Allen Lane, £16.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop
Kandak: Fighting with Afghans, By Patrick Hennessey
A searing yet heart-warming soldier's memoir allows us to meet the men of the Afghan army
With roadside bombs and mines taking an increasingly bloody toll on soldiers in Helmand, the British mentors of the Afghan army decided it was time for some intensive refresher training. In searing heat, they took the men of the kandak (battalion) through life-saving drills to identify the lethal threat and mark a safe route with bright orange mine tape.
"A couple of days later a request came into the company sergeant major from the kandak supply sergeant: could they have some more supplies of mine tape? Significant looks were exchanged and smiles played on the lips of the trainers: the sobering lessons of the casualties were starting to sink in," writes Patrick Hennessey. "The mine tape appeared a couple of days later, meticulously wound round the picket fence as a colourful addition to the decorative garden border".
After a veritable invasion of volumes on the Afghan conflict, it would be hard to imagine that there was room on the shelves for another tome but, in his second book, the best-selling author of The Junior Officers' Reading Club fills a gaping chasm. He tells the story of the largely faceless Afghan National Army askar (warriors) who have suffered an even heavier toll during Britain's six-year sojourn in Helmand. For anyone who has worked closely with the ANA, the tape incident beautifully encapsulates the frustrations of British military teams charged with advising the men who, along with their police counterparts, will take over security of the country when most NATO forces withdraw by the end of 2014. But it equally exposes the more charming, human side of its soldiers.
Writing about Forward Operating Base Shawqat, Hennessey describes the Afghan propensity for tending their gardens. While the UK side of the camp was a model of security, the locals opted for more decorative comforts. But one side of Shawqat was simply designed to be an efficient, military base for men who would soon return to their own homes; the other was a permanent garrison for soldiers who had endured years of combat and would continue to do so. Too often the men of the ANA are divided in to two stereotypes – either fearsome warrior or feckless incompetent. Hennessey, his candid, clear prose resonating with affection for those he fought alongside, goes beyond those generalities to talk about the myriad of personalities, soldier or interpreter, that he came to know.
In his first book, the section on Afghanistan praised the courage and self-sacrifice of his fellow Grenadier Guards in Helmand; but in Kandak, they fade into the background and the Afghans come to the fore. The former officer pulls no punches when describing the patronising and dismissive attitude of some Brits who had less chance to work with the ANA.
The book begins with Hennessey's initial deployment as part of the Operational Mentoring Liaison Teams (OMLTs) in 2007. In self-deprecating style, he mocks the awkwardness of British officers at their first meeting with the ANA, "like a junior school disco with boys and girls lined up on opposite sides of the assembly hall". He decries the lazy complaints that this rag-tag bunch from different ethnic backgrounds, clad in a patchwork of borrowed uniforms, "all looked the same", when it was the guardsmen who were immaculate copies of each other.
The book follows his returns to Helmand two and three years later as a journalist, having left the army, and his reunion with old friends. What follows is a moving, humbling and rare account of mutual respect among men who might as well be from different galaxies but have forever bonded through battle. In unfettered, unpretentious prose, he gives a searing account of the death of his favourite Afghan company commander, a man of ferocious, insane bravery.
Kandak does not attempt to canonise the men of the ANA and it is peppered with amusing anecdotes of their chaotic, quixotic ways, as well as tales of incompetence and betrayal. But it is equally full of heart-warming descriptions of their generosity, devotion to their homeland and self-sacrifice.
The British byword in Helmand today is "transition", the gradual handing-over of responsibility to Afghan security forces so we can extricate ourselves from a decade-long conflict that has cost us dearly. Kandak should be required reading for anyone trying to understand the magnitude of that task, as well as the people we will leave behind.
game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers
North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama
Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Indonesia executions: Death row British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford will refuse to wear a blindfold when she faces firing squad
- 2 The man who filmed the Freddie Gray video has been arrested at gunpoint
- 3 How the language you speak changes your view of the world
- 4 The top 50 cities for young people to live in
- 5 Uploading pictures to find out how old you are gives Microsoft the right to post them wherever they want
The C-Word - review: Sheridan Smith shines in a warm, honest adaptation of Lisa Lynch's book about living with cancer
X-Men Apocalypse: First look at Jubilee and Jean Grey played by Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner
American Horror Story: Hotel Angela Bassett set to make 'lots of trouble' with Lady Gaga in season 5
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 4 - review: Sansa is in danger of becoming another footnote in Westeros' bloody history
Adam Sandler's The Ridiculous Six: Make-up 'used to darken skin of actors to make them look Native American'
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: SNP and its activists 'openly racist' towards the English, Farage says
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils