An engrossing, lyrical look at the life of a British officer during two tours of duty in Northern Ireland during the 1970s, Contact by AFN Clarke (@AFNClarke) reminded me in many ways of two of my all-time favorite books, one fiction and one non-fiction but both centered on Vietnam: Michael Herr’s classic Dispatches and Fields of Fire by James Webb.
As a platoon leader in the elite Paratroop Regiment — the Paras — Clarke served in Belfast in 1973 and South Armagh, close on the border with the Republic of Ireland, in 1976. The operational environment of each posting was very different — one urban, crowded with warring factions who agreed on little but a hatred of the Paras; the other, seemingly bucolic farmland masking nearly unlimited routes of infiltration and escape for the enemy — but the fear of sudden death or maiming injury by explosion or bullet were very much the same.
Writing with fluid and light prose, Clarke sweeps the reader up into the day-to-day life of a British soldier in Northern Ireland: “The incompetence of the commanders; the insanity of our orders, and the surrealism of being an occupation Army on home soil.” You won’t find any pronouncements about which side is right or wrong but there is plenty of fear, sweat and some tears, frustration, mind-numbing boredom and a few laughs.
Be warned: if you haven’t served in a military unit, some of the humor may escape you. Don’t let that be an excuse not to read Contact, just know it in advance. There is something unusual forged in the furnace that is the military, something that often doesn’t translate well to those who haven’t shared the experience.
Another thing: to someone in the year 2013 the conduct of Mr. Clarke and his soldiers may appear unduly harsh, brutal even. To be sure, both sides of the conflict are treated the same, but there is undeniably a tendency to freely use the baton. Know the context. One step outside the cobbled-together fortifications of their too-small bases, Clarke and his men were targets for attack by any number of enemies and in any number of ways including car and pipe bombs, landmines, snipers, ambushes, and mortars. The little old lady from either side of the conflict bringing you tea and cakes will also pump you for information that could be used to kill you later.
The author does an excellent job of describing how this environment influenced his decisions, which in most cases was to fall back on his training. With the benefit of our experience in Iraq, US military training today includes Counter-Insurgency Operations (COIN) but in the Cold War-era things were different. Elite combat forces like the Paras were trained to attack the enemy, violently and with the intent to destroy, to seize the initiative and in doing so to keep the enemy off balance. Fine and proven to succeed on the battlefield, but in a murky sectarian conflict like Northern Ireland such tactics frequently ran counter to political calls for “reconciliation.” Remember the context.
This edition restores passages of the book that the previous publisher wanted removed from the author’s initial manuscript. These passages dealt with Mr. Clarke’s severe medical issues, which first appear near the end of his South Armagh posting. Clarke nearly died as a result of the inaction and incompetence of British military medical personnel; a situation too many military personnel will relate to. I suppose the earlier publisher wanted to keep the focus on Northern Ireland, but the author’s illness and eventual recovery was just as compelling to this reader.
One final note: there were several instances of typo or format errors in my copy, perhaps as a result of the eBook conversion by the new publisher or after rewrites in preparation for the new edition. These may have been fixed later. I normally wouldn’t mention this in a review but I know some take exception and therefore allow typos or grammatical issues to influence their experience. I strongly urge readers to ignore any such issues and focus instead on the narrative. Don’t lose out on a great story, and this is a great story.
For more on AFN Clarke and his writing, including new military/spy thriller series of novels, visit his website.