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November 07, 2007

Read this remarkably frank account of life as a naval helicopter pilot in Iraq if you want to learn more about modern warfare - but if you want the book to surprise you skip the back cover blurb, says Richard D. North: Armed Action - James Newton

Posted by Richard D. North

Armed Action
by James Newton
London: Headline Review, 2007
Hardback, £18.99; Paperback, £6.99

This is a wonderfully gripping war story, and quite a bit more too. It has the vim of those 64-page comic books one had in the Fifties. It catches you up from its first page, as its author, the pilot of a missile-toting Royal Navy helicopter, ducks and weaves over the Iraqi desert, under fire, in the early days of the second Gulf war in 2003. He has all the immediate, Alpha simplicity of a Frederick Forsyth character out of the latter's Afghan.

After our white knuckle ride of Chapter One, we sweep away and back in time, to the long sea voyage which brought HMS Ocean and 847 Squadron's six Lynx and six Gazelle helicopters (and two other helicopter squadrons, along with several hundred members of 40 Commando) from Plymouth to the theatre. We are made familiar with the tedium mixed with the fear and excitement of imminent action. We know the clichés, but they seem fresh in this telling. Newton knew many of his people had been through plenty of hazard in the last century's asymmetrical wars. But this was the real thing, with tanks and everything. "Were we ready - combat ready?", he asked himself.

The author takes us into the heart of the electronics of modern warfare. This isn't Nintendo war: we get the feeling Newton is almost disdainful of the "fast jet" boys, tens of thousands of feet above him. They are remote from the carnage they cause. A helicopter pilot, by contrast, has a bird's eye view of the damage he does and of who's threatening him. A rifle can do him in. Newton is very good as he portrays the multi-tasking required of helicopter pilots: monitoring radio frequencies, flying the improbable machine, fixing positions, worrying about the Americans.

Worrying about the Americans is a bit of a theme. The author seems to have pretty much the full set of British prejudices. The Americans are noisy and don't care too much about the loose targeting which begets collateral damage. (Actually, Her Majesty's TOW missiles, at £30,000 a pop, are sufficiently erratic to seem worrisome too.) Blue on blue is an ever-present threat when the yanks are around. On the ground, US Marines leave turds everywhere around their camp and the thought is that they may know the next users will be their British counterparts.

The author is very scathing about the US special forces and their posing. (Actually, it's a bit disquieting to see how the British military themselves have taken to wearing hideous tinted eye wear.) After the first Gulf war (when it was all as safe as houses) I saw and felt the same thing myself as Delta Force or whatever hurtled about in swankily dishevelled jeeps and its Action Men lorded it with AK 47s over a shoulder. The British forces I was with knew that a wry scarf or an ironic wristband was statement enough.

Our author notes that the Americans had nicknames like Lightning, Tomcat, Wolf, or Jaws, whilst ours (Cindy, Slaps, Lush, and Hyena) were quite a bit more modest. Still, quite soon, understatement may not be the fashion statement of choice for any military.

There are masses of things I didn't know until I bought this book. One of them was that our ground forces often have their backs covered by fighting and spotter helicopters which are flown by Marine pilots. I couldn't help feeling (absurdly of course) that giving a Marine a helicopter was like getting a gorilla to change a plug. Our author is a wimpy fellow compared to the 20 stone gorillas, his Marine colleagues. It emerges that the beefy heroes can't be stereotyped. They are, for sure, intensely physical, bench pressing their own weight for hours on end. But some of them are nerdy, some are hippy and plenty are clever.

Newton delights in the toughness which all front line Navy helicopter pilots must show. They are put through a training exercise which requires them to show the kind of resilience which one associates with special forces. It is assumed that they may be downed behind enemy lines and have to live rough in hostile territory for days or weeks. Our man says that this was the most gruelling experience of his life.

And yet he had perhaps the ideal background for the job. He was a country boy and was used to grubbing about in the wild. Indeed, one wonders if there isn't a Sloane luring. Peter York and his co-author say in their new work on the upper classes that outside of the smarter Army regiments, being a Navy helicopter pilot is sufficiently exciting to be cool. Indeed, no other branch of the Navy will do (and of course the RAF is impossible). As though to throw us off the scent of his own social background, he talks about the posh people in the Queen's Dragoon Guards with some awe.

This book makes no claims to intellectual insight or rigour. At one point Newton seems to imply that early on in the war, he shared the general assumption that the Iraqi's would be grateful for their freedom and pretty orderly about life afterward. A paragraph or two later he says it was always obvious that the force being sent was too small to be much of a bridge towards peacefulness after the war. But there is no discussion as to whether he feels he was fooling himself all along. Instead, he states simply that his job was to do his job well. And that is surely an entirely respectable position.

But this book is very far from stupid. Newton is not remotely self-absorbed, still less self-indulgent, but he lets us know how fear, adrenaline, tiredness and stress all mingle with aggression and sympathy for the enemy. And he is sharp about the executive decisions which have to be made by someone of his rank. He has to pick who flies with whom in each helicopter, and is in charge of some of the tasking of the machines. Anyone more senior would not have been flying in the front line and anyone more junior could not have given us the disinterested over-view.

I am inclined to think that there is very remarkable frankness at work. Newton talks about the emotional difficulty of phoning home during long tours of duty (neither side really being very interested in the other's separated life). He describes the difficulties of others as frankly as his own. He talks about Ministry of Defence pettiness. Surely this is pretty good going in a man who is still a serving officer?

A last word: if you decide to buy this book, try to not read the back cover. This is nicely-paced book, with surprises along the way. Except that the blurb-writer blows it.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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