One of the nicest, gentlest fellows I’ve ever met is a man named Mike Dauncey. He’s so terribly polite that he can’t bring himself to swear even in extremis and if you had to guess what he did before he retired, you’d probably say ‘country parson’. In fact, though, Brigadier Mike Dauncey DSO is a bona fide war hero, known as the ‘sixth Arnhem VC’. Only five were in fact awarded at the battle. Mike was put up for the sixth, only to have the letters ‘VC’ crossed out on his citation and amended to ‘DSO’ by one BLM (that’ll be Bernard Law Montgomery) who felt that, heroism or no heroism, five VCs were quite enough for one debacle.
When you learn what Mike did as a young lieutenant, though, you’re left in little doubt he deserved better. Frustrated by the lack of action in his war so far, he had retrained as a glider pilot. Operation Market Garden was his first taste of combat and he took to it rather well. On landing, he was sent (as many glider pilots were) to defend the guns at Oosterbeek and on three occasions he prevented his position being overrun by superior forces of tanks and infantry, often by leading near suicidal counterattacks.
Grazed across the scalp with a sniper’s bullet, then caught in the eye by a shell splinter — which a comrade agonisingly but unsuccessfully tried to extract with a matchstick — Lt Dauncey went on single-handedly to disable a self-propelled gun with a gammon grenade. After that he was hit in the leg by a bullet, had his jaw broken by a stick grenade and was captured by the Germans. And still he managed to escape from his POW camp and make a home run to Blighty where his beloved Marjorie awaited him.
For all that, though, I can see Monty’s point. Yes, taken out of context Mike’s heroics do seem pretty exemplary. But the more you study Operation Market Garden in detail — as I did for my book Coward at the Bridge — the more you begin to realise that far from being exceptional, deeds like Mike’s were almost the norm. Time and again, the men of the doomed 1st Airborne Division cheerfully sacrificed their lives to give their comrades a slim chance of survival. The hardened SS troopers (many who’d experienced the hell of the Eastern Front) rated the paratroopers at the Bridge as the toughest opposition they’d faced. With Kohima and Imphal, the battle for Arnhem was surely the British army’s finest hour in the second world war. And this isn’t to denigrate the achievements of the men who fought at El Alamein or D-Day or Monte Cassino. It’s merely to point out what most of us know in our hearts to be true: that nothing stiffens the sinews or summons up the blood quite so readily as the hideous defensive battle in which we come within a hair’s breadth of losing.
Or which, in the case of Arnhem and the Battle of the Imjin River, we lose altogether. I’ve been reading about the latter in To the Last Round, Andrew Salmon’s superb account of the 1951 Korean war battle when China’s entire 63rd army launched itself at a British infantry brigade. The British soldiers (together with a very brave Belgian battalion) were outnumbered seven to one. A fair few were National Service conscripts caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, for no one had expected an attack in such force on this deceptively tranquil, beautiful front. Yet they fought to the last with reckless courage. Not just the legendary ‘Glorious Glosters’, whose battalion was annihilated, but also less well-remembered participants like the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, the Royal Ulster Rifles (including P.J. Kavanagh, occasionally of this parish) and the 8th Kings Royal Irish Hussars.
Here’s Z Company of the Fusiliers: ‘The major was hit again and again — in the head, the arm, the backside — but continued fighting. “Christ I’ve been hit in the arse!” a Fusilier yelled. “I’ve got one in the arse too,” Winn roared back. “Keep cracking!” The “big man”, Crooks, standing without cover on the ridge, firing a Bren from the hip, was shot through the chest. He somersaulted off the ridge and into a tree; another Fusilier killed the sniper. Crooks was patched up and resumed firing from a prone position…’.
This is war porn at its finest, all the more delicious for being totally true. I don’t believe there’s a man alive who can read this sort of stuff without wishing he’d been there — and then come out in one piece. It’s the ‘come out in one piece’ part, of course, which rather scuppers that fantasy. But oh to have been there and done that. You could climb Mt Everest, write a book that sold a million, shag your favourite supermodel, become prime minister, and still it wouldn’t even come close to having fought and survived an action like that.
Of course, one generally gets frowned on for saying such things, because, as we know, war is hell and nothing good ever comes of it. This is what’s so wonderfully refreshing about Sebastian Junger’s compulsive new book War. Unlike me, Junger has ‘seen the elephant’. His book — about war, in case the title left you wondering — is the result of five trips to perhaps the most dangerous spot in the entire Afghanistan war, the Korengal Valley, where he risked his life at a remote forward operating base with the men of Battle Company of the Rock Battalion of 173rd Airborne brigade.
His conclusion? That the high you get from intense combat is like nothing else on earth. ‘Combat is such an adrenaline rush,’ one soldier confides to him. ‘People back home think we drink because of the bad stuff, but that’s not true… we drink because we miss the good stuff.’
So far, so obvious. But where it gets really interesting is when Junger analyses what it is that men of his platoon secretly most desire. What they crave, he reckons, is not an encounter where they trash the opposition and slaughter them in droves, but rather one such as has happened at two US outposts in Afghanistan — Ranch House and Combat Outpost Kahler — where the position is overrun by a merciless enemy attacking in overwhelming force and they have to fight to the death.
And the reason for this is not that they like their fighting to be as violent as possible (though they do, of course, like that too: any opportunity to go ‘cyclic’ on their SAWs) — but because it affords them the chance of making the ultimate sacrifice for buddies who, they’re fully aware, would do the same for them. As Ian McEwan wrote after 9/11, adapting Philip Larkin: ‘What survives of us is love.’ What Junger shows is that it’s as true in the heat of combat as it is in peace. Men fight, not for their country or for their cause (of which they often know precious little), but for their mates.
‘The defence of the tribe is an insanely compelling idea and once you’ve been exposed to it there’s almost nothing else you’d rather do,’ says Junger. Not since his first world war namesake Ernst, I think, has any writer got closer to the dark, terrible but strangely touching secret of why it is that men so love war.