I bring you one of Pen & Sword’s non-fiction books and one that I think many people will be interested in.
War Trials. Investigation of a Soldier and the Trauma of Iraq by Will Yates
War Trials tells the gripping and in-depth true story of a British soldier’s role in the drowning of an Iraqi teenager in May 2003, the devastating investigation and resulting court martial. This narrative non-fiction tracks the soldier’s life from tight-knit broken family home in Merseyside through deadly urban conflict in the Middle East, to a different battle fought against PTSD while he awaited a military tribunal back in the UK. The military court case in 2006 marked the first of its kind relating to the Iraq war and a case that opened the flood gates of multiple investigations and inquiries into the conduct of soldiers overseas.
Based upon rigorous new research, this book’s untold personal story explores the horrors of battle and the chaos of a post-war city and a young soldier’s struggle against depression, suicide attempts and deep sense of being let down by the army he sought to serve.
This soldier would eventually endure numerous investigations and face the threat of the International Criminal Court for war crimes but these are the shocking events that started it all. It is the compelling story of a contentious military campaign with little preparation for the disastrous fall out; the soldiers pushed to the limit who maintained a wall of a silence after doing the unthinkable; and a floating body of dead child who came to symbolise a generation lost to war.
About the author:
Will Yates is a freelance writer, documentary producer and investigative researcher for television, film and radio. He has spent more than 18 years producing factual programming for Channel 4, BBC, The National Geographic, The Travel Channel and The History Channel. His credits include researching the 2005 BAFTA-winning Channel 4 docu-drama, The Government Inspector, about the Iraq War and the suicide of British weapons inspector Dr David Kelly.
I thank the author, for providing me an ARC e-copy of this book, which I freely chose to review. I have read and reviewed many non-fiction books published by Pen & Sword, I am familiar with many of their titles and know of their interest in military history and related subjects.
As the description explains, this is a narrative that blends the facts about a specific case —the trial against guardsman Joe McCleary for the unlawful death of an Iraqi youth in 2003—, with a wider exploration of the circumstances of the War on Iraq, in particular, the UK involvement.
Joe, a young man from Bootle, near Liverpool, who never did too well in school (he suffered from dyslexia and never got much help) and saw joining the Irish Guard as his path to a worthy and useful life, gets sent to Iraq, sorely underprepared, he is overwhelmed by the aftermath of the confrontation and its effects on the local population and ends up on trial for a tragic incident, which seems the result of lack of planning and guidance at higher levels.
Yates does a great job of showing us what life was like for Joe before he joined the Irish Guard, his experience of the training (not always easy), and how different things are from the scenarios they were taught once they get there. The narrative alternates two timelines: one that follows chronologically from soon before the time Joe joins the Guards, and another one where we see what happened when he returned to the UK and was soon told that there would be an investigation into the death of Ahmed Kareem, a fifteen-year-old Iraqi boy found looting by the troops keeping the order in the streets, and who later ended up drowned. We get to re-live the episode, as Joe is tortured by flashbacks and dreams of the events he witnessed, tries to cope with what appears to be undiagnosed PTSD through the use of alcohol, and gets so desperate that he even attempts suicide more than once. His mother tries to get help from the military but fails repeatedly, and then, the investigation starts, and things get even more difficult.
The author does not provide a dispassionate and neutral account of events, far from it. He explains in the acknowledgements that he became interested in Iraq while he was researching a documentary about the Iraq War and the suicide of British weapons inspector Dr David Kelly, and the suggestion of a potential documentary about the investigations into British soldiers’ involvement in the Iraq War resulted in this book. He writes about his process of research and how he tried to obtain first-hand materials, interview all those involved, and how he accessed also transcripts from the trials (yes, because there were more than one, but you can read about that yourselves). But, it was his interaction with Joe McCleary and his interviews with him that made him decide to focus on him as the central figure, because he felt a connection and an affinity with him, and because his story was a memorable one, but, unfortunately, one of many. While the research shines through, it never becomes the dominant element, overwhelming the personal story of those involved.
The writing style is not the usual raw and factual many modern books on the topic tend to use. Some of the descriptions of places, and especially of emotions and feelings, are at times almost lyrical, and at others, so vivid readers feel as if they were there, sharing in the experiences of both, the locals and the troops. At times, it reminded me of Apocalypse Now, where horrific destruction alternates with episodes that seem almost surreal or out of place (training the troops for Iraq in German winter freezing locations; chasing after ghost-like radio communications and almost getting killed by one of his own mates; giving sweets to the local children; trying to adapt unsuitable protective equipment to their needs…). As the trial comes closer, the writing becomes more factual, but it still manages to convey the way the individuals involved felt, and how little support and attention they were offered by those they had tried their best to serve.
This is not an easy read, and there are many harrowing moments (both in Iraq and in the UK), but it is a necessary reminder to those in charge that decisions are not without consequences, that those who implement them are not just pawns in a strategic game, and that casualties affect all sides.
I wanted to share a couple of quotes, both from Joe McCleary’s point of view:
‘I was just living and breathing and wanting to die, every day… the trial itself, that was just like the war, that was like seven weeks of hell.’
‘But the lad from Bootle looks back on the years he gave to the army, gave to his country, gave to Iraq and he thinks we should never have gone out there, we shouldn’t have gone.’
I definitely recommend this book to those interested in the War on Iraq, and in particular, on its effect on the troops, and to those who want to learn in more detail what a war trial might entail (for those accused). It is a harrowing read at times, but as I’ve said on many occasions, there are things we should never forget and lessons to be learned.
I wanted to clarify that I read an e-copy of the book, but the author kindly sent me a separate PDF with the images, and those help understand the circumstances of what happened and provide an important document in its own right. I cannot make specific comments about the hardback, but I am in no doubt that it will provide an even better reading experience.
Thanks to the author and to the publisher for this book, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to comment, to share, to keep reading, and especially, to stay safe and to keep smiling.