Airborne warriors left high and dry
Oaccess to the diaries they wrote while they were in the field. But there is no evidence that he spent time with them on the front line, or even visited the towns he is writing about. Ultimately he cannot hide that he is just as much a stranger to the action he describes as we are, and the result is a story slightly out of focus: a reproduction of a reproduction.
3 Para reads like a military situation report, complete with baffling acronyms, padded out with interviews and diaries: a book written for specialists and those who know the participants, more than for a general readership.
The focus is too tight to give a clear picture of what was happening in the overall war, and too loose for us to become emotionally involved with the characters he describes.
There are some extraordinary stories and compelling characters, but Bishop fails to make the most of them.
Corporal Bryan Budd won a posthumous Victoria Cross for charging, guns blazing, into a group of Taliban fighters in order to take some of the pressure off his unit, which had NCE upon a time, war reporting could be summed up as get in fast, get the story fast, get out fast. All too often today it is get in fast, get the story fast, get out fast, write a book fast.
The result has been a rash of writing in which a passing acquaintance with the situation on the ground and a bit of secondary research has been ruthlessly leveraged into topical books that appear in stores in time for the Christmas or Father’s Day rush.
Patrick Bishop’s 3 Para falls into this category. A reporter for London’s The Daily Telegraph, he paid a brief visit to the south of Afghanistan in mid- 2006, just as the third battalion of the Parachute Regiment was leaving after a six- month deployment in the dusty towns and villages of Helmand province.
Since then, he has spoken at length to the members of 3 Para, and in many cases had unexpectedly come under attack. It could be a defining moment for the book, but we are first introduced to him 10 pages before he dies, and he disappears from the narrative two pages after the action.
The book is centred on a series of bases that the paratroopers were defending as part of the broader campaign to provide centres of security that would then, in theory, expand out into the countryside. In reality they became sitting targets for Afghan attacks.
This is the scrappy ad hoc fact of the socalled war on terror. Without a clearly defined enemy, there can be no clearly defined victory, and one of the points that Bishop makes is that for the soldiers pinned down in their bunkers, there seems to be no way of measuring progress and no end in sight. But Bishop does not make use of his prerogative as author to clarify the fog of war and to place actions within their political and social context.
There is little discussion of the troubling moral dimension of the intervention in Afghanistan. Although it started out much more morally clear- cut than the Iraq conflict — Afghanistan was, after all, where Osama bin Laden plotted the 9/ 11 attacks — it has metamorphosed into something much more ambiguous.
Part of the problem in 3 Para is the onedimensional portrayal of Afghans. There is a residual recognition of the Taliban’s bravery and willingness to attack better equipped and defended allied troops, but they are shadowy figures. The Afghan allies are portrayed as conniving and untrustworthy, bit players in the tragedy of their own country. Yet throughout the book Bishop talks about intelligence tipoffs, implying that there must have been Afghans doing effective work on behalf of the coalition troops.
Since the time of Alexander the Great, Afghanistan has been playing the role of nemesis to the hubris of imperial ambition, and it has thrown up some of the great tales of bravery: William Brydon staggering into Jalalabad with a broken sword and fatally wounded horse, almost the last survivor of a convoy of 16,000 that had set out from Kabul a week earlier; the Afghan hero Malalai using her veil as a battle standard to encourage the Afghan forces to defeat the British at Maiwand in 1880; the mujaheddin using 150- year old rifles to try to shoot down Soviet helicopter gunships.
Bishop’s book, despite the bravery of the men on the ground, is unlikely to be the vehicle that will elevate 3 Para into those ranks. Tim Johnston has reported extensively from Central and Southeast Asia.
In search of an elusive victory: British Chinook helicopter returning to Bagram
Making a meal of it: British troops relax