When former SAS member turned author Asher read the accounts, something didn’t quite ring true. The versions differed in significant detail, and some of the aspects, particularly about the local people, didn’t cohere with Asher’s experiences as a volunteer teacher in the Sudan or his consequent time living with a Bedouin tribe. So, with the blessing of Sergeant Phillips’s family, and with a BBC film-crew in tow, he set off to retrace the team’s journey, almost ten years later.
I knew very little about the initial mission and sequela, though I’d heard of both McNab and Ryan as writers of military fiction (the former particularly for a YA audience) and had some vague awareness of military backgrounds, the SAS and heroism. The rapid immersion into the events was a little overwhelming but generally compelling, and I felt Asher was even-handed though with sympathies inclined toward Phillips from the outset – justifiably, as it turns out. He explores the possibility that his findings, from interviews with key Iraqi figures to the geography, may be untrue, falsified or manipulated by the Iraqi government (his research was conducted pre-September 11), and he given strong reasons in support of believing these versions over the textual ones.
That the men displayed feats of heroism and amazing endurance is never questioned, but many of the significant details are strongly called into question. As Asher concludes,
Their true heroism is only marred… by the dubious nature of much of what they have subsequently written. So why was the basic story not enough?I was interested in how strongly shaped the mission was by lack of understanding of what they were headed for, and of the essential nature of the majority of people they would encounter – Bedouin rather than Iraqi. As a social scientist I was fascinated by the idea of conducting this kind of operation without any sociological briefing, or with even one member of the party being able to speak any of the languages of the region. The SAS members’ attitude was heavily influenced by the kind of propaganda common in war, of the enemy as inhumane and brutish, and this is mirrored in the authors’ accounts of events. Asher compares the captured men’s treatment with that meted out by the Gestapo and by the Korean army during those wars, ending this section with:
The blame must lie not with McNab and Ryan, but with us, the reading public, who demand of our heroes not only endurance, but the esolution of all problems by force.
it has to be said, in all fairness, and without excusing them in any sense for their brutality, that in retrospect the SAS might have done far worse than to fall into Iraqi hands. If it had been the Provisional IRA into whose clutches they had fallen, it is most unlikely they would have survived.The comparisons between McNab and Ryan’s texts reminded me at times of theological comparisons of the Gospels, particularly John Shelby Spong's marvellous but somewhat inaccessible work surrounding the Crucifixion and Resurrection, which was unexpected. This is not intended to any way minimise the courage of the soldiers nor the strength, courage and endurance they demonstrated, but I found The Real Brave Two Zero all in all an interesting and well-written investigative piece into an event that has been mythologised in British military lore, and am interested in reading the two original versions of events.- Alex