Inside the Afghan War

Toby Harnden,  Dead Men Risen: The Welsh Guards and the Real Story of Britain’s War in Afghanistan (Quercus, 2011), 640 pages, $49.99.

Toby Harnden’s Dead Men Risen stood on the brink of notoriety when Britain’s Ministry of Defence bought the entire first print run and pulped it. This wasteful and improvident attempt to silence Harnden, the London Daily Telegraph’s Washington editor, naturally only whetted the public’s appetite. The great risk, obvious to any reader picking up the heavy tome and weighing up whether to buy it, was that it would not live up to the interest created by its initial destruction. Thankfully, this book is worth every minute spent journeying through its pages.

Dead Men Risen is an incredibly comprehensive and highly engaging account of the Welsh Guards’ tour of duty in Afghanistan’s Helmand province in 2009. We are given a privileged but almost understated view into the personal experiences of the Guardsmen and their families in a way that is neither prying nor disinterested. All the same, Harnden does not lose sight of the bigger picture, weaving the personal and impersonal to create an engrossing tale of soldiers battling not only the Taliban but also their own political and military leaders. Harnden lets the men speak for themselves, and his exhaustive research is evident in the detail. He interviewed more than 260 people and examined 2374 military documents, showing a respect for truth that is all too rare in today’s journalists.

Even the best portrayals of war tend to oscillate between gruesome or baffling military in-the-field accounts and detached political analyses. Having experienced war from the civilian perspective of a humanitarian aid worker, I find it frustratingly difficult to find war stories that are both accurate and accessible. Dead Men Risen not only portrays the Welsh Guardsmen in such an engaging way that it has broad appeal, but also paints a vivid picture of life in a war zone in all its perversity. In one especially memorable passage, we experience what seven soldiers believed were their last moments, drowning while trapped in their armoured vehicle. One clutches an ultrasound picture of his unborn daughter before passing out; another remembers a hand clutching his as death approached. In an earlier account, a soldier agonises over the deaths of some civilian women, only to have their husband and father demand compensation for his dead goats and damaged motorbike.

Harnden captures such varied aspects of the soldiers’ lives from their boredom and frustration to their passion and dedication while never wavering from the simplicity of telling their story as it happened. It is a gripping approach and the further one delves into the book the more the men appear as friends or old acquaintances. By the end, the highs and lows are poignant memories, memories that serve as living memorials to the Welsh Guardsmen who fought and died in a war they believed was absolutely necessary. As one of them put it: “Either we do it there or we do it on the streets of England.”

Dead Men Risen is also distinguished by the attention it gives to the complex and endearing character of Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Thornloe, the commanding officer of the Welsh Guards, who lost his life doing what many of his soldiers were becoming too petrified to do. His death was symptomatic of the flawed approach British troops were tasked with, and the valour of Thornloe’s persistent attempts to make things right at the risk of a very promising career is heartbreaking in the context of so many deaths from improvised explosive devices (IEDs), including his own. Thornloe repeatedly bemoans the lack of helicopter support to facilitate night patrols, transport men safely, and give covering fire to the men on the ground—all crucial in the face of the IED threat.

The low metal content of these Taliban devices, which exposed Thornloe and his men to indiscriminate and unpredictable explosions during the most mundane activities, was arguably the greatest obstacle to these soldiers in their time in Helmand. It not only killed men, it also delayed them, struck fear into their hearts, and prevented them from working with the locals to fight the longer-term war against a repressive and backward Taliban culture. Australians will be relieved to read that the Australian Army responded positively to American concern about the vulnerability of British troops to these low-metal-content IEDs by taking up American offers of counter-IED equipment such as hand-held detectors with ground-penetrating radar. All readers, though, will be confounded and outraged that the Welsh Guards did not have access to such life-saving equipment.

This book also leaves the reader feeling effortlessly enlightened. Without labouring any points—Harnden lets us draw our own conclusions—Dead Men Risen shows us what it’s really like in Afghanistan, a stark and informative contrast to the sensational and politically-biased tidbits of the mainstream media. We see how phenomenally advanced military technology falters in the face of under-manning, lack of resources, poor planning, and the ironic sophistication of Taliban strategy—a deliberate preference for more primitive devices that almost paralyses British troops. We become acquainted with vehicles that become death traps, helicopters that can’t fly during the day or are so scarce and poorly managed that only the dead and wounded get a ride, and military offensives that are preceded by soldiers who scan the route ahead with largely useless metal detectors at a snail’s pace, often under fire. We learn about abysmal conditions, such as a five-hour fire-fight without water in fifty-degree heat, and unexpected challenges in the form of Afghan police and soldiers who have expeditious and rudimentary notions of justice and due process. We are confronted with a landscape where “fields” have head-high crops, “canals” are high, exposed, and easily waded, and “ditches” are wide and deep. What is predominant, though, is the experience of the Welsh Guardsmen, and we relive the arduous adventure of war with an assortment of the most individual of men, seeing how they cope, often for the first time in their lives, with the job of killing.

The strategy of Britain and its allies to win the hearts and minds of the locals by reducing their “kinetic application of violence” in favour of “building the trust and allegiance of the population” is shown in its practical complexity in Dead Men Risen. The Welsh Guardsmen demonstrate the difficulty in winning over a population who live in fear of barbaric Taliban reprisals and repeatedly have their homes, land and livelihood destroyed by Western military activity. However, Harnden also reveals the absurdity of not balancing the classic counter-insurgency strategy with common sense. One brigadier comments, “Our reaction to being fired at is still to react in kind”—a less than helpful comment when put alongside the intense skirmishes in which the Welsh Guardsmen fight desperately for their lives—while the former British ambassador concludes that “delivering development aid is secondary” as the local population are more interested in who will be in charge of their village “five years from now. And they will back the winner.”

The most harrowing part of the book is, for me, the epilogue in which we read of the effect of war on these men and their lives. Having personally experienced the debilitating flashbacks, nightmares and panic attacks associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, for me it was a potent reminder that, while some of us may learn to live with our memories of war, there is no cure. It is a reminder to all of us that war does not end with the cessation of hostilities, that we have a responsibility to support our returning soldiers, to greet them with respect and gratitude instead of taunts and disapproval.

Ultimately, though, Dead Men Risen is an act of re-membering. Harnden assembles all the pieces and puts them together so that men who lost part of themselves (often literally), and men who now lie in their graves, become whole again in the pages of his book and the minds of his readers. They are “risen from their graves” to speak to us of the reality of the war in Afghanistan, and it is a reality that for all its horrors is enthralling. 

Mishka Gora is a freelance writer and photographer based in Tasmania.


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