Feet of endurance
The One That Got Away by Chris Ryan, Century $170 I DON'T know what has come over the Special Air Service. After decades of being taciturn to the point of paranoia, the regiment has become a hotbed of amateur authorship.
This is the second volume on the Bravo Two Zero mission, a highlight of the British contribution to the Gulf War. The preoccupation with this small patrol is in a great British tradition going back to the Charge of the Light Brigade: victories are not as interesting as a good military cock-up.
Bravo Two Zero was supposed to be strictly reconnaissance: the patrol would hide, observe and report. But it was dropped into an unsuitable landscape swarming with Iraqis, and equipped with the wrong radio frequencies so that it could not ask for help or evacuation.
Discovered within hours, the eight-man patrol set off to walk to Syria, an endeavour in which three men died. Ryan's escape is an epic of endurance. He walked through nearly 300 kilometres of hostile territory in seven nights, with no food and very little water. He lost 16kg in weight, and was lucky to keep his teeth. The experience, he comments, 'taught me a great deal about myself'.
Some of this lesson is rather skimped. Warfare will always intrigue young men suspecting that the harsh light of violence and danger will reveal parts of themselves they might otherwise never be aware of.
Ryan discovered not only a talent for long walks, but for killing. Two carloads of Iraqis pursue him across the desert: he ambushes them and kills the lot.
Two pedestrians stumble across his hiding place and the Scouting for Boys atmosphere is suddenly disrupted: 'As the first man came level with me I grabbed him, stuck him in the neck and ripped his throat out. He went down without a sound. When the second man saw me his eyes widened in horror and he began to run.
'But somehow, with a surge of adrenalin, I flew after him, jumped on him and brought him down with my legs locked round his hips. I got one arm round his neck in a judo hold and stretched his chin up. There was a crack and he died instantaneously.' In terms of unarmed combat this is quite an achievement. But it is not pretty. Perhaps we should not criticise. Soldiering is about killing the enemy, among other things, and those who take the profession seriously will aspire to be good at all aspects of it.
But Ryan says little about his feelings on this subject. Apparently he still has nightmares about the two pedestrians. Maybe this is enough.
Most of this book is factual and under-stated, much preoccupied with technical detail and accuracy. The story is told in a straightforward way, starting at the beginning and going on to the end, apart from a few flashbacks.
Yet it doesn't really come alive until Ryan is on his own, in the classic situation of the hunted fugitive, and this brings us to 100 or so compelling pages until he gets over the border.
There is some danger of this book falling between two stools. Those interested in the human dimension of a man on the edge will resent the technical and tactical details, while Special Forces groupies will wish for nothing else. But take it as a simple man telling a simple but spectacular story and it works well enough.