Memories Of War And Reading Clubs

Patrick Hennessey was the youngest front-line captain in the British Army, served in Iraq and Afghanistan and earned a commendation for gallantry. Host Scott Simon speaks with Hennessey about his memoir, The Junior Officers' Reading Club.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Patrick Hennessey was the youngest front-line captain in the British Army, served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and earned a commendation for gallantry. He and a group of fellow officers founded a reading club in Iraq for some of the times they'd come back from patrols - riding the adrenaline come-down, as he writes. The smart-aleck Oxford boy's too cool for school.

His memoir of his army service has been acclaimed by the novelist William Boyd as a classic of its kind. As someone who has covered a few wars myself, I'll call it the best description I've read of the mix of the boredom and euphoria of war.

It's called "The Junior officers Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars."

Patrick Hennessey joins us from KQED in San Francisco.

Thank you for being with us.

Mr. PATRICK HENNESSEY (Author, "The Junior officers Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars"): Scott, thanks very much for having me.

SIMON: And how did a cool guy like you get into the army?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HENNESSEY: Well, (unintelligible) about cool. I was at university and I was in that typical position that most undergraduates are in, kind of wondering what you're going to do. Times were pretty good. It was about 2000, 2001, so jobs were easy to come by. And I just suddenly realized nothing that was out there in the city, in finance, in all the sort of usual career paths, seemed that interesting. And I also realized that we suddenly had an army that was about to get very busy, and I wanted to test myself against that.

SIMON: I want to give people as quick we can some idea of your writing style. A paragraph early in the book, you write about the Afghan army.

Mr. HENNESSEY: I'll modify the expletives.

SIMON: If you could. Yes.

Mr. HENNESSEY: They couldn't shape their berets. They didnt get up early and they stopped everything for meals, for prayer, for a snooze. They had no discipline. They smoked strong hashish and mild opium. They couldnt mouth read. They have no tanks, no planes, no order to the chaos of their stores(ph). Their weapons weren't accounted for. Their barracks weren't health and safety compliant. They wore what they wanted when they wanted and walked around holding hands. They lacked everything that British army training believed in and taught, and knock me down if most of them hadn't killed more Russians than we'd ever seen. I loved them.

SIMON: This extraordinary paragraph suggests there's some different interests between the Afghan army and the U.S. and British soldiers who were supposed to train them.

Mr. HENNESSEY: Absolutely. I mean it was a real challenge. When we first got out to Afghanistan, we were quite down-heartened that we were going to be the unit working alongside the Afghan National Army. Our preconceptions of them were poorly trained, ill-disciplined, badly equipped. It was actually only working with the Afghans for a long period of time that you realized they had other strengths - far more low-level combat experience, of course, than we did, because most of them had been fighting since they were old enough to pick up a gun.

SIMON: You were briefly the junior warden of a jail.

Mr. HENNESSEY: I was. It was a very important job, very difficult job, you know, when you had guys in your detention facility who had been caught red-handed planting IEDs that were killing coalition troops. So it was a very sensitive thing to do. But obviously crucially important and something you can't get wrong because weve seen both in the United Kingdom and in the United States how terrible it is if it goes wrong and if people abuse the system. It undoes a lot of hard good work.

SIMON: You got the idea that some of the subsequent IEDs that were planted were done so by people who came for visiting day.

Mr. HENNESSEY: Sometimes you'd kind of get the sense that this guy in the corner sitting there quietly, being visited by his three nephews, apparently, you know, young guys who are having hushed conversation, you'd wonder what exactly was going on. And then maybe the next day there'd be a particularly accurate rocket attack on the base or something like that.

I think what we found in the last 10 years fighting these sort of insurgencies, where you kind of live and work amongst the local populations, youre never 100 percent sure who your friends and who your enemies are. And the guy who kind of helps around in camp during the day might not necessarily be all that trustworthy.

SIMON: I want to get you to tell us about the day in Afghanistan, 2007, you got ambushed.

Mr. HENNESSEY: We were out on the very beginning of a deliberate operation. Very exciting, lots of buildup, lots of orders, lots of planning. It was the first time we knew for a fact that at some point on this operation we were going to get into a fight. And we were just driving up into position; the first moves had all gone quite well, we were all very nervous because we weren't sure if the Afghans were going to be on time. We weren't sure if they were going to be in the right vehicles. We weren't sure if they were going to do what we'd tried to explain to them we were going to do.

