I posted a while back about the peculiar sub-genre that is Doorman Lit, a sub-genre of which it seems I may be the only reader (or at any rate, the only one who’s publicly prepared to admit to reading it). Military memoirs are, of course, a much older and more respectable genre than memoirs by bouncers, but needless to say the ones I end up reading still aren’t The Anabasis or The Gallic Wars or even Winston Churchill’s How I Wangled My Way Into a Basically Unnecessary Campaign Against Some Black Muslims (No, Not The Ones In America) (oh, alright, that’s not the actual title).
No, I end up with the modern military memoirs, most recently a 2003 effort by Major Phil Ashby, Unscathed, mostly about his adventures in the Sierra Leone civil war of the late 90s during which he and several others escaped a UN compound besieged by rebels and trekked, unarmed, through the jungle, to safety. These books usually seem to come from former members of the more prestigious military organisations – SAS, Parachute Regiment, Royal Marines, US Marines, Navy SEALs, French Foreign Legion and so on – and they all really break down into two parts “My Training from Hell” and “The Famous War(s) I Was In.”
That’s particularly pronounced in Ashby’s book because his army career was ultimately cut short by injury, and a lot of it that didn’t involve nearly dying in the West African jungle was fairly routine. He sensibly doesn’t waste much time telling us about those parts, which mostly leaves the training and t. Having said that, Ashby comes across as a man for whom a day is wasted if it doesn’t involve something dangerous, and some of the more hair-raising bits of his book have nothing to do with military campaigns or even preparing for them (he and his girlfriend almost killed themselves in an avalanche whilst climbing a Scottish mountain for fun).
And I think that comes to the nub of why this sort of book appeals to me, and perhaps to others too. I have pretty much spent my entire life resolutely avoiding danger, particularly if it involves any sort of physical hardship. In many ways, it’s no more than most people do, if they get the choice, but you couldn’t remotely call it heroic, and I suppose I’m fascinated by people who are willing to do the opposite.
Also, I’ve never exactly been what you would call macho (that probably goes with the resolute avoidance of danger). If I’m being honest, the “Training from Hell” parts of this sort of book actually interest me more than the war parts. To me warfare is so remote from my life experience that it’s hard to even imagine what it’s like. It’s a bit easier to imagine what it’s like to have to run miles up hills whilst carrying ridiculously heavy backpacks, lie in hides for days on end whilst eating uncooked rations and pooing into plastic bags or do hundreds of press-ups at the drop of a hat, all of which invariably seem to feature in the training of every military unit I’ve read about. My imagination tells me that I wouldn’t last more than fifteen minutes of this stuff before collapsing with some kind of permanent injury, but there you go.
Incidentally, all of these books seem to be by soldiers, never sailors or airmen, and pretty much always members of elite infantry units too. I mean, obviously, no publisher’s likely to pay you to write about your career driving supply trucks, but even armour, artillery or engineers don’t get a look in. I think it’s something to do with the mechanisation.
In large parts of the armed forces, even the front-line part, your job is basically to operate a massive great killing machine of one kind or another, a tank, a missile battery or an aircraft carrier. And, rightly or wrongly, anyone who sees any of this as worthy of interest at all, is never going to accept that as being interesting in the same way as actually having to fight, and kill, man-on-man. There are lots of books about the techno-centric parts of the military, but they’re about the machines themselves – warships, fighter planes and so on. The car’s the star, as they used to say.
And given that, you have to wonder what the future is for Khaki Lit. It’s becoming very obvious that, for the major military powers, in which most of these books are published, the future is increasingly about using technology to minimise having to commit troops on the ground. Why mount a risky commando raid when you can kill your enemies with drones or take them out with an air-strike? Eventually, that may make the glamorous elite military units, if not exactly obsolete, less important and so less glamorous than before, and books about them less marketable. Scoping out the target before a machine goes in to do the killing may be important work, but it’s not Rorke’s Drift.