the youngest captains in the Army, was the only platoon commander left.

With each new empty bed in the room, each friend helicoptered out hooked up to a morphine drip, his introspections shifted from the relative merits of Homer and Heller to why he simultaneously longed for and dreaded danger. "Is fighting sexually charged because it is the greatest affirmation of being alive?" asks Hennessey, now a 26-year-old law student in a civvy suit.

These days the only gore he sees is the Bloody Mary he orders at the Cavalry and Guards Club in Piccadilly, but his Army days dominate his thinking. Physically he survived his two seven-month spells on the front line with only a scorch to his neck from a shell. Psychologically, he was not unscathed. But literature, which helped pass the boring patches and provided an outlet during the tough ones, has once again come to his rescue.

This time, he has written an account of Army life which is remarkable in combining action and reflection. The Junior Officers' Reading Club, currently Radio 4's book of the week, follows his brief career from the absurdities of square-bashing at Sandhurst, through the months of terror, to the "scotch-drinking, night-spoiling, glass-smashing, relationship-bashing cliché" he became on returning home.

At Sandhurst he learned that animals rarely kill members of the same species, so armies need to instill in soldiers an unnatural level of aggression. But, given Hennessey's literary taste, I am surprised his book is non-fiction. "One day I would love to write a novel," he explains, "but you don't want to trivialise something that is still going on by setting a love story in Camp Bastion. The tragedy of my book is that it all happened."

In the book, Hennessey calls the MoD "a lumbering hippo of a department", describes defence procurement as "a Dickensian mess" and reveals that the "urban assault kit" with which his company was issued consisted of nothing more than a ladder. He could write uncensored because he left the Guards at the beginning of this year.

Nevertheless, he showed a copy to the MoD whose reader, with great restraint, asked for no deletions. General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the Army and Hennessey's hero, was similarly liberal despite passages on the sexual frustration and addiction to pirate DVDs of men at the front (in the infantry there are still no women). "It's not how I would have done it," Dannatt wrote back, "but at least it is honest."

Hennessey misses the Army. While reading for the Bar (no novels on that book list), he frequently drops in to the Cavalry and Guards club, "It reminds me of the mess room," he says with a rueful smile. "Every morning I wake up and think: 'Have I made the wrong decision?' The Army is so much more than a job, it's a way of life. But I had reached the stage where the next jobs would be behind a desk."

He was part of a post-9/11 recruitment surge in the Armed Forces. "If something is wrong, you do your bit to change it," is how he explained his choice of career to his parents. Although his paternal grandfather was one of the first to land at D-Day and his father is in the Navy, there was no pressure for him to follow tradition. But, bored at Oxford, excited by watching the 2003 invasion of Iraq on television, and eager for £1,000 a year bursary, he signed up.

He makes Sandhurst in 2004 sound archaic: still training soldiers for the Cold – or even Napoleonic – War, not to fight 21st century insurgents. But despite learning to polish the soles of his boots and getting into trouble for having the bristles of his toothbrush face the wrong way, he sighs fondly at the memory. "Bless it. Maybe we could have done less square-bashing and more counter-insurgency, but it was good mental training. In Afghanistan, when we were working long hours in the sweltering heat, soldiers would say, 'At least it not as bad as Trooping the Colour.'"

Gruelling exercises at Infantry Battle School followed, and then tedious months guarding royal palaces wearing the pelt of a female black bear on his head (officers' privilege; soldiers wear inferior male bearskins). Finally, the moment came: he was sent to Iraq. "Baghdad in 2006 was the place to be, like Woodstock in 1968."

Guarding detainees near Basra was a confusing experience. "It was hard for the soldiers to see those who had tried to blow them up getting better food and air conditioning than they got, but that's how it has to be. The battle is to win hearts and minds." He is now in the middle of a US-run course on the legalities of counter-terrorism, which he is finding horrifying. "The discussions are not about how you mustn't torture people but about how you can torture people legally."

In Basra, with time to kill, he started the reading group. "I became fascinated by the books people had brought with them, knowing that it could be the last they would ever read. Did they want to read war stories, escapism, or their old favourite?" Alice in Wonderland he found was a popular choice. That made sense to him because, in Iraq as in Wonderland, their surroundings were "at once recognisable and yet strange".

