New Memoir Captures What Soldiers Never Say
At times it seems like every junior officer in the British army has written his or her Afghan War memoirs. Where Leo Docherty (Desert of Death) and Patrick Hennessy (The Junior Officer’s Reading Club) set the benchmarks and gained critical acclaim, many mediocre offerings followed with an often-clichéd, paint-by-numbers narrative; “I was at Sandhurst and it was really hard, I only caught the end of Iraq/I missed Iraq and it was rubbish, I went to Afghanistan” … ad nauseum. Thus, it is with some trepidation and skepticism that I began reading Capt. Davis Wiseman’s Helmand to Himalayas, which, as it happens, opens with a chapter about Sandhurst, just catching the end of an Iraq tour and then deploying to Afghanistan.
Truth be told, I didn’t get on well with the book at the beginning. The “memoirs” seemed fairly mundane and I wasn’t warming to the author much either. Remarks such as “I like to think of myself as a soldier’s Officer” and “I can adopt my command and leadership style depending on the situation” had this former Officer false retching. What came next at about 100 pages in, however, changed my view of the book entirely.
The middle chapters floored me. Wiseman finally drops his infanteer’s guard and begins to pour out his soul to the reader as he dares to recall the details of two extremely traumatic events in Helmand Province. The first is the shocking atrocity that occurred on Nov. 3, 2009, when three Grenadier Guards and two Royal Military Police were shot dead by two rogue Afghan National Police officers that they had been mentoring at Shin Kalay police station. It was an event so appalling that it forever cast a haunting shadow over the working relationship between Afghan and U.K. forces thereafter. On that tragic day, Wiseman was the first man on the scene and in his book he guides us back to the bloody aftermath and his unit’s attempts to cope with the carnage before them. It is a raw, heart-breaking and very emotive read.
The second event is when Wiseman sustains his own tour-ending injury: a gunshot wound to the chest just two weeks after the Shin Kalay shooting. Once again, the prose is harrowing. Face down in sewage sodden ditch, Wiseman is revived by his team medic and helped onto a MERT helicopter. Suffocating, hallucinating and coming to terms with his own death, Wiseman narrates through snippets of recalled information and provides the reader with an unforgettable insight into his nightmarish experience.
What I find really refreshing (if “refreshing” is really the right word) about Wiseman’s accounts of the horrors of war is they’re not loaded with an anti-Ministry of Defence agenda and nor are they being exploited for self publicity. This sets his book apart from many, if not most, military memoirs about wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, one of the real triumphs of Helmand to Himalayas is that its honesty ends up highlighting several issues that can silently eat away at combat veterans, like Wiseman, for years. For example, there is an open discussion about the author’s post-Afghan identity crisis. The early chapters portray him as the stereotypical line infantry officer — intolerant of anyone in a different part of the Army, anyone overweight, or anyone who has ever had an injury — and yet suddenly, flat on his back and in a ward full of broken soldiers, he finds himself struggling define who he is.Earlier in the book, there is a surprisingly honest moment again where Wiseman sums up a morally-challenging few days in Afghanistan with a telling line: “And I am not proud.” It’s an admission that many of us with service in Iraq and Afghanistan will share, but never allow ourselves to utter out loud. And, for that alone, he should be commended.
This book is being billed as the story of a wounded officer’s “agonising battle with physical injuries and psychological demons and his life affirming recovery as part of a pioneering mountaineering team.” The truth is that the mountaineering portion of the book is relatively short and, in my opinion, it adds little value to the memoir. That might sound harsh and I don’t wish to disrespect Wiseman or his team, Walking With The Wounded, and their attempt to summit Everest but this is not a great fairytale book about redemption on the sacred peaks of the Himalayas; it is about war’s hangover and what’s left of you once you’ve left the battlefield. Everything that will be remembered about this book is contained within 88 gut-wrenching pages in the middle, none of which have anything to do with mountains.
George Vlachonikolis is an economics tutor at d’Overbroeck’s College, Oxford. A retired British Army officer, Vlachonikolis served two front-line operational tours in Afghanistan during a six-year career from 2005 through 2011.
Photo credit: UK Ministry of Defence