Watched this Oscar tipped National Geographic documentary film last night and was completely wowed!
"Featuring unprecedented access to troops in the heat of battle, Restrepo: Outpost Afghanistan reveals the tears, the tragedy, the tedium and, ultimately, the truth about living and fighting on the Afghan frontline...Shot over a 15-month period imbedded with the Second Platoon of Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, the film combines first-hand footage with harrowing interviews to tell the story of the soldiers stationed in the Korengal."
For any of us who play aisoft or battlefield computer game this movie is a very, very humbling experience. The realities of war highlighted in this very gritty video journal pull no punches and expose our 'wannabe' pretensions in the most graphic way. The fact is that war is - unsurprisingly - not fun and the catastrophe of war as recorded in this program should be a reminder to all of us who play at being soldiers that our 'fun' pastimes are in no way a reflection of the hardship and misery that our troops really have to endure.
Although a Brit, or maybe because of it, I found the candour of this film about American troops exceptionally touching. It was not your usual 'gun ho' infused American war documentary and so was far more in line with the sort of documentary work we are used to being produced by European film makers - there was no jingoistic posturing, no preaching about the 'mission' and little macho bravado. If anything it painted a grim and unforgiving picture of the Afghanistan campaign and the arduous and dangerous task of the coalition troops have there. Notably, there was no talk by the men who were interviewed about winning the ‘War on Terror’ – they just wanted to do their time and get home.
I suppose if you did want to cast a negative slant on the American method of approaching the campaign it was in one heart rendering scene where US troops inadvertently killed several Afghan villagers and wounded women and children during a fairly ineffectual raid on a 'unfriendly' mountain hamlet. But on the swing side the resultant ambush of them by local Taliban highlighted that this 'innocent' village was a centre of Taliban operations in the area that, in all likelihood, harboured the very militants that ended up killing one of the troops and wounding several of others.
Such is the horrendous tragedy of an insurgency and counter-insurgency.
Restrepo reminded me, in a way, of an Australian war movie called 'The Odd Angry Shout' where the nature of an insurgent war was caricatured by lots and lots of time spent digging holes and fighting boredom punctuated by intense and brutal fire fights. Although the Restrepo documentary makers are at pains to emphasise that they US troops were pestered by low level sniping and other attacks on an almost daily basis. Even so, to me, one of the untold enemies of the troops seemed to me to be the weary routine and inane daily tasks they had to undertake in an abysmal location bereft of any of the modern conveniences...
But again this also, for me, highlighted one of the failures in the mission statement for the coalition campaign in Afghanistan. In a country where the overwhelming majority of the population have nothing and scrape by on a subsistence way of life how can our ideas of ‘progress’ in any way be an sufficient incentive for the local tribes people to resist the influence of the Taliban? What does progress mean to them? Particularly when many of them just want to be left alone to continue a way of life that has lasted hundreds of years. But I digress...
Another difference between real soldiers and we airsofters is that at the end of the day we can go back to our cosy beds, big screen tellies and refrigerated beers - not some dreary hole in the ground!
Because of this my admiration for our troops – and all coalition allies - always increases the more I hear about what they have to endure. A brilliant film that is a definite must see!
Scheduling: Restrepo: Outpost Afghanistan:
> First aired - Monday 29 Novemner at 9:00PM - National Geographic Channel
> Repeated: Thursday 2 December at 10:00PM - National Geographic Channel
> Repeated: Sunday 5 December at 3:00PM - National Geographic Channel
> Repeated: Tuesday 7 December at 9:00AM - National Geographic Channel
For future episodes refer to NatGeo UK web site: http://natgeotv.com/uk/restrepo
"As the Second World War progresses, the destruction of Allied shipping mounts. Fighter pilot Tim Rowan is posted to an escort carrier to help guard the precious convoys. His adventures take him first to the Arctic and then the Indian Ocean."
A little bit different for me as this isn't a historical or factual history of warfare or a particular military formation but rather a fictional novel about the Fleet Air Arm during World War 2.
