Doug Beattie’s fine “An Ordinary Soldier”
An Ordinary Soldier
Simon & Schuster/Pocket Books
Doug Beattie’s An Ordinary Soldier is a very satisfactory book. It’ll hold its own as an account of British soldiery, or of the present Afghan war, or as a thriller, or a war novel. It’s on a par with James Newton’s Armed Action (about Iraq), Frederick Forsyth’s The Afghan, or even Rory Stewart’s Occupational Hazards. It is also a good working class Ulster memoir, including the way Beattie becomes an officer in the Royal Irish Regiment. Indeed, everything in the book is a precursor to his exploits as a Captain leading Afghans (dozens) and Brits (a handful) in Helmand in 2006. And even that is a precursor to an unspoken sequel: we are left looking forward to his next book, if it ever comes. [It did come, in the form of Task Force Helmand.] I don’t know how much the writing owes to Beattie’s ghost, Philip Gomm. It doesn’t matter, since (though it’s impossible to be sure) I don’t think there’s an inauthentic breath in the book.
At the heart of the story is Doug Beattie MC aiming to take Garmsir from the Taliban in 2006. More than can be quite true he presents himself as an awkward-squad character, devoted to action, not obviously a person to fit in, fond of his wife and family, at 40 beginning to get on a bit, hugely experienced. He affects to be a blunderer and rather thick. He does indeed cock-up a fair bit, and is unsparing about it. I imagine he’s daft like a fox. Even on one of his bad days you’d be glad to see him coming over the hill to sort things out, provided he’d decided he was on your side.
Indeed, Doug Beattie seems to have a modern version of an old ambivalence. Here’s an important passage:
“In Afghanistan I wasn’t really fighting for Queen and country. I was there for my regiment, for my colleagues, for my friends. And increasingly, despite the difficulties and general wariness, some of the Afghans had become my friends.”
He goes on to argue that it would not be good to leave the country until the allies have fulfilled their obligation to settle what they’d started. My impression is that now we have thoughtful and argumentative soldiers, commanding their loyalty will become much more complicated. Not least, we are going get stroppier soldiers who speak their mind, as Beattie says he did to a TV reporter in Helmand. It perhaps goes without saying, however, that Beattie is bowled over when it’s his turn to face the Queen in Buckingham Palace.
He comes from doughty, but ordinarily troubled, Protestant stock who are given to occasional explosions but not much emoting. His father and two brothers joined the Army, and he signs up for their regiment as an acknowledged family member. We are given snapshots or vignettes. He has a brutal training period (away from the Irish), which probably helped him become a more sensitive leader (not that he bangs on about girlie stuff). He has time in Germany (guarding Rudolph Hess is a weird highlight) and the Balkans. There is little sign of a remarkable career in the making.
Almost without warning, we find he has risen to the heights of Company Sergeant Major and then Regimental Sergeant Major. These were always curious roles, though Beattie is reticent about it. My understanding of an RSM is that he is the bosses’ bailiff and enforcer but also the men’s representative. Any RSM is definitely very senior, and hovers in a peculiar social dimension, defiantly neither fish nor fowl but definitely red meat. Anyway, this is in Iraq. His colonel (we suddenly find) is Tim Collins, and it is RSM Beattie who has to try and get the blokes back on their feet after Collins delivers perhaps the best military speech since one of Churchill’s. It’s a wonderful piece of oratory, and ideal for Radio 4 and The Times. One has the impression that Beattie adores Collins, but thinks the regiment was rather floored by these ambiguous and indeed frightening strictures.
And then we’re in Afghanistan and the kernel of the book. Captain Beattie is working as an adviser to the Afghanistan police. He has a handful of close British army comrades (not often known to him days before), and they are essentially on their own in a peculiar environment, with Beattie having a peculiar command role, often miles from British military support of any kind. Or rather, out in the sticks with air support as the cavalry. One way or another, Beattie’s role is amazingly freelance, lonely, and bloody. I imagine a lot of modern warfare is like this. People who never thought it likely, are asked to behave as elite troops with an extraordinary degree of independence, ambiguity, and close-quarter fighting followed by weird negotiations, sometimes with (say) Afghans and sometimes with one’s own superiors.
Beattie rises to these extraordinary challenges but never shakes off his constant companion: guilt that he has failed people.
Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King comes close. And maybe even the 1999 movie, Three Kings.