Dead Men Risen: The Welsh Guards and the Real Story of Britain’s War in Afghanistan (Quercus: October 2011)
Review and author interview by George Gavrilis, Executive Director of the Hollings Center
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Stories of war oftentimes lend themselves to exaggerated, heroic narratives. This is not the case with Dead Men Risen, a book that tells the story of Britain’s military efforts in Afghanistan through the eyes of the Welsh Guards in Helmand province in 2009, a crucial year when under-resourced and overstretched soldiers from working class backgrounds attempted to stem the tide of a rising Taliban insurgency ahead of Afghanistan’s presidential elections.
Dead Men Risen won the prestigious Orwell Prize in May 2012, but readers should take note that the book caused plenty of uproar and political embarrassment in the UK and Europe in the months prior. This is because Harnden’s book is much more than the British soldier’s perspective of the Afghan war. It is at once a story that weaves together the experiences of soldiers on the ground—from the mundane to the harrowing to the deadly—with keen insights on the pitfalls of counterinsurgency and scathing revelations about British political myopia in planning the military campaign. Indeed, the book reveals that British military planners insisted on sending forces to Helmand province and left mountainous Uruzgan to the Dutch, thinking that Helmand’s dusty, horizontal topography would make for easier operations.
Map of land use and economic activity in Afghanistan. Source: University of Texas Library
Although the book shuttles masterfully between government offices in London and the houses of soldiers’ families in Wales and England, its core chapters are set in a small rural triangle above Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province. The Helmand countryside these days is synonymous with insurgents and opium cultivation, but Harnden reveals to the reader that Helmand was once the site of a colossal U.S. development effort that started in the 1940s. Modeled in part after the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Helmand Valley Authority aimed to irrigate 300,000 acres of desert to the west and north of Lashkar Gah and settle 20,000 nomads. Lashkar Gah itself was developed as a model town with networks of dams, sluices, drainage and irrigation canals circumscribing its outskirts in service to agricultural development. The annual salaries of American advisers and personnel alone cost the equivalent of Afghanistan’s total exports each year.
The project would come to an indecisive end in the 1970s, but it unwittingly created conditions that in the 21stcentury would aid both insurgents and opium farmers. The canals built earlier were shallow enough for Taliban to wade across and set up ambushes but that made it difficult for Afghan National Army and NATO soldiers to patrol. Moreover, the irrigation project created a near-perfect growing environment for opium.
It was in this countryside where British soldiers found themselves fighting an insurgency, mentoring Afghan soldiers and trying to protect a beleaguered civilian population that they rarely saw nor understood. The book takes the reader to places with idyllic names—Haji Alem, Shamalan and Chah-e Anjir—places where soldiers, civilians and insurgents alike suffered tremendous losses at each other’s hands. Harnden vividly tells the tale of Haji Alem, a former drug baron’s haunt that was commandeered by the Welsh Guards as a remote post from which to launch patrols. Inside Haji Alem, soldiers encountered boredom and had the most minimal of provisions. Outside, soldiers faced insurgents masterful at deadly improvisation and ambush.
The book is at its most vivid when it portrays the soldiers on patrol and in combat. The fighting and casualties spare the reader no anguish and Harnden’s text is wrenching, bloody and real. The war deaths that rocked the British public in 2009 feature prominently but are no less palpable than Harnden’s matter-of-fact references to inexperienced soldiers, some who vomited from fear before going on patrols, others who reached for their camera phones rather than weapons when encountering insurgent fire for the first time. There are plenty of stories of bravery and sacrifice, but these are conveyed through the unexaggerated words of the soldiers who shy away from any self-proclamations of heroism.
Afghan soldiers in training in Kabul. Photo by George Gavrilis
The reader will also catch glimpses of soldiers of the Afghan National Army. Harnden explains that Afghan soldiers lacked training but sometimes got results with unorthodox methods. In one instance, the Welsh Guards realized that their attempts to set up an ambush for Taliban were being undermined by an unknown informant in a village. Afghan soldiers solved the problem by detaining villagers and confiscating their phones until the ambush could be set up. Harnden also conveys the great risk that Afghan soldiers faced every time they assisted UK soldiers; while British military commanders considered NATO soldiers top priority in medical assistance and evacuating the dead, Afghan soldiers were labeled “priority two.” As one British soldier explained to Harnden in Helmand, “We lived, ate and fought together. It was desperate to categorize the dead by nationality.”
The book is at once a monumental and brutal read. It is monumental in that it captures the remarkable similarity of soul-searching across governments—from the US to the UK, from Turkey to Estonia—struggling to explain to their citizens that the cost of war is worth what has been achieved in Afghanistan. Brutally, it is a hard-to-forget account of the costs of foreign policy in the trenches.
Toby Harnden is U.S. Executive Editor of Mail Online and The Daily Mail’s U.S. Editor. Based in Washington DC, he has reported on U.S. politics for more than a dozen years and is an affiliate of the Hollings Center.
George Gavrilis had the opportunity to ask Toby Harnden a few questions about Dead Men Risen (Quercus 2011)
Gavrilis: Why did you decide to write this book?
Harnden: The trigger for Dead Men Risen was the death of Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe on July 1st 2009. He was the first British battalion commander to be killed in action since Lieutenant Colonel H Jones VC in the Falklands War in 1982. Rupert was a friend of mine. We had first got to know each other in 1996, when I was a correspondent in Northern Ireland and he was a Captain and Army intelligence officer. In the weeks before Rupert was killed, the Welsh Guards had already lost a platoon commander and a company commander (I later found out that the loss of commanders at these three key levels in a British battalion had not happened since the Korean War) and I, like many, wondered what on earth was going on in Helmand.
