A recounting of war in the age of the Internet

  • Article by: MATTHEW TIFFANY , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 18, 2010 - 11:57 AM

A young British soldier recounts his experiences in basic training and fighting in Afghanistan.

"The Junior Officers' Reading Club," by Patrick Hennessey

Two disparate things to consider: first, that the Internet has progressed to a level of complexity that permits an unprecedented volume of information about, well, everything to be shared freely and spread widely. And, second, that there are currently two high-profile wars being waged, and the vast majority of our perceptions regarding these conflicts are shaped by statistics that come wrapped in political spin.

If you want more adorable and sardonic cats than you can shake a cheeseburger at, the Internet has you covered. If it's a compelling, nuanced look at soldiering written from a first-person, you-are-there perspective that you're looking for: well, page not found.

It seems strange, given the omnipresence of technology and the Internet in our lives, that we have to rely on something so last-century as a book to give us that nuanced glimpse of the individual in modern warfare. Patrick Hennessey has met that need with this memoir, an arch, unflinching look at the two sides of military service as noted in the subtitle: "Killing Time and Fighting Wars."

Hennessey's take on the training he received places an emphasis on the former; though it might displease his military superiors, much of training is a battle against monotony and the fatigue of inaction. Soldiers pass the days much as any young adult with too much time on his hands might -- watching pirated DVDs, working out, playing video games.

Training breaks up the schedule, but the impression left with the reader is that those drills, interspersed with viewings of "Black Hawk Down" and "Fight Club," left Hennessey feeling somewhat disillusioned: "What I began to discover is that LEADERSHIP, CHARACTER AND INTELLECT are best developed by MARCHING, IRONING and SHOUTING."

Hennessey harbors no illusions about the difficulty facing him once he's thrown into actual conflict, and he isn't disappointed. "I personally found Baghdad as thorough a holiday from all the ordinary decencies and sanities, all the common emotions and preoccupations, as I ever want to have." The accounts of battle detailed here are written with a clear-headed sense, developed in hindsight, of how gruesome conflict continues to be, despite all the efforts to embrace irony, sarcasm, and the standard repertoire of 20-something coping mechanisms.

The self-awareness that comes with being entwined in the always-on social networking world serves Hennessey's cohorts in distancing themselves, while also heightening their meta-awareness of what is at stake. It speaks to the level of craft involved in the writing of this memoir that Hennessey balances the media saturation with a crystalline account of the base emotions called out.

Matthew Tiffany is a therapist and writer in Maine. He blogs at condalmo.wordpress.com.

  • THE JUNIOR OFFICERS' READING CLUB

    By: Patrick Hennessey.

    Publisher: Riverhead Books, 336 pages, $16.

    Review: An unflinching account of modern warfare, from the boredom and combat lust of training to the grim reality of front-line fighting.

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