Thursday, December 31

The Real Bravo Two Zero – Michael Asher

In January 1991 an SAS helicopter dropped an elite eight-man team into the Iraq desert. Laden with somewhere between eighty and a hundred kilos of pack each, unprepared for the frigid temperatures of the desert in winter, and with faulty communication equipment, the mission was an abject failure. Discovered by the enemy on the second day and split up in the ensuing confusion, three men died, four were taken captive, and one escaped into the relative safety of Syria. Two of the survivors, escapee ‘Chris Ryan’ and captive ‘Andy McNab,’ wrote memoirs of the mission and have since parlayed their fame into non-fiction and military adventure fiction writing careers. They lay blame, along with a third member of the Bravo Two Zero force, on a number of bodies, including intelligence and the SAS hierarchy. But blame is also laid, particularly by Ryan, on one of the dead platoon members, Sergeant Vince Phillips.
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?
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.
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:
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


Justin said...

I was looking for a review of this book I was with you until the words social scientist. Insisting on sociological briefing for covert operators in that situation is fairly nonsensical. They were never suppose to be discovered if the mission was to have any hope of success. No amount of smooth talking in Arabic is going to make 8 white guys with assault rifles an unremarkable phenomenon.

Alex Ward said...

Hi Justin - thanks for dropping by, and for commenting.
Perhaps "sociological briefing" was poorly chosen - I was pointing out that, in addition to having no idea about the nature of the environment (which meant the squad was woefully under-equipped and ill-prepared, particularly for the sub-zero nights), there seemed to be no briefing about the culture of the people they were encountering. There's no doubt, at least according to Asher's account, that this information gap had negative consequences for the soldiers, adn that some of their actions were taken because of perceptions shaped by propoganda and prejudice rather than fact.
This is certainly not to say that the enemy were little rays of happy sunshine, but at least being able to distinguish betweent he ideologies of the native farmers and the enemy soldiers would have made a difference. I have no pretensions that I have anything more than a superficial knowledge of the region, the conflict, the armed forces or the cultures involved, and I'm viewing this through the necessarily biased lens of my academic discipline, but Asher (who by all accounts is far better informed on all these points) mentions several times how this lack of information contributed to the tragic outcome. - Alex