Allen Lane £16.99 (330pp) £15.19 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop : 0870 079 8897

The Junior Officers' Reading Club, By Patrick Hennessey

Confessions of a laptop warrior

A tech-savvy Oxford graduate of the iPod generation spends the day spaced out on a high-decibel, high-adrenalin activity that leaves him feeling that "nowhere else sells bliss like this". As for the chilled come-down after those hours of brain-tingling rapture, it resembles "the end of some massive night in a hardcore warehouse". What has this ultra-cool dude, who drops phrases such as "post-modern irony" as readily as he customises Amy Winehouse lyrics, been doing?

He has been commanding a platoon of the Grenadier Guards as they turn the firepower of the British army (Nato approvals and UN resolutions all present and correct) on Taliban ambushers in the parched badlands of Helmand province, in southern Afghanistan, in May 2007. Mullah Omar's driver, it turns out, would not come home from that rave in one piece. "Something", this officer decides in the downtime after a near-orgasmic fire-fight, "was needed to shake us out of the dangerous enjoyment we were getting from it all."

Dangerous enjoyment, indeed. Connoisseurs of the finest front-line testimony composed after both world wars – or, later, Vietnam – know that (contrary to cliché) the classics of this genre seldom deliver a simple plea for peace. Instead, they tell the soldier's truth, which arises from its own occult place of passionate small-group loyalties, pitch-black eve-of-execution humour, ecstatic camaraderie, paralysing grief, and bristling suspicion of outsiders – all framed by a studied neutrality about the rights and wrongs of the carnage.

Patrick Hennessey – one grandfather a famous D-Day officer, but another a pacifist Welsh academic - studied English at Balliol. He signed up for Sandhurst ("Hogwarts with guns") in 2001 in part to spite the trainee lawyers and be one of "the guys in the room with something to say". After a ceremonial interlude palace-hopping in London – all booze, bearskins and "Texan cheerleaders" invited upstairs – the Guards lieutenant (later the youngest captain in the British army) found himself fighting the messy, modern "three-block war in three years, idle Balkan peace-keeping to tense Iraqi counter-insurgency to bloody Afghan combat". Having left the army, he is now training to become one of those lawyers himself.

From this total-immersion course in post-9/11 conflict, Hennessey has fashioned what must rank as the most accomplished work of military witness to emerge from British war-fighting since 1945. In salvo after salvo of nerve-shreddingly intense reports and reflections, built around the emails sent from camp as an "important therapeutic outlet", he lifts the "invisible curtain" that severs combat-bonded soldiers not only from civilians but behind-the-lines comrades as well. But The Junior Officers' Reading Club (his mates, by the way, devour far more DVDs than novels) will probably not change a single mind.

If you seek thin-brown-line heroics, it has gory gung-ho adventures to spare. Isolated British units in upper Helmand, along with their intrepid but untamable Afghan allies, throw themselves recklessly into one antediluvian close-quarters scrap after another: "surely this sort of thing went out with our grandfathers". But if you deem the "coalition" intervention in Iraq a neo-colonial crime and in Afghanistan (to cite Talleyrand) worse than a crime, a blunder – then this best and brightest of the occupiers will tell you that blasting "Terry" Taliban with maximum force out of the dusty compounds he shared with non-combatants was a gas: "just how easy it all was, how natural it all felt and how much fun". The fun abruptly stops when close friends begin to lose limbs to shells a few feet, then a few inches, away. Hennessey's unit suffered a one-in-three casualty rate.

His Grenadiers have a reputation as "unreconstructed traditionalists"; they certainly detest the RAF more than the Taliban. That faith in the old ways shades his narrative as well. Emotionally, this is battlefield reportage in a classical vein, with every well-marked step on the soldier-writer's march taken in its swift stride. Sandhurst means the soft cadets' bewilderment yielding to grudging respect for grizzled NCOs ("Don't salute me, sir, I fucking work for a living"). Iraq entails thumb-twiddling in camp and "history happening" amid the wreckage of Baghdad. In Helmand comes not just "the rapture of a real fight" but age-old scorn for meddling hangers-on and "presumptuous journalism", the "us against the world" bonding of a unit under fire and, in the frozen aftermath of trauma, an "endless debauch" that fails to ease the pain.

So far, so canonical. Yet his tale's true originality lies in Hennessey's media-saturated reflections on media-shaped campaigns. Here, postmodernism dons desert fatigues. These kids act like a band of brothers in part because they watch Band of Brothers. Prior to one encounter, they prime themselves with the supremely silly Spartans-vs-Persians anime, 300. As for their video montages of real skirmishes, "the work of a few hours" on standard laptop software, they have "changed the way soldiers went to war". When it comes to the soundtrack to Basra, forget Vietnam-era rock: "the rampant consumerism of gangsta rap struck a chord with our little oil war". No surprise that hard-core action in Helmand first "felt more like being on set than real life".

Hennessey draws deeply on the close-focus, high-octane buzz of front-line "new journalism" (above all, Michael Herr's Vietnam masterpiece Despatches). He puts the gonzo rush of Hunter S Thompson's delirious prose to good, if ultimately tiring, use. Yet his subtler, introspective moments linger longer.

Under siege in Sangin, he reads Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, which triggers nostalgic pangs for the parties of peace. Longing for home, he still knows that, if he gets there, home will bring an ache to be back under fire, with "all the things we learned about ourselves". And among those things is the yearning for life before this soul-shaking intimacy with combat. Hennessey has now quit his disputed wars. He may shed a uniform but – surely - he cannot abandon the rare gift revealed in this extraordinary book.

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee