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October 22, 2010

Book Notes - Patrick Hennessey ("The Junior Officers' Reading Club")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Patrick Hennessey's memoir The Junior Officers' Reading Club follows him from the British military college Sandhurst through combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. The book fascinates with its firsthand accounts of modern warfare from a ground soldier's perspective, sharing a range of emotions from sheer terror to days of boredom. For American readers, the book offers a fresh take on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan from the viewpoint of a British Army soldier.

The Independent wrote of the book:

"From this total-immersion course in post-9/11 conflict, Hennessey has fashioned what must rank as the most accomplished work of military witness to emerge from British war-fighting since 1945. In salvo after salvo of nerve-shreddingly intense reports and reflections, built around the emails sent from camp as an "important therapeutic outlet", he lifts the "invisible curtain" that severs combat-bonded soldiers not only from civilians but behind-the-lines comrades as well."

In his own words, here is Patrick Hennessey's Book Notes music playlist for his memoir, The Junior Officers' Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars:

One of the frostiest (and most entertaining) reviews The Junior Officers' Reading Club got when it first came out was from a crusty retired officer who took exception to its 'quirky hip-hop literary form' and the 'affectation' of recalling driving around the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan 'gangsta-rap pulsating from [my] vehicle'.

What a compliment. The book is called The Junior Officers' Reading Club because to pass the boring and tense hours of our down time in Iraq, that's what me and my fellow young officers nicknamed ourselves while we swapped books and tanned behind our tents, but the book is undoubtedly scored with references to the films we watched on dodgy pirate DVDs, the TV shows we missed from back home and, most of all, the music we listened to; the tunes we wanted to get back and dance with mates to and the trusted tracks on dusty and battered i-pods that got us through the hard times. I wanted it to be a book of its generation, a generation the British Army has already labeled 'the MP3 generation' but which is more accurately the MTV generation, born at the start of the 80s as the Apollo 11 montage flickered onto a few thousand American TVs and everything kicked off with "Video Killed the Radio Star." If you go onto YouTube and search Afghanistan or Iraq you can see hundreds of music videos soldiers have uploaded, the highlights of their own wars montaged to soundtracks as telling as the images themselves. From the embarrassingly crass thrash metal which accompanies the gung-ho, firepower heavy clips put together by wannabes who've probably never been near the frontline, to the painfully poignant melodies which back tribute films to lost comrades, from the motivational house and techno that pumps out of gyms from Baghdad to Bagram and the playlists of tunes enjoyed during downtime in bases to be downloaded if and when you finally make it home, music is a hugely important part of a modern soldiers life and I wanted to try and capture this in my book, here are some of the specific tracks which got a mention:

2 Many DJs "Prodigy vs. Enya Smack My Bitch Up (Orinocco Flow)"

The book starts in the chaos of the first time we ever got ambushed at the start of our Afghanistan tour before winding back to why I joined the Army and ended up in Helmand in the first place. While we had been stuck in base we had managed to rig up some i-pod speakers onto the dash of our vehicle for a rudimentary sound system and agonized long and hard about what would be most appropriate but in the end the Belgian electro wizards chose themselves. Something about the combination of the hard and fast violence of the Prodigy track blended with Enya's vocals perfectly summed up Afghanistan, a beautiful but fucked up country.

Verdi's Requiem

My father was in the navy and fought in the first Gulf War. I was only 9 years old but I remember being aware that something wasn't right because my mother would do the ironing late at night, watching the news coverage of the bombings – the first rolling news war – listening to the operatic Requiem at full volume. The bombastic "Dies Irae" scared me at the time but now I understand the therapeutic role it played for her and its still one of my favourite choral pieces.

Robert Miles "Children"

One of the stories behind Miles' mid-nineties dream house classic is that it was inspired by photos his father had taken in the war torn Balkans (the other was that it was to chill out ravers at the end of a night so the didn't kill themselves driving home). After commissioning as a Second Lieutenant from Sandhurst the first place I was sent, albeit briefly, was to Bosnia. There was nothing going on but it felt very exciting to be somewhere which had so recently been a 'war zone' and was still littered with mines and crawling with dangerous gangsters. Children was a contemplative enough track that it made you stop and think a little about what you were doing, which was no bad thing.

Lostprophets "Last Train Home"

For British Soldiers the mother of all 'video-diaries' was that made by an infantry unit called The Princess of Wales Royal Regiment in Southern Iraq in 2004. One of their companies had basically been under siege and had fought heroically and managed to capture it all on little digital cameras. Set to the Welsh rock band's pop-rock anthem the film looked like a cross between a scene from a Second World War film and a modern computer game. The heavy riffs, drums and soaring melodies perfectly fitted the blend of still photos and clips which ended with a tribute to one of the lads who hadn't made it. Undergoing training at the time we all watched riveted as we realized that Iraq was going to be no pushover and we'd all signed up for something real. Even the lyrics at the bridge seemed appropriate for the mess that Iraq was becoming: "Sometimes it feels like I don't really know what's going on / Time and time again it feels like everything is wrong in here . . ."

Johnny Cash "Folsom Prison Blues" / "Ring of Fire"

When we my unit deployed to Iraq in 2006 things were still not great, but our job turned out to be more tedious than dangerous. Guarding detainees in one of the large rear logistics bases we had little to do but patrol around the desert in Landcruisers and the infamous Snatch Landrovers and watch the oil flares burning off at sunset. It was hot and oppressive and when the first of our comrades got blown up by an IED and the whole thing took on a darker tone Johnny just fit the bill perfectly.

Gnarls Barkley "Crazy"

This is the track I remember always being on in the background through the summer in Iraq. On the radio and the on the TV in the gym, both down South and up in Baghdad where we spent some time. It was what all our friends were dancing to back home at barbeques and festivals and was brilliantly catchy – not to mention having quite an apt title for charging around a city like Baghdad.

Rob Dougan "Clubbed to Death"

There was something very sad about Iraq when I left it, my abiding memory is of looking out of the back of a helicopter at the receding desert and ruined buildings, framed by a chain-gun. The sampling of Elgar's "Enigma Variations" and the sense of something unfinished in "Clubbed to Death" made it seem the perfect soundtrack to my own unit's video-diary. There's tension and excitement in the track which was appropriate given where we were and what we were doing, but there's no achievement, no satisfying drop and something sad underscores it – it's a brilliant tune and I still can't here it without being straight back in sweaty stinking body armour somewhere outside Basrah.

Dolly Parton "9 to 5"

Barely half a year after flying out of Iraq I was out in Afghanistan and things were pretty punchy. By the middle of the tour we had become used to getting ambushed and were fighting with the Taliban on an almost daily basis. If our i-pod stereo was on shuffle this invariably made for some amusing moments but none more so than when just as another firefight kicked off, the unmistakable twang of the start of Dolly's comic classic came over the speakers. By that stage jumping out of the wagons and returning fire was our 9 to 5 and we all lay in a ditch, trying to coordinate an assault on the enemy and call in some fire support, giggling like teenage schoolgirls.

Echo and the Bunnymen "Nothing Lasts Forever"

Fresh from the madness of a firefight becoming routine I had two weeks leave back in the UK. At an amazing little festival in the countryside, bathed in glorious English midsummer sun and surrounded by all my friends and cider and balloons, I should have been as happy as Larry, but something about R&R was incredibly difficult and inexplicably I almost wanted to be back in Afghanistan. On the last evening I was incredibly sad because I couldn't seem to enjoy what should have been an amazing break, sat on a hill watching the stunning sunset over lake I realized Echo and the Bunnymen were playing this beautiful song, full of longing and melancholy which both reminded me of the confusion of being a teenager (it was released in 1997, good old Britpop days) and the dichotomy of my current situation. I put it on my iPod before flying back out to Helmand and, bizarrely, listening to it out in the desert made me incredibly hopeful.

Amy Winehouse "Rehab"

"Rehab" was what everyone was listening to at home that summer so was constantly being played on British Forces Broadcasting Service Radio. In one of the sentry posts of a bare-arsed patrol base on the front-line, looking up the valley towards the key (and very violent town of Sangin) some bored and imaginative gunner had carved into the wood with his bayonet a brilliant take on the key line in the song:
"They tried to make me go to Sangin, I said: No! No! No!"

Pink Floyd "The Great Gig in the Sky"

Unfortunately they did make us go to Sangin, for the last and most difficult couple of months of the tour. Taking casualties, getting hit hard and hanging on for the end, hoping to make it back, took a mental as well as physical toll. We were in a compound more like a moon base than anything earthly, coated in fine dust and the holes from rocket and mortar strikes. At night I used to do a round of the sentry positions and check on the Afghan soldiers we were working with. With no light pollution and a huge Ramadan moon the small hours were deceptively calm and hauntingly beautiful, I couldn't sleep so listened to Pink Floyd and the amazing vocals on "The Great Gig in the Sky," more a defiant primal scream than an articulated lyric, and the whispered "I am not frightened of dying," got me through the difficult last weeks – my whole team made it home.

Patrick Hennessey and The Junior Officers' Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars links:

the book's Wikipedia page

Daily Mail review
Entertainment Weekly review
Guardian review
Independent review
Kirkus Reviews review
London Evening Standard review
Minneapolis Star-Tribune review
Peter Geoghegan's Blog review
Small Wars Journal review
Spectator review
Telegraph review
Washington Post review

New Statesman essay by the author
Publishers Weekly interview with the author
RN Book Show interview with the author
Sunday Times essay by the author
Telegraph interview with the author
The Week essay by the author
Weekend Edition profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists

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