war on the rocks

The Lessons of the Dead in Helmand

November 19, 2014

Toby Harnden, Dead Men Risen: An Epic Story of War and Heroism in Afghanistan (Regnery, 2014).

 

Before reading this review, there are two things you should know about Dead Men Risen.

While new to the American market, the book has been around for a while. Dead Men Risen was first published in March 2011. It was received with much critical acclaim, became a Sunday Times bestseller and won the 2012 Orwell Prize for books. An American edition has just been published by Regenry. The U.S. edition has new material throughout and a new epilogue.

Dead Men Risen is banned in Estonia. The author, Toby Harnden, cites “unlawful processing of sensitive personal data” as the reason he was given for its suppression. This isn’t the first time, however, that the book has caused controversy. Prior to its March 2011 release, the Ministry of Defence bought the entire first print-run batch of 24,000 copies and immediately pulped them. They argued that issues concerning national security had come to light after an official review and subsequently requested that various sections be censored. These sections now appear “blacked out” in the actual book.

First and foremost, Dead Men Risen is the story of 1st Battalion Welsh Guards (1WG) and their deployment to Afghanistan in summer 2009. It succeeds at more than that though. In the early stages, it offers the reader a more complete view of the battalion in terms of its recent history – such as the sinking of the Sir Galahad in the Falklands – and also details backgrounds of many of the men that have filled its ranks. Once in Helmand, however, descriptions of combat operations take center stage. In 2009, the British campaign was reaching a crisis point; they went on to suffer 106 fatalities that year (16 of which were Welsh Guardsmen) and a further 103 the next. Dead Men Risen succeeds in both clearing a path through that intensely chaotic and violent period and also in pausing at each terrible moment to reflect on its likely causes and devastating consequences. It offers the reader a full 360 degree view by discussing various people’s viewpoints (sometimes contradictory) and following through with the impact on both the deployed men and their families back home. As a veteran of Helmand myself, I endured a number of strong emotions in reading Dead Men Risen but my overriding feeling after putting the book down was one of closure – like the author had answered all my questions. And thus, as the story of 1WG’s deployment, it is a complete package.

As ever, the UK’s Afghan strategy at that time comes in for some heavy criticism. This isn’t altogether surprising, since Dead Men Risen could hardly have been written without kicking lumps out of the Ministry of Defence. The tragic deaths of two Welsh Guardsmen — Lt Mark Evison and Lt Col Rupert Thornloe — in separate incidents during the 2009 deployment very firmly placed the UK media’s spotlight onto the issue of military equipment and in particular the low number of helicopters in theater. Such was her passion to highlight this issue that Margaret Evison, Lt Evison’s mother, would go on to allow film footage of his death to be screened on UK TV (some of the new material in the book is about Lt Evison). By contrast, Lt Col Thornloe, the most senior British serviceman to die in Afghanistan, was killed in an IED explosion. Prior to his death, he had made repeated calls for increasing the number of helicopters.

Away from kit shortages, however, Dead Men Risen challenged me to consider some, perhaps, less obvious criticisms of UK strategy. Chief amongst these was: why didn’t I know of this story before? In 2010, I was deployed as part of the Scots Guards Battle-Group, often traversing much of the same ground as 1WG had one year before. And yet it is only now – four years later and reading a publically available book — that I am now fully aware of things like: the intent of previous commanders in that area of operation; why troops and patrol bases were laid out as they were; how the battle for Babaji had been fought and the casualty figures associated with it. Similarly, I do not remember ever being briefed that “this is spot where Lt Col Thornloe died” during the several instances when I drove straight over it. I do feel genuinely upset by this “new” revelation and I can’t help but think that we desperately need to get better at passing down the stories of previous deployments as they are quite obviously relevant to the people that follow them on the same spot of land. Intelligence briefs need to get better, handovers need to be longer, and perhaps the UK military needs to finally admit that six month tours do not allow the sort of continuity necessary for conducting a war amongst the people.

As a natural extension to this issue, I am also left questioning the worth of rest and recreation (R&R) plots to a battalion. It was always quite clear to me that taking men to and from Bastion (until very recently the main hub of British operations in Helmand) and then onwards to the UK seemed to generate huge logistical nightmares for everyone; it also left the units vastly under strength. Dead Men Risen makes an excellent job of illustrating this problem for the 1WG as well – mostly by trying to tie it to the need for more helicopters again – but it also succeeds by offering a wider discussion of why we persisted with these headache inducing policies when we could see the Americans doing it so much slicker; for example, one year deployments, rotating soldiers on and off the front line and the ability to launch company strength helicopter insertions. Toby Harnden makes a number of game-changing comparisons between US and UK decisions which are difficult to ignore. The most incredulous (and, again, one that I am now considering for the first time) is why the hell were we persisting with belt buckle, fingertip searches of IEDs when the Americans were just blowing them up in place?

Overall, I would strongly recommend Dead Men Risen; it is as accurate and as full and frank a description of a UK Battle-Group deployment as you will find — and to my mind it has a lot more to offer than other standard fare such 3 Para or Six Months Without Sundays. If I had one criticism it would be that whilst desperately trying to remain objective, the author has obviously cast 1WG and Lt Col Thornloe, in particular, as his hero. As result, many others (especially the brigade staff) are dealt with quite harshly and often portrayed as little more than obstacles. If ever there was a military truism it is that higher formation is never doing enough for you. And “shimpfing” about the officers that “just don’t understand” is every serviceman’s favourite sport. In the future it might be interesting to read the memoirs of some of those brigade staff (such as Brigadier Radford) but for now we should be content to read the story of 1WG because it is one helluva tale.

 

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