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The author lived in Sudan for quite a few years (in fact I believe I met him in passing some 30 years ago in the Sudan Club in Khartoum), speaks Sudanese Arabic, has a background in the UK military, and a tendency to go on long camel treks across deserts.
That one's been on and off my wishlist. Please say what you thought of it when you're through again!
I got carried away with Asher's The Real Bravo Two Zero and finished reading that before the much longer Khartoum book.
The title refers to an SAS patrol behind Iraqi lines during the first Gulf War (1991). The mission failed and three soldiers were killed, four taken prisoner and one succeeded in evading capture and walking to safety. Two former members of the patrol subsequently wrote best-selling books which dramatised the events, and laid much of the blame for the failure on one of the dead solders, a sergeant. Subsequently doubts started to emerge regarding some of the claims in these two books by other former members of the patrol, and through comparison to the official debriefing once the prisoners returned to UK. Several years later Asher, himself former SAS and a noted desert explorer who is fluent in Arabic, was asked by a TV channel to lead an expedition in the footsteps of the patrol. This he did literally, on foot, using his desert experience and his knowledge of Arabic and the Arab culture. He refused to allow his Iraqi government minders to divert him, and doggedly followed his own path in investigating this "historical mystery", to use his own words.
It's a very readable book, and is a bit of a cross between the journal of an old-style explorer and a modern detective story. He painstakingly traces eye-witnesses to the incident which, while of no strategic importance to the war, was a big thing for the local people in that area and so many of them are able to give him clues. He is convinced that he was not the victim of some elaborate Iraqi government conspiracy, in part because it was actually a small victory for the government so why should they hide it, and also because he meets some of the key people purely by chance at a time when his minders were trying to point him elsewhere. He manages to locate almost all the key places - landing zone, lying-up positions, the routes they took, the place where the body of the dead sergeant was found (where Asher and the local community built a cairn in his memory, as he had promised the sergeant's family he would), the place where they hijacked a taxi (and the actual taxi itself and one of its occupants), the check point where they came to grief, and the place by the Euphrates River where they were finally killed or captured. He spoke to people who saw them, hunted them, shot at them, met them and arrested them. Much of what he learns directly contradicts or at least casts doubts on some of what is written in the two best-selling books, and this feeling is strengthened by his own personal knowledge of SAS practice and standard operational procedures, as well as a later interview he had with the former SAS Regimental Sergeant Major. While praising the courage and endurance of all the members of the patrol, Asher's research casts doubt on many of the details in the earlier books, and in particular exonerates the dead sergeant from the charge of compromising the patrol.
Asher's respect for the Arab culture comes through strongly, and much is made of the honesty and hospitality of the ordinary people. He mocks the description of them as "ignorant ragheads" in the earlier books. Two simple shepherds who tracked them for a while turned out to be retired Iraqi special forces who had between them more special forces combat experience (from the Iran-Iraq war) than the entire SAS patrol put together. Others whom he met turned out to be intelligent, cultured and sophisticated people. He highlights the fact that none of the SAS patrol could speak Arabic. If they had been able to do so, they would have realised that some of the local people had no emnity towards them and were only trying to ascertain that these armed strangers were no threat to their flocks. If they had been able to respond appropriately, local Arab hospitality which transcends the artificial concept of nation states would probably have helped them to survive (indeed one shepherd who they didn't shoot at later in their trek gave them food and water). Asher also spoke to policemen, medics and civilians who were there in the early stages of their capture. While it seems they definitely were tortured at a later stage in their captivity, he is convinced that in the early stages, before they were handed over to central authorities, they were well and correctly treated.
All in all, a very interesting book which presents a different feel from many of the books written by westerners about wars in the Middle East.
Now back to Khartoum...
Just finished Asher's Khartoum book. I found it very readable, a good narrative style, pretty good on detail, good maps. A very competent account of the entire campaign from Sheikan to Omdurman, with some interesting background.
Asher does a good job of presenting both sides fairly sympathetically (and, when needed, fairly caustically). His own knowledge, experience and understanding of Sudan, its peoples, its geography, its deserts, the Arabic language, the Nile, stands him in good stead. For example, he goes into far more detail about the cultural background of groups such as the Baggara and Beja than most writers do, and this sheds light on their behaviour in battle. He rejects the catch-all phrase "religious fanatics", and examines the multiple reasons why people joined the Mahdist movement (some as simple as self-preservation or profit) and the non-religious reasons why certain groups were fanatical warriors. On this re-reading of the book I gained more insights from him into the British military tactics of the time. Apparently the greatest compliment you could give a British regiment was that they were "steady".
I was interested by his argument that in the camel-mounted troops who spearheaded the march across the Bayuda Desert from Korti to Metemma, "the special forces concept had been born. It would be another thirty-two years before T.E. Lawrence developed modern guerrilla warfare, and another sixty before the special forces idea would come into its own" (p 169).
Thanks. That makes it sound more reflective (less "popular" in the negative sense) than the subtitle and some reviews have made me fear. I'll be adding it back to the wishlist.
I suppose it's "popular" in the sense that it is an easy read, but I wouldn't say it is dumbed down.
Readable would be popular in the positive sense :) What you say about cultural background and motivations is precisely the sort of stuff I feared might be left out in the pursuit of telling a good story. One review I saw (not on LT, unless it's been removed) said it "read like a novel", which always makes me wary when said about a history book.