25 May 2003
The tip-off came from a Fleet Street contact that Saturday evening: something serious was brewing in the media, something ‘pretty big’. I’d been under the cosh for the last week after being accused of war crimes, so I wondered how much bigger it could get.
So, do I admit at the start or the end of this review that I was anti the Iraq war? Does that political inclination mean that my opinion of this book is biased? I’m not sure, I do however know that this book did not get off to a good start with me, as the dedication is “to the soldiers of Ireland who left their native land to fight for the Crown so that small nations might be free.” That grates. It is meant with the best of intentions, or at least I suppose so, and I’m guessing he is talking about in modern times, but it still grates. After all, Ireland is one of those small nations that had to fight against the Crown so that she might be free.
I should also point out that I’m actually quite pro-soldiers in general. I’m not optimistic enough to believe that the world can get along without wars, and so soldiers will be needed. And those who volunteer to serve their country in such a manner are to be applauded.
The book starts off in Sierra Leone, when Collins learns that terrorists there have kidnapped some British soldiers. Soldiers that belong to the Royal Irish Regiment, that just happens to be the regiment he is to take command of. And once the situation in Sierra Leone is dealt with Collins and the 1 R Irish get to know each other, before they are deployed in Northern Ireland. This is in 2001, with the peace process in full swing, but it was also the time of increased tension and violence over Orange marches, and then there was the trouble at Holy Cross school. What I found particularly interesting about this section is the tradition of serving in some families. And the fact that the soldiers who join the army come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some from Northern Ireland’s protestant community, others from the catholic, and others from the Republic, as well as a smattering from further flung places such as Fiji.
Most of the book is made up of Collins’ time in Iraq. The invasion, the “nation-building”, and the aftermath. Collins does an excellent job of telling the story, his anecdotes are entertaining, and he comes across as a decent guy, trying to do the right thing very difficult situations. Okay, on one or two occasions I did feel a little “typical macho soldier type” but overall he seems like the type of person you really do want in your army.
I had heard about his famous pre-battle speech, but I paid no attention whatsoever to the accusations that he had committed war crimes. So it made for fascinating interest, not only to see how he reacted on an individual, human, level, but also to see how the higher ranks reacted, and Collins’ growing disillusionment with army life. He has since retired from the military and at the end of the book was working as a journalist, but for the Mail on Sunday?