Friday, 17 October 2008

Warrior Brothers

I have just finished Warrior Brothers, by Keith Fennell. It's subtitle is "My life in the Australian SAS", so you probably think you know what a lot of the book is like.

It is not a compendium of firefights, derring-do and flawlessly executed operations that saw Johnie Talib scurrying off over the horizon, having been soundly thrashed by our valorous and God-like soldiers. Which is why I liked it.

The book opens with Fennell and some others being tasked to nab some fish poachers down near Antarctica. The operation does not require the poacher's vessel to be stormed under gunfire, nor flashbangs to be tossed down corridors by troopers looking like they have just come from busting into the Iranian Embassy in London. And once they have the boat, they don't send it and the piratical crew to the bottom of the briney deep with a few well placed demolition charges.

Instead, they a stuck on the boat for a few weeks with an obese Naval slob who manages to lose his pistol, and they spend their time alternating between sleeping in a hold full of stinking fish guts and the intensely boring job of guarding the poachers. On the trip down to the Antarctic, the sailor in the bunk above him spends all his time either farting, masturbating or stepping on him. In the end, he has to ask the sailor to wank in the toilet, instead of just above his head.

Yes, it truly uncovers the terribly glamorous and exciting life of an SAS operative. I had a bloke in my section that had a wank everytime we did a gun piquet together. I don't think it's because I turned him on. We always seemed to draw the time of night when the body is at the lowest ebb, and that was his way of keeping awake. These are the sorts of things you have to put up with when you put on a uniform.

In places, the book needs a good editor, but that does not detract from the overall quality of the tome. I trust that after these comments, Fennell will kill his editor without leaving a mark by poking his thumb into the editor's earlobe. There were times when I stopped reading and had to go back over a paragraph a few times in order to make sense of it, but those times were rare. It is not one of those books were you get about 2/3 of the way through and go, "This book has run out of steam, and has nothing more to say - I'll give up now".

If anything, the book could do with a bit more detail in some areas - but that is just the detail junkie in me wanting to know more. Fennell might have put more detail into his early drafts, and had it excised by his editor on the grounds that, "This will bore the pants off the general reader". I disagree with that approach. Think about who buys books on steam engines. The only candidates are trainspotters in anoraks, and other wierdos. They want to know about the diameter of the wheel bearings in the throttle adjustment lever. They want to know about the temperature of the steam at bend four in pipe seven.

The same thing goes for books with a military flavour - these things will be read by buffers like me; people who already have a certain level of knowledge, and are looking for a book like this to add more to our existing set of knowledge. If you get an editor that doesn't know the difference between a safety pin on a grenade and a ring-pull on a beer can, then you end up with a book that is edited, or filleted, to such an extent that all the interesting stuff is no more.

The other way to think about this is to look at text books. Text books are graded in terms of the level of knowledge that the reader should have accumulated by the time they pickup a certain text. You don't start on a level 7 maths book until you have done levels 1 through 6. Fennell might have started with a book aimed at level 7, and had it dumbed down to level 2 by an editor seeking a "wider audience".

That rant apart, it's still a great read. I cracked through it in a few days. The last section, which covers his work in Banda Aceh after the tsunami, is incredible. The second last section, which covers his work as a private security contractor in Iraq, is a complete eye-opener. Given the lack of proper equipment and weapons that the private contractors had to deal with, plus the Walter Mitty types that conned their way into the security teams (and then fell to bits when the going got tough), it's amazing any of them survived. He dispels the myth that the contractors are a bunch of trigger-happy goons who shoot first and never both with any questions afterwards. After reading about several encounters in Iraq with less than friendly people, I was amazed at his forebearance - I would have brassed the bastards up.

I wish he had more to say about the Tampa. I have heard from other sources that there were some right bastards amongst the refugees - some very nasty sorts who should have been tossed over the side at the first opportunity, and never considered for entry into Australia. However, he deals with the Tampa in 2 or 3 pages. I think there is a lot about that episode that the Australian people have yet to hear, and this book doesn't add anything new unfortunately.

Fennell was also deployed to Afghanistan, and whilst he didn't get into any huge firefights, his descriptions of what they went through in order to establish observation posts is gripping. I was hoping that the chapter would end with, "And then we called in a massive B-52 strike and leveled the village", but it didn't, underscoring the frustrating nature of modern war and restrictive rules of engagement.

It was refreshing to read some good descriptions of what a patrol is really like. Most Australians probably think a patrol looks like this (the US Army blundering about somewhere in Vietnam). The fondness that our media have for sourcing footage from US sources, rather than going out and filming Australians in action, has given many a completely screwball impression as to how our military operates. Fennell knocks a lot of that on the head.

Fennell is now studying at Wollongong Uni. I wonder what his fellow students make of him. He's written a good book, full of good stuff. I doubt it will appeal to those looking for a wham-bang action-thriller, because it is not that sort of book. It's worth opening your wallet for this book.

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