A thunderously good read

Richard O’Sullivan reviews SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand:

richard-osullivan

“Chris Green’s eminently readable book ‘Spin Zhira’ covers a three year period – from the time in 2010 when he decides to join the Territorial Army (TA) and is then deployed to the war zone of Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan. After nine months away, Chris would return home to an unconditionally loving welcome from his two young sons but also to a homecoming where the impact of high level political ambiguity towards the military mission in the region continued to permeate public discourse. The story is a real page turner.

It is a personal study of the circumstances of events that would lead Chris to give up a very fruitful business career to re-join the British Army and then succeed in his objective of being posted to active military operations, albeit in a deeply alien environment. In describing his experiences in Helmand, Chris paints a succession of brilliantly illustrative pen pictures of his comrades and some of the shadowy figures within parts of both the British and American military establishment as well as Afghan domestic politics. Throughout the story, there is an overarching illuminating critique of perceived and publicly stated military strategy, also highlighting the sometimes inadequate and misplaced focus within ongoing operational activity. In its final section, the book turns into a “thriller”, as Chris describes his experiences of being out on patrol in village areas, an infantry man in the raw. These gripping accounts are all observed with the sharply expressed view of an experienced Army Officer, laced with a deeply dry sense of humour.

In its first part, the story follows a period of self-reflection as Chris decides to change career path. Following a stint of Regular Army Service during the 1990s when he took part in both the Gulf War and operations in Bosnia, Chris had carved out a successful career in the corporate world with all the associated material trappings and formed part of a model family of four. On the face of it, a picture book perfect tapestry of domestic bliss but Chris highlights how he is starting to feel unsettled. Despite appearances, his marriage is crumbling and, here, there are some moving accounts of the travails of family life.

Clearly a very capable officer, Chris is warmly welcomed back into Army service, as he re-enlists with the London Regiment and is then posted to the London Irish Rifles. He soon presses to join a select group that is due to be deployed in early 2012 on Operation Herrick. Understandably, he encounters a healthy amount of scepticism from all ranks on account of his experienced demeanour and also faces additional questions, mostly from himself, with respect to the motivation for a wish to return to active military service. Perhaps Colonel Kurtz re-joining the US Special Forces when in his late 30s wasn’t necessarily the role model here, but it is a cautionary tale nonetheless!

The story continues by tracing the spectrum of evolving thought as Chris enters a period of intensive training in the UK and proves himself an adept match for men 20 years his junior. As with many other challenges, Chris overcomes these gate keeping barriers with flying colours and gains instant renewed respect from colleagues – he is booked on the plane to Afghanistan, where he is attached to the Grenadier Guards.

The middle section of the book describes Chris’s entry into the Afghan theatre of Army operations and some of the relatively straightforward tasks that he is initially assigned to undertake. From these experiences, there is the first inkling of personal doubt about the underlying probity of the military mission. He faces internal communication issues and also problems in managing the outreach of public relations that is expected to be maintained with the local community. It seems that “winning over hearts and minds” is a most convenient turn of phrase and is constantly expressed in press releases but does not signify that there is anywhere near enough practical support for local leaders and their wide ranging constituency.

The last part of the book covers Chris’s final period in Helmand. Not content with a comfortable headquarters role, he asks to be transferred to take part in operations from a front line base. There is a breathless and breath-taking account of patrolling in the face of a largely invisible enemy and the daily struggles of the Afghan people are also described vividly. The life and death experiences of men caught up in the middle of an unusually asymmetrical military campaign is outlined with appropriate emotional energy – the potential for loss of life or limb from ‘Improvised Explosive Devices’ and the risk of extraordinary “blue on blue” conflict ever present.

In summary, ‘Spin Zhira’ is a thunderously good read, deeply personal but also a coruscating indictment of current and previous UK governments’ approach to military operations in Afghanistan. Chris Green has been able to set down an evocatively described narrative, transporting the reader into close proximity to some very unfriendly neighbours. All in all, a most dramatic story, which especially highlights the basic humanity of good men facing undeserved mortal danger.”

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.

‘The best book by a soldier concerning the Afghan War that I have read’
Frank Ledwidge, bestselling author of Losing Small Wars and Investment in Blood

‘SPIN ZHIRA vividly conveys the disjointed essence of modern warfare and the impossibility of balancing the adrenaline of combat with ‘normal’ life. This book brims with authenticity and dark humour.’
Patrick Hennessey, bestselling author of The Junior Officers’ Reading Club and Kandak

‘If you want to read about political and military success in Afghanistan, this book isn’t for you. If you want a fresh perspective from someone who is not a career officer and who is brave enough to bare his soul, then SPIN ZHIRA is a must read.’
Lt Col Richard Dorney, bestselling author of The Killing Zoneand An Active Service

‘Five stars’
SOLDIER The official magazine of the British Army

‘A journey of love, service and adventure. Excellent.’
Amazon Customer

Ten reasons why you should read SPIN ZHIRA.

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