The publication of this exceptional book was unfortunately attended by farce, when, at the last minute, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) demanded that it be withdrawn. Toby Harnden – like other correspondents writing on sensitive military subjects – had been closely involved in protracted negotiations with the MoD over what was acceptable to publish. In the review process the author obviously wrote close to the line, noting in his introduction that ‘493 separate questions, suggestions or requests for changes’ were made.
But with the first edition on its way to the bookshops, the MoD suddenly claimed that the book contained classified information that ‘could damage national security and put at risk the lives of members of the Armed Forces’. Harnden, a former Royal Navy officer and currently US Online Editor for The Daily Telegraph, was hardly out to make trouble for the Army; he and his publisher refused to budge. Rather than go to court, the MoD forked out £150,000 to have the 24,000 copies of the first edition pulped. Readers of this present, slightly modified edition will have the surreal opportunity of seeing lines in the book redacted (blacked out) – surely a first for a mainstream work of military history.
Back to the book itself, which comprises the story of the Welsh Guards and their six-month tour of Helmand during the summer fighting season of 2009 (Operation Herrick 10). As a reporter in Northern Ireland in the late 1990s Harnden came across British intelligence officer Rupert Thorneloe, and the two men clicked. In 2009 Thorneloe was transferred from a Whitehall desk job to command the Welsh Guards in the field. On 1 July, leading his men in action, Thorneloe was killed by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device), prompting Harden to investigate his friend’s death within the context of the Welsh Guards’ Afghan deployment.
One of the biggest problems facing any journalist is getting too involved with his or her subject. There can be no doubt of Harnden’s admiration for Thorneloe and the soldiers of the Welsh Guards, and yet the author has written an unusually frank account of the regiment at war. We are provided with a detailed, unflinching portrait of the nature of modern warfare, where battlefield heroism exists alongside refusals to go into action, where professional leadership of the highest order is affected by personal failings and professional rivalries. The author also reveals the Army’s chronic tendency to take on tasks that leave it dangerously overstretched.
In a book of this extended length, there is an opportunity to consider events in greater detail than has been the case in other regimental ‘biographies’, and Harnden has done a good job of getting to the heart of the Welsh Guards: what the officers and men are like as individuals, what makes the regiment tick.
There is much here of interest on tactical matters. The prowess of British sniping has been confirmed, with the example of two attached snipers from 4 Rifles killing 75 Taliban fighters over a period of just 40 days. Harnden makes considered comparisons between the tactical approaches of the British Army and the US Marine Corps, recently deployed in Helmand, noting how far the Americans have come in recent years. But one of the central themes running through the book is the failure of the Coalition forces to come to grips with neutralizing IEDs (which caused so many casualties to the Welsh Guards). The current mine-clearing devices are clearly inadequate, especially against low-metal content IEDs, and the ‘treacle effect’ of painstakingly clearing a path through an infested zone prevents the rapid tactical movement essential in counter-insurgency warfare.
This is a thought-provoking book, well-written and conscientiously researched; the author is to be congratulated for having sent one of best despatches from Britain’s war in Afghanistan.
Quercus, 638 pages, £18.99 (h/b)
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