And everything had gone so smoothly. And then at the last minute, just all hell broke loose. And I remember being very surprised when it finally kicked off that it all felt quite calm, even in the middle of absolute chaos, you know, bullets flying out, bullets flying in, the Afghans all started firing their RPGs in all directions, everyone's screaming on the radio. But there was this amazing sense of time. We'd trained so much. We kind of knew what we were doing. And everybody just went into a sort of autopilot. It was very professional until we'd finished the fight, and then I was suddenly exhausted.

SIMON: Let me get you - at the end of the fight, to tell us about the difference of opinion you had with your comrade in arms.

Mr. HENNESSEY: Keon(ph) is an amazing guy. He was trained by the Russians in the '80s and he fought with them against the Mujahedeen and then he joined the Northern Alliance and then he joined the Afghan National Army when it was reformed. His father was executed in front of him by the Taliban, and he was passionate about driving the Taliban out of Afghanistan. But some of his methods were perhaps not exactly best practice, as we would say in Western armies. And we were clearing through a village and we knew there was a weapons cache in there somewhere. And I'd been going through another compound. I turned the corner and came upon him basically threatening a young guy with a pistol and saying to a woman, who I assumed was the young guy's mother, that unless they told him where the weapons were he was going to shoot him.

And I sort of tried to grab him and say that you couldn't do that, but I was very aware that all the Afghan soldiers who were under his command would be on his side. And they didn't really understand why that was not something we should do.

And at the very last minute the whole thing was made academic by this lady just sort of giving up and going into her kitchen and bringing out a whole massive dump of arms. So it turned out this guy was an insurgent, and he was sort of taken back for questioning.

But we spoke about it afterwards. I said, Look, you can't go around doing this, because this is how we end up with all the locals hating us and not wanting us. And you will drive these people into the arms of the Taliban if you are brutal in the same way that the Taliban is brutal. You know, we have to be better than our enemies.

And he just sort of looked at me like I was talking nonsense and said, But if we'd searched through that house it would've taken us four hours in the middle of the day and we might not even have found the weapons. And then they'd have used the weapons against us that night. And I got it done in five minutes. And it's very difficult to argue with that.

And, of course, later he showed me that the pistol wasn't even loaded, so I felt like a bit of a fool. But, yeah, a very abrupt lesson in the different ways of doing things. Me, a very young, green, Western commander trying to do it properly. And him, old and experienced and maybe knowing a bit more.

SIMON: Care to venture a guess in how you may have been changed by your experience?

Mr. HENNESSEY: I hope I have a lot of more perspective. I think the young man at the start of the book is not necessarily a particularly attractive character. I think when you're an 18, 19-year-old you kind of think you know it all. And certainly I had a streak of arrogance.

And I think serving as I did with the guys I served with and being sent to the places I did, some of the experiences we had, that takes a lot of that arrogance out of you. You realize that you might think you know it all but you almost certainly don't.

And I also think you get the most wonderful little calm voice at the back of your mind saying that no matter how bad your day is or might be, it's probably not going to be as bad as the worst day you've had.

SIMON: Sort of(ph) getting stuck on the tube in London.

Mr. HENNESSEY: Yeah, getting stuck on the tube in London, or having a long flight over to San Francisco and someone saying, oh, that must terrible, I can never sleep on the plane. And you think, well, I've had worse.

Although having said that, I think it is difficult for guys coming home. I remember very clearly getting a parking ticket about two weeks after I'd come back from Afghanistan and really getting cross. You know, I was like, you know, what the hell is going on here? I've just spent seven months fighting for this country and you're giving me a parking ticket.

And I think there is this sense that on the one hand you get great perspective, because you think, well, it's never going to be as bad as the day we spent eight hours getting shelled by the Taliban. But on the other hand, you think, well, if I've done these things, these amazing things, the little petty stuff, that's really going to annoy me.

SIMON: Do you have a special feeling for Afghanistan now?

Mr. HENNESSEY: Yes, I think so. I think it'll always kind of have an important place in my heart. I think the Afghans that I worked with were amazing people. I feel privileged to have fought alongside them. And I sort of wish them all the best. They kind of had the worst, the worst hand dealt to them for the last 30, 40 years, and it doesn't seem to be improving. Although I think we are slowly, finally making some progress at the moment.

And I hope one day to be able to go back there. I had a very good friend, an Afghan sergeant, he said, you know, one day I want you to be able to come back and not pack helmet and body armor in your rucksack and just come to my family's restaurant and we'll sit there as if it was normal. And I would absolutely love that to happen one day.

SIMON: Patrick Hennessey. His new book, "The Junior Officers' Reading Club." Thanks so much.

Mr. HENNESSEY: Scott, thank you.

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