Bahgdad offered less time for introspection. In Afghanistan, there was none. Philosophically, though, it was a relief to be in a country where he didn't doubt the moral basis for his presence. "The Talibaddies were such obvious enemies that it was an easy fight to sell to the troops. We were greeted by smiles, not stones. The people said that what they most wanted was education."

The fighting was intense, the fear relentless, the human price appalling – teachers had their hands cut off – and for seven months "R & R became the two sweetest letters in the alphabet". But when he returned home to his family, friends, and girlfriend Jen, he found it hard to adjust. "I would get a nervous tic when people talked about Big Brother as though it really mattered."

If his regiment had been given medals, not just certificates, to show that what they had done was "not wrong, but glorious and heroic", he believes he might have found the transition easier. Finally, after months of drinking and getting into fights, he sought help from a non-army psychiatrist. "Don't over special-case yourself," he was told. "Your reactions are normal and healthy. A lot of people, like the police, deal with that stuff too."

In his new career Hennessey intends to specialise in humanitarian and conflict law because, generally "those who argue in court about such things have no understanding".

Hennessey is the bright stuff as well as the right stuff. One day he may produce one of the first great novels about war in the 21st century.

The Junior Officers' Reading Club by Patrick Hennessey (Penguin) is available from Telegraph Books for £14.99 + £1.25 p&p. Call 0844 871 1515 or visit

Patrick Hennessey's Recommended Wartime Reading

Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq by Thomas E Ricks

Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Baghdad's Green zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

The Exchange-Rate between Love and Money by Thomas Leveritt. (Set in the siege of Sarajevo)

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (Uncle Toby is one of the first studies of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.)

Dispatches by Michael Herr (Best description of Vietnam War)

Jarhead by Anthony Swofford (US sniper's memoir of 1991 Gulf War)

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller (US airman in World War Two)

Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves (Trenches in World War One)

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (Set in Spanish Civil War)

Shake Hands with the Devil: the Failure of Humanity in Rwanda by Romeo Dallaire (Account of genocide by UN chief)
Squiggle said:
Anyone read it yet ? Should I go out and get it ?
the book reviews have all been favourable............
Anyone read it yet ? Should I go out and get it ?
Personally, I'd reccomend against it. I have no beef with the author - he is clearly an intelligent guy, his OMLT tour was undoubtedly very punchy and in the areas I recognise, I sympathise with him.

Unfortunatley, however, like "Desert Of Death" the book has all the hallmarks of one rushed to market to capitalise on popular interest about Helmand. Because it was written in haste, I found it sloppily put together, poorly edited and - to be slightly brutal - slightly adolescent in tone. The edited extracts in the papers are good, but the book as a whole needs to be trimmed and distilled.

Its not an awful book - tt will give the public a decent idea of what it is to be a junior officer fighting in Helmand, so it succeeds in that respect. But to be honest, I was hoping for something better and was disappointed. He name-checks all the right authors and historical references & touches on moral complexities and wider political ambiguities but essentially its a "my tour" book as opposed to a perceptive memoir.

To be honest, its a shame that I can't name a single really good autobiographical account of fighting on Telic or Herrick, let alone one that approaches literature aside from Nathaniel Fick's "One Bullet Away". Its also a shame that there hasn't been a book recently which epitomises the British Army post 2003 - I was annoyed that Richard Holmes in writing "Dusty Warriors" missed an open goal and didn't come anywhere near capturing an Army's spirit as he did in "Tommy" or "Redcoat".

Leo Docherty & Patrick Hennessy may well have a really good book in them about their experiences on Herrick, but their initial efforts are quite far off the mark. I think that probably more time is needed for those fighting on the front line now to move on and reflect, resulting in more concise and profound books than the immediate post-op purges which are being published now.

Cuddles said:
I bought it last week...I'll be reading it soon.
Started last night. He seems like the "good" sort of Guardsman, clever enough to be out but committed enough to be in, doing the job well. As a personal testimony, which it is meant to be, it is doing what it says on the tin.

I personally find anyone's personal reasons for joining and feelings about their service interesting. What I hate are people who grip about this, insist that is wrong because it always used to be done like that and finally put "SAS" in like punctuation marks to be cnuts! SAS. Oh damn, I mean SAS damn. SAS...enough of that joke.
Also started it last night & am halfway through the RMAS chapter (people kept telephoning me, blast them).

It may be a bit adolescent in tone, but then Young Officer can be a bit adolescent. Hell, I certainly was & I never did anything as intense as Hlmand...

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