Audiobook version available from Audible.co.uk (£11.79)
Review - 'Winged Escort' an action packed soap opera...
If you think that I am being a little unfair or use the term 'soap opera' in an negative way you would be wrong. Reeman's novel is a nice mix of personal relationships and rip-roaring air action, the thing that gives this story a real lift is, in fact, the clash of the main characters which is given all the more tension by an added love triangle.
But fear not! This is not a historical romance, in fact if anything it comes across like a grown up version of one of those Commmando war comics that you perhaps read as a kid (if you are a child of the 60s and 70s as I am). The character inter dynamics and clashes are only there to highten the drama and act as a backdrop to the real action, which is fast and furious.
Reeman specializes in World War 2 navel novels and his obvious technical knowledge of the subject comes through time and time again. This guy certainly knows his port from his starboard (to understate the fact). As a result there is plenty of historical accuracy, though he perhaps takes some liberties with he sheer amount of action that the fictional characters see - but, then, it wouldn't be an action novel if there wasn't much action would it?
The subject of the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm and it's involvement during the Second World War is a relatively unusual one - when compared to stories about the RAF and it's fighter and bomber crews for example - but it is an engrossing subject. I was found the story easy to read and light and not too taxing, a great story for a journey as there isn't too much detail to have to remember and you don't have to go too far between the action sequences.
The bottom line: Winged Escort is very entertaining in a 20th century swashbuckling kind of way!
Review: On a Wing and a Prayer: The Untold Story of the First Heroes of the Air
Author: Joshua Levine
Publisher: 2009, Whole Story Audio Books
Format: Audio book
Price: £19.99 (hardback version is £14.93)
My latest 'read' is about the First World War air war, primarily the development of the British Royal flying Corps (and subsequently the RAF) though the words of those who were involved by means of diaries and letters. The book - On a Wing and a Prayer by Joshua Levine - is a spoken recount of these memories and really gives a first rate impression of the excitement and terror of the earliest air combat.
Above: British SE-5's engaged in dogfight. From an original oil painting by Albert J. Enckler - do check out Mr. Enckler web site as he has a beautiful collection of vintage aircraft painings: The Art of Albert J. Enckler
It's hard to believe that we are only four years away from the centinial anniversary of the start of the Great War, but this book brings the lives of the combatants, and civilians, to vivid life. This is only the second book I have read on the history of the Great War and I count myself lucky in choice of audio books on both occassions. On a Wing and a Prayer is something special...
As you may know, I 'read' a lot of audio books as opposed to the printed versions. People often wonder why I do this, particularly as, often, the audio book version might be an abridged version of the printed format and is also likely to be more expensive.
Well, in turn, I find this curious. People sort of regard audio books as a new fangled idea of the iPod age (although they have been around since the days of cassettes) and they think of printed books as the day facto means of storytelling. In truth storytelling is traditionally an aural craft, only becoming a printed one in relatively more modern times.
Above: 1911 Blackburn monoplane suspended above 1954 Gloster Meteor F. 8 jet fighter. Perhaps most significant progress between the two is that the top speed of the Blackburn was 70mph, while the Meteor could top 600mph! It is interesting to think that this advance happened within just 43 years, and harder still to believe that at the start of the Great War men were using machines only a little more advanced than this Blackburn to conduct warfare! Photo taken at the Yorkshire Air Museum.
One of the main reasons I like audio books is how a well read book can relate emotion far more empathetically than can a printed sentence. With print you are left to imply emotion, you may have hints and descriptions of how emotion is intended to be conveyed but at the end of the day it is your imagination that will apply the emotional context of the narrative.
Audio books are great in the way that good readers (and note I stress good readers) can bring the work to life in an almost dramatic recreation of the original narrative.
On a Wing and a Prayer is an excellent example of how audio books can relate context to words and memories in order to create a sense of one being told a story by a human being in a faux-first person format.
This book recounts the memoirs of those that lived though the first air war - pilots, ground crew and civilians. It is a touching and entrancing recount of real memories, told in a very sympathetic tone by the author himself. The accounts, because they sound like human retellings, come across with a delightful and sometimes harrowing set of feelings that transcend the time that has lapsed since the end of the First World War.
Left: Albert Ball VC, DSO & Two Bars, MC (14 August 1896 – 7 May 1917) was an English First World War fighter pilot and recipient of the Victoria Cross. But perhaps what strikes you from this photo is just how young this ace looks. In fact the sad fact is this legendary pilot - considered an 'old hand' - was killed when he was only 20 years old. Source: Wikipedia
In short, these account sound like voices from the past made real in our present, and not some distant historical tracts.
Because you slip into feeling that you are being told the stories by living people the effect is quite magnified, and you really get a sense of the drama, terror, excitement, heartbreak and sometime even the fun of being these people.
Perhaps what is most surprising is just how modern these people sound - and do remember we are talking about an era when some of these people were still alive until quite recently. Yet there is an occasional quaint intrusion of the Victorian age into these accounts, in attitudes and expressions.
The First World War was at that transitional time, bridging the Victorian and modern age, and so sometimes the expressions used can be a jarring juxtaposition to the familiar contemporary language used. Fight is so often seen as the antithesis of modern technological advance yet here we hear account of the young men who pioneered air combat at a time when cavalry was still the premier formation in the army
Above: A replica of the WW1 Avro 504 from the Yorkshire Air Museum collection. Behind it can be seen a WW2 vintage Halifax heavy bomber. In 1914 the Royal Naval Air Service despatched four Avro 504s - each carrying just four 20 pound bombs - on a raid on the Zeppelin works at Friedrichshafen. Just 29 year later just one Halifax bomber could carry a bomb load of 13,000 pounds!
OAn a Wing and a Prayer was absolutely delightful and did not fall into the trap that so many World War 1 histories do of lecturing us about how awful that war was, when we all clearly understand what a particularly dreadful conflict the War to end all Wars was.
I know I over-use the expression 'he tells it like it is' when I speak of some of my favourite authors, but in this case JL doesn't tell it like it is, he tells it like it was. I split hairs, but the distinct Victorian and Public school attitudes of some of the subjects of this aural history paint a rather more accurate picture of the reasoning of these people than contemporary historians do when they try to apply modern thinking into explaining the Great War.
We do not understand - I think - some of the things that drove these young men to fight, particularly early in this war. But listening to their voices (their own words recounted) opens a door to their sincerity even if we do not understand it.
Today we could not understand what would make a person 'do his duty' even when he knows what he is being asked to do is ridiculous or suicidal, but none the less these young men did. We may say that they shouldn't have, but we have the luxury of a changed society to support our views.
Above: Royal Aircraft Factory BE.2c (c. 1914). One of the beautifully preserved WW1 aircraft at the Yorkshire Air Museum.
This is a fabulous audio book. Well read and containing a whole range of emotion that will keep you engaged right to the end.
On a more technical note the first person accounts of tactics, warfare and machines is - as you would expect, coming as it does from the horse’s mouth so to speak – absolutely terrific. And one thing to note is that Britain did not fair as bad as some of the contemporary military historians (with their axes to grind) perhaps like to portray our performance in the Great War. The normal reverence for the German fliers and their abilities is put into context – the allies were attacking while the Germans doggedly pursued a defensive strategy in the air – and we hear of allied men and machines that were very much the equal of anything the Germans pitted against us.
It may surprise you to learn, for example, that while the notorious ‘Red Baron’ - Manfred von Richthofen – is idolised by some as the greatest ace of the war and that allied air men were simply not in his league his victories were not that far beyond the reach of allied airmen. His extended lead in victories can be easily put into context due to the Germans defensive strategy.