At a deeper level, I had long been fascinated by the experience of war. As a child, I remember following little dots of men running up the beach in D-Day footage, watching them fall and thinking about who that soldier was and how he had just been snuffed out. I recently came across a little book I wrote when I was about eight. It was called “The Cry of Death: The Adventures of Private Nigel Murphy”. I spent nearly a decade in the Royal Navy but did not see active service. While embedded in Ramadi and Fallujah with the U.S. Marines and U.S. Army I became very interested in how units functioned, the challenges of different levels of command and the way troops react to fear. My previous book Bandit Country, a 30-year history of the IRA’s border heartland, had necessarily been more of an overview – I was keen to do something more granular. At the same time, I was a bit tired of the Boy’s Own genre of military books that often read like a succession of firefights and in which everyone is a hero. Life – and war – is not like that. I also wanted to place the granular action in a broader context – of the Regiment, of Afghanistan, the home front, of war through the ages. So it ended up being an ambitious book in its scope. That’s a reason why it ended up being 610 pages long, which worried me a lot regarding sales (it’s an intimidating-looking book) and no doubt gave my publishers some heartburn.
Afghan elder and Welsh Guardsman. Photo by Toby Harnden
The title of the book speaks to some of the many different levels on which I tried to make it work. The phrase is taken from the poem Ypres by Robert Laurence Binyon, the famous World War One poet. Coincidentally, it is about one of the first battles the Welsh Guards fought in (they were formed in 1915). The phrase was seized on by Major Sean Birchall, commander of IX Company and later killed in action. Birchall wanted his men to feel they were the reincarnation of the Welsh Guardsmen who had fought in World War Two, the last time IX Company (re-formed for the 2009 tour) had existed. In the book, Thorneloe, Birchall and Lieutenant Mark Evision, the platoon commander who was killed, are dead men risen in the sense that they speak from beyond the grave about what happened – Thorneloe on flawed strategy, kit shortages, inadequate troops levels; Birchall on the shortcomings of the Afghan police and army; Evison on what it is like to be in a beleaguered outpost of no military value with radios that don’t work, medical supplies unavailable and helicopters that don’t arrive. There is also an incident in the book in which a Viking vehicle plunges into a canal. The Welsh Guardsmen inside all think they are going to die. Some hold hands as they lose consciousness. Others reach for photos of loved ones or sonogram pictures of unborn children. Miraculously, they all survive. So, again, these are dead men risen.
Gavrilis: This book would not have been possible had you not spent time in Afghanistan and conducted many interviews in Helmand. What was it like to plan for this and to spend time there?
Harnden:Yes, to write the book I had to be there. And to be there I had to get there – which wasn’t straightforward! At the time, the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) had a system of “authorized books” – a deal by which the author got access to the unit in forms of an embed and facilitation later, and in return the MOD checked the manuscript for “accuracy” and “operational security” before publication. In practice, I had no other option but to go for this.
Being there was essential to be able to visualize the area, to see the patrol bases and to experience a little of what the soldiers went through. In terms of action, it was relatively quiet when I was there – I came under fire only once and, mercifully, no IEDs were detonated when I was out on the ground. I’ve done a lot of embeds and I always find that soldiers talk much more readily during a tour, especially in the quiet moments in a sangar after dark, in the back of a vehicle or just pausing somewhere for a breather. They’re facing the prospect of dying at almost any moment and that makes them reflective and quite blunt. There’s also an element of respect that you get as an author or reporter – the soldier might be a little guarded or suspicious but they think that at least this person is undertaking some of the risks they are. From a practical point of view, it is so much easier to interview people when they are in place. Once the tour is over, everyone scatters to the four winds.
British soldiers on patrol. Photo by Toby Harnden
Having said all this, if I had written the book immediately after returning from Helmand – as one publisher was keen for me to do – then Dead Men Risen would have been dramatically different and I think worse as a book. In the end, I had nearly 17 months to research and write. I found that going back to people meant that a lot more emerged. Out in Helmand – with officers nearby and that can-do spirit and belief in the mission that is so essential for a unit to function – some things were not talked about. So it was only back in England and Wales, in people’s houses or their rooms in barracks, sometimes over a pint or two, that subjects like civilian casualties, battle shock and PTSD were discussed. This post-tour period also enabled me to work at getting hold of documents associated with the tour – I eventually managed to get an electronic trove of 2,374. These were invaluable for cross-referencing and providing clues, as well as a lot of unvarnished opinions, most notably from Thorneloe. During those 17 months, it was also possible for me – and the Welsh Guards – to begin to have some measure of a longer-term perspective on events.
Gavrilis: What memorable moments didn’t make it to the pages of the book?
Harnden: Some words and short passages in the book are redacted – simply blacked out. These are mostly where the MOD argued that to include certain sensitive details would endanger lives. There was also legal action taken by one officer before publication – he got hold of a pre-publication copy of the manuscript and brought in one of London’s top libel firms. Essentially, he was unhappy with his portrayal – which was based on multiple sources, including interviews with superiors and subordinates, and documents. This was a big problem because one of the things I wanted to do was to examine the friction between different levels of command – brigade, battalion, company and platoon. Not every military leader performs superbly, though in books they often do. Rupert Thorneloe was unusual in the British Army (the Americans are much more robust in this respect) in that he was prepared to fire officers, even ones he liked personally and were decent men doing their best. Such is the nature of war, he felt, and with men’s lives at risk he could not afford to be sentimental. At the same time, Thorneloe was undoubtedly a tough task master and one of the many tragedies of a commander’s death is that everything is frozen in time – matters that might have blown over are left hanging.
In the end, a legal agreement was reached with the officer in question. It satisfied his central concern, which turned out to be rather narrow, without seriously compromising the book. But suffice it to say there is more about what Thorneloe was grappling with when he died that I would have liked to have included in the book.