An interview with Patrick Hennessey, whose The Junior Officers’ Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars will be published by Riverhead Books.
How would you categorize your book, and what's the connection between "junior officers" and "reading club"?
Patrick Hennessey: I don’t think the book falls obviously into one ‘category’ or another, which I hope is a good thing. It’s obviously a memoir and nonfiction and is about my time in the Army—both training and on operations in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, so on one level it’s straight ‘military memoir’, but I was keen to write something a bit different from the usual things one sees in the bookstores, invariably ghost-written with big explosions on the front. I wanted to write something more literate and more literary, which would appeal to people with a broader interest than in just the military—which I think is where the connection between ‘junior officers’ and ‘reading club’ comes from. On the one hand it’s the story of young soldiers and the fighting they inevitably do, on the other hand they are minded to set up a reading club, perhaps a counterintuitive way of coping and symbolic of a new and slightly different generation going to war for the first time.
Who do you see as the book's audience, and what would you like them to take away from the book?
I really don’t think the book has one specific audience. One of the things I loved about Jarhead was that it seemed to be read and equally enjoyed by serving Marines on base and by students on campus at NYU who’d never get nearer the military than watching Black Hawk Down. I see the book’s audience as anyone who enjoys reading and appreciates (hopefully) good writing. On one level the book is obviously about the wars of the past decade and life as a soldier, but on another it’s a classic bildungsroman, the oldest story of all which just happens to take place in uniform. I’d love to think it appeals equally to military enthusiasts looking for another book about Afghanistan and book club members who’ve never bought a book about war before.
What impelled you to write about your military experiences?
While I was in the Army I wrote e-mails to friends to stay in touch and once I was out on operations these became a very important way of processing what was going on. I hadn’t considered writing about my experiences more fully until someone who had read a couple of articles I had written and seen a couple of the e-mails said they had explained to him what the Army actually does more clearly than anything else he had read. I used to get very frustrated by the gap that sometimes existed between my civilian friends and the military world I lived in—how little the latter understood of the former—so was attracted to the idea of writing a book that non-military types would read, hopefully enjoy ,and thereby understand a little more about life as a soldier.
What was life as a young enlistee like for you, particularly during your time in Afghanistan?
The interesting thing for me, and even moreso for young soldiers joining the Army today, is how quickly they are thrust into combat and placed in positions of huge responsibility. Training is probably better than it has ever been, but the days of soldiers spending 10, even 20 years without firing their rifles are a thing of the past, and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are so complex that the decision made by young soldiers can be the difference not just between life and death for them and their squad but between the success or failure of an entire operation. I found myself dealing with villagers in local shurahs, trying to arbitrate tribal disputes, lobby for improvement schemes, and act as a conduit between local and international forces—all on top of the day-to-day soldiering. It’s a lot to take in but hugely rewarding and exhilarating and it was a side of what me and my friends were doing that wasn’t so often on the news, which was why I wanted to show it in the book.
You've said that books played a significant role in your time in the military. Why was reading so important to you, and is it still?
I hope books will always be important to me. I grew up surrounded by books in a home that treasured reading and good writing; both my grandfathers were writers and my sisters and I were encouraged to read as much and as widely as we could so I’ve always valued literature and loved studying it at university. In the Army I learned the value of reading as an escape, of books as a link home and of finding a personal space in a few chapters of some battered paperback out in the desert. There is something immersive about reading which can be very therapeutic, especially at times when I found myself otherwise under pressure, in unfamiliar and challenging situations—a few chapters of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland makes even Helmand feel better.