Patrick Hennessey was a member of the British Army until 2009, when he started practicing as a barrister in the UK. He trained at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, served as Platoon Commander and a Company Operations Officer and was on tours to Iraq in 2006 and Afghanistan in 2007.
Hennessey is the author of two books: Junior Officers’ Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars (Penguin, 2010) and Kandak: Fighting With Afghans (Penguin, 2012). His books are passionate recollections of his time in the Army.
Written in an engaging style with tight rhythm, Patrick takes the reader on a journey into the excitement and frustration of life on the front. The Junior Officers’ Reading Club is almost a postmodern, coming of age tale, portraying a generation of boys, in which ideals meet video games and adrenaline bursts and unbearable boredom inextricably mix.
Both Hennessey’s books eschew tendencies to paint a black-and-white picture of life as an army officer on the front lines. Instead, his writing conveys the nuanced complexity of both the army and the surroundings in which it operates. This is captured, for instance, in the oscillating descriptions Hennessey gives to himself and his colleagues, at times depicting the men as heroes and, in other instances, as anti-heroes.
In the following conversation, Hennessey shares his views, among other things, on the present and future of Afghanistan.
Francesca Recchia (FR): Your books seem to indicate that writing was an integral part of your daily routine as a soldier. What was its actual role while you were in the field and how did it translate as you were writing your books?
Patrick Hennessey (PH): I would not go as far as to say writing was an integral part of my daily routine, let alone an integral part of the daily routine of a soldier generally, but it was certainly something that in various forms I found therapeutic. Right from the outset of my time in the Army (including during training at Sandhurst when free time was in very short supply) I got into the habit of writing group emails as an effective way to keep in touch with my friends. These started off as relatively light-hearted, contrasting whatever it was I was going through (usually some form of physical exertion involving mud) with the relatively lazy and comfortable student life I had just left behind, and which most of my friends were still enjoying.
Once deployed on operations, the same emails became more urgent dispatches and, unwittingly, an outlet for me to try and process whatever it was I was doing at the time, but of course ‘in the field’, out on long patrols or in the more sparse patrol bases, there was no access to the internet so the more traditional hand-written “blueys” (the British Forces’ distinctive letters home) and occasional journals were the substitute. When it came to writing the book, I was very fortunate to have these contemporaneous records, particularly of my own thoughts. Memory is relatively unreliable and it turned out I had remembered some things very differently from how I had recorded them at the time.
FR: In Junior Officers’ Reading Club you talk of the long technical training that troops and officers receive before going to war. What if any attention is given to helping solders understand the very different cultures in the countries to which they’re deployed? What are the tools you are given to handle these circumstances?
PH: One of my criticisms of the training we received was that it did not seem to sufficiently deal with the cultural aspects of the work we would inevitably be doing – this was particularly relevant to our deployment to Afghanistan where we would be working hand in hand with the Afghan National Army (ANA). We had only the bare minimum of cultural training, and even less language training and time to interact with Afghans themselves.
I am pleased to say that things have changed a lot in the last few years and the importance of cultural training is recognised – but no amount of training can ever fully prepare individuals for being deployed to a foreign country. I think it is equally important to understand that it is very difficult for anyone to become culturally fluent in a matter of months, or even years. We should, however, be able to acknowledge cultural differences without stumbling over them.
FR: You seem both supportive and critical of the international missions of which you have been a part. How would you draw the line between new, hyper-
sophisticated forms of colonialism and “exporting democracy”?
PH: I suppose I am an old-fashioned liberal interventionist at heart. I think the pendulum swing between support and criticism is an inevitable by-product of the tension between cautious optimism and more sobering reality. I am not sure I recognise your characterisation of hyper-sophisticated colonialism and I do not think my generation should allow itself to be beaten with the ‘colonialism’ stick. My grandfather was barely an adult when the old Empire began to crumble. I do not think the sins of previous generations should prevent us from calling out oppression today – not least because the world is so much smaller now.
I recently gave a talk to some students at SOAS who were broadly critical of the principle of intervention. One of them said to me: “You wouldn’t think you had the right to interfere in your neighbour’s house if you thought there was a domestic dispute, so why interfere in another country?” I do not accept this contention. If I overheard my neighbour beating his wife, I would hope to have the moral courage to intervene.
FR: The recent escalation of green-on-blue attacks – the insider attacks by Afghan troops against their international counterpart – has made the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) rethink cooperation between international troops and the ANA. You were in Helmand, Afghanistan in 2007 as part of a mentoring programme for the ANA. How does this change in direction feel?
PH: I actually do not think it is as much of a change in direction as has been portrayed. The main difference between 2007 and now is that the ANA is so much larger (as are all the elements of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF)) and it is receiving mentorship or partnership at all levels. This has necessarily diluted some of what felt special about the mentoring work back when it was relatively exclusive, but it has also allowed for the far more rapid expansion and deployment of the ANA itself.
There are genuine concerns as to how the ANSF can recruit as widely as it desires while maintaining its quality. I think recent evidence points to the bar having been set too low. Vetting procedures have been relaxed too far and training packages have been made too short in order to keep headline recruitment and retention figures high. I do not think, however, that there is endemic insurgent infiltration. It is simply the signs of an Army under tremendous stress.
FR: To write Kandak: Fighting With Afghans you went back to Afghanistan as a civilian, how was your experience of the country from this different perspective?
PH: My civilian experience was largely similar to my military one as I spent the entire time embedded with ISAF and ANA units. I felt a strong sense of frustration in a number of places, particularly among ANA soldiers, because of a lack of tangible progress and a perceived lack of consistent support from ISAF. In others, I saw the signs of progress, albeit expensive and slow. Encouragingly, the closest I came to a ‘civilian’ experience was in Kabul where it also felt most ‘normal’ (whatever ‘normal’ for Afghanistan actually is). It has been two years since I was last in Afghanistan and I would love to go back for another point of comparison soon.