TOP ACES OF WORLD WAR ONE
- ‘The Red Baron’ - Manfred von Richthofen (Germany) – 80
- René Paul Fonck (France) – 75
- Wiliam ‘Billy’ Bishop (Canada) – 74
- Ernst Udet (Germany) – 62
- Edward 'Mick' Mannock (Great Britain) – 61
- Raymond Collishaw (Canada) – 60
- James McCudden (Great Britain) – 57
- Andrew Beauchamp-Proctor (South Africa) – 54
- Erich Löwenhardt (Germany) – 54
- Donald Roderick MacLaren (Canada) - 54
If I have one criticisms of Joshua Levine's book I would say that I was a little disappointed that we did not hear a little more of the accounts of French flyers. The poor much maligned French did in fact put up a ‘jolly good show’ in the air during the First World War, and in many ways grasped the military possibilities of air combat far more readily than did their British counterparts (producing some of the wars great fighters, like the Neuports and the Spad). Pilots like Georges Guynemer (53 victories), Rene Fonck (75 victories) and Charles Nungesser (43 victories) epitomised the romance that we associate with the 'Knights of the Sky'.
> 'The aerodrome' - a wonderful resourse about air combat in The Great War: www.theaerodrome.com
You may also wish to take a look at my short review of '1918: A Very British Victory' by Peter Hart, another extraordinary book about the First World War (Milgeek rating: 5 stars).
Soldiers Without Borders: Beyond the SAS - a Global Network of Brothers-in-Arms
Author: Ian McPhedran
Publisher: Bolinda Publishing Pty Ltd
Format: Audiobook - doenloaded from Audible.co.uk, price £25.19
'Provides a thrilling insight into the way SAS soldiers are selected and trained, and reveals fascinating details about recent SAS deployments: East Timor, the 2000 Olympic games, the Tampa, the Afghanistan campaign and the regiment's action-packed mission in Iraq.'
The Iraq War and it's aftermath has brought the slightly shady world of the freelance 'security operators' to the fore with companies like Blackwater becoming a familiar name to the public - although not for any of the right reasons. To the media and the public in general there is something rather unsettling about ex-military personnel offering their services in the commercial field, and the industry still cannot seem to shake the negative association with the term 'mercenary'.
Soldiers Without Borders in some ways tries to clarify or de-muddy the preconceptions about private security firms which utilize ex-servicemen in the employ of foreign nations. It describes the experiences of former members of the Australian SAS who have moved into the private sector and made a life for themselves conducting a wide variety of both hands-on and consultative roles in the grey world of soldiers for hire.
The book tells the stories of a number ex-members of 'The Regiment' who have chosen to work under contract to private companies and other nations, bringing their unique expertise to a wide variety of roles. Sometime the story is a positive one, but sometimes the venture does not end so well.
The book, it's author and the ex-SAS members involved go to great lengths to explain the reasons why a soldier might be tempted into the commercial arena and they likewise stress fervently that working for foreign nations does not mean any conflict of national interests.
It is an exciting field, whatever your feelings about the nature of a soldier for hire you cannot help but feel that it is adventurous. The Australian perspective is particularly interesting as the Aussies certainly have their own way of doing things - which they believe, naturally, is the best way of doing things - and it is always entertaining to hear an Australian, in their down to earth manner, 'tell it like it is'.
Whether the current winding down of US military involvement in Iraq - undoubtedly one of the biggest markets in recent history of the 'hired gun' - means a commensurate reduction of the vacancies for such soldiers or an increase in demand as private companies take up the slack I cannot say. The future of the 'solder of fortune' will always be linked to the fallout of colonial ambitions. In any case you at least have to feel that there is a big difference between the professionalism of operators like the ex-members of the SAS and other 'Tier One' Special Forces members and those of more tenuous military backgrounds.
This book is fairly interesting, but I don't think it will convince anyone who already has an opinion about soldiers for hire that it is a good thing or a bad thing and members of the British and US forces may be a little irked by the Alpha Male arrogance of the Aussies in their attitudes that they do things the right way and everyone else does it the wrong way. But I suppose you have to have 'an attitude' if you aspire to be a member of one of the best military formations in the world.
