Dead Men Risen: An Epic Story of War and Heroism in Afghanistan
Author: Toby Harnden
Publisher: Regnery History
Step aside, Mark Bowden. Make room, Jake Tapper. Offer a salute, authors with selections that have made it to the coveted US Marine Corps Commandant’s Professional Reading List. One of the best military selections available is Dead Men Risen by Toby Harnden.
Dead Men Risen is hard-hitting like Black Hawk Down but with less of an undercurrent of bitterness as noted in The Outpost. The story is one that deserves to be told. The author presents it with a keen understanding of the burdens of command. It is 2009 and the Welsh Guards are in Helmand province, Afghanistan. We are introduced to the rich military tradition of the Welsh Guards. Mr Harnden’s literary gifting is anchored by his life experience as a former naval officer with a first class degree in Modern History (Oxford University). He is a soldier and a scholar, an embedded reporter and a military archivist. Pivotal perceptions regarding duty to nation and unit come from the wellspring of his own life experience. The author mobilises his literary gift and allows the reader access to an epic vault of information. The book concludes with a valuable glossary of military terms, appendix, list of key personnel and chronology of events. The glossary of terms will be particularly useful to those who have not served within our ranks.
Mr Harnden engulfs his readers in the action and it is not portrayed with elusive Hollywood sparkle. The grittiness of battle is felt within the soul and bones of military men. A distinct strength is the author’s deep understanding of the prevailing dignity that comes from wearing the cloth of a nation. Dead Men Risen sets a standard and delivers a clear message: strong military tradition and esprit de corps create a titanium group identity that is capable of carrying ordinary men through immense difficulty. There are few hardships greater than those carried on the shoulders of men burdened by war. And the ghosts of war continue to haunt many on their return from the theatre of operation.
The Welsh Guards were part of a greater military brotherhood in Helmand province. However, the chapter ‘Whitehall warrior: history and tradition’ reminds me of the strong traditions of my own branch of service, the United States Naval Reserves. Our traditions find residence in the high seas; their traditions, from the deep darkness of the coalmines. The Welsh Guards emerged from the darkness and forged strong ethical codes with deeply personal battle unit identities. This code of conduct carries them through the intense fighting season encountered in Afghanistan.
The reality of war in Afghanistan is that the hound that nipped at the heels of our joint forces is the same that will remain after our departure. This reality is summed up in one simple statement: “In reality, the Welsh Guards were to discover, almost anywhere beyond a thousand meter radius of a patrol base was a sanctuary for the Taliban.” Ahh, the Taliban! Let them return to blasting away at national treasures and oppressing the women.
A crucial detriment to Welsh Guard patrols was the Taliban’s adaptation and use of low metal content IEDs using graphite and carbon. The psychological effects of an unseen and vicious enemy dependent on simple physics for maximum carnage substantially increased the fear factor. Soldiers are taught to take careful aim and fire their weapons. From bi-pedalism to double amputee, it all comes down to a simple pressure plate exploding under a vehicle or a boot. The chapter ‘Low metal content’ describes the physical and emotional devastation of modified devices.
The author gives reference to the doctrine of proportionality of lethal force. However, he does not shy away from the history of British snipers, including a “Quigley” moment when a sniper accomplished a difficult “one shot, two kills” skill set. There is a strong nod toward the rules of engagement that bind snipers to ethical, professional conduct. They work under strictly controlled parameters collapsed into the greater envelope of international rules of war. A sniper is the ultimate professional and must assess imminent threat and hostile intent. There is no place for callous disregard of innocent human life. The current popular film American Sniper gives a nod to the aforementioned. Mr Harnden provides a deeper understanding of this issue.
Issues of a British military substandard kit in contrast to the superior resources afforded the US troops are reviewed in a practical manner. The psychological dimensions of end of mission and a handover to US Marines are also addressed. My team is known for the capability of making a fast rumble to Baghdad followed by a commander-in-chief landing on an aircraft carrier sporting a huge ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner. Good time had by all! Yes, we can be intimidating. We are a nation that is adroit and capable at the leading edges of war but, throughout the pages of the book, the fact is not lost on the reader that each nation plays its own important part. The small nation of Estonia and its troops worked alongside the Welsh Guards. All soldiering is honourable business when strong good order and discipline prevail under solid chain of command. The Welsh Guards made their mark and their professionalism was solid. After the Welsh Guards arrived at RAF Brize Norton they are applauded for the sweat, blood and heroism of their tour in Afghanistan. They are the stuff of legend. Mr Harnden assures that their history in Afghanistan is not forgotten.
This selection can be read for sheer enjoyment. It is a book to be read and passed along to another bibliophile. My book will be shipped to a friend this week. Individuals who love books always retain a stack of awaiting delights. I have already started my next book and two additional selections await me. The authors who will challenge my thoughts are Alex de Waal, Mark Bowden, Lieutenant General Ion Mihai Pacepa and Professor Ronald J Rychlak. Please consider adding Dead Men Risen to your reading list.
The writer is a freelance journalist and author of the novel Arsenal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org