The bottom line: Interesting from a military history point of view, and some of the stories are certainly engaging (though be warned, some are quite mundane), but all the way through there is a sense of 'they doth protest to much' when the subjects of the book seek to justify their move to private sector which certainly left me with a feeling of ill ease.
Mick Flynn has seen action in every major British war zone of the past 30 years and still serves with the legendary Blues & Royals today. Bullet Magnet is his story - the story of an extraordinary modern warrior who mixes warmth and humour, and at times heartbreaking poignancy, with truly breathtaking fighting skills. ©2010 Mike Flynn; (P)2010 Orion Publishing Group Ltd
While America is OK about making war movies about their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan (I will be doing a review of 'Green Zone' and 'Hurt Locker' soon) here in Blighty it's no longer considered 'PC' to make war movies - despite our brilliant tradition making classic films in this genre.
What we do do though is a quiet and surreptitious line in war memoirs - for some reason it's OK to write about war, just not make films about it. I've read some absolute corkers about the modern British military - like 'Hellfire' and 'Ground Truth' (see my Bookshelf), but this latest book by Corporal-Major Mick Flynn surpasses even those for telling it like it is.
Mick Flynn has become one of the British Army's most decorated soldier and it's not hard to understand why - he is not only long-serving - having been involved in Northern Ireland, The Falklands, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan - but is one of those 'true grit' larger than life personalities that really does deserve the over-used monica of 'hero'. The action that Flynn has been involved in as a consequence of his long service is graphically described in the book and is plentiful and reads like a fictional adventure - it would without a doubt make a fantastic movie!
Do not get the idea that this book is in any way 'Gung-Ho' in the American style of war-story telling, the true grit of this memoir comes from Mick Flynn's dogged professionalism and comradeship for his fellow soldiers. If there is any sense of him being an 'action junky' it is only because he takes a pride in doing the job he has in order to help preserve the lives of his mates. This guy really enjoys his job, but his job just happens to be soldiering.
Tony Thornett's head exploded next to me. Bits of skull and brain flew across the pavement.
"F***ing Jesus," I thought. "Gotta move, gotta move!"
There were people screaming and shouting everywhere, shots going off but I was locked in my own bubble.
I glanced at Tony. He was making a gurgling sound, the air rattling in his throat as his body tried to keep breathing.
Was that Tony? That wasn't Tony any more. He'd gone.
"Medic!" someone shouted. There was no medic - we were on our own. My commander was leaning over the wheel trying to give him first aid.
Fear gave way to self-preservation and then to anger.
Pure and cold-blooded.
It was the first time I'd felt it - the kind of controlled rage that means you're ready to kill, but your mind is clear and cool as glass.
Extract from Mick Flynn's Bullet Magnet. More extracts can be read on 'The Sun' web site.
The action is all described is down to earth terms and he does not gloss over the grisly nature of war, and I reiterate that there is a lot of action. As with 'A Rumour of War' - another book I reviewed lately - 'Bullet Magnet' satisfies readers who are seeking plenty of action but at the same time describes this action in such a way that the reader is left with no illusions that war is an adventure.
The bottom line is that 'Bullet Magnet' is one of the best books I have read (or rather listened to as I got it in audio book form) in a long time. It reminds us that despite the controversy about the perceived rights or wrongs of war our troops go on performing their duty selflessly and to an amazingly high standard regardless. They are there because they are there and the lengths they go to in the performance of that duty surpasses all expectations on a daily basis...They are Heroes.
> 'I enjoy the fear, says Major Mick Flynn, off to the front line at 50' - Article in The Sunday Times, June 4 2010
> 'Interview: Corporal-Major Mick Flynn, Britain's most decorated soldier on his return to Afghanistan' - Article in The Scotsman, 22 June 2010