You always have to be careful with military memoirs, especially the multitude that are coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan. You have to learn to pick out the ghost written, the biased, and the useless. These books are supposed to be teaching us something about the nature of modern warfare. You have to be sure it’s not bullcrap.
I’m happy to say that Eight Lives Down passes muster, despite some glaring flaws. It’s the story of a British Army Bomb disposal expert, and his 2004 tour in Basra. The title refers to the claim that bomb disposal teams (Ammunition Technical Officers or ATO), like cats, have nine lives. The author, Captain Chris Hunter, had served in Northern Ireland and Columbia so he’s used up a few.
Hunter describes the life and emotions of an ATO with great skill, from the opening prologue combating FARC bombs in South America to dealing with sniper trap “come on” devices in Iraqi slum districts. No ghost writers here: it’s too good to be. Hunter takes us methodically through the thought process, fears and challenges facing an ATO from the variety of devices, secondary bombs, the issue of heat, and the restrictions placed upon the teams by COIN orientated ROE. Some great passages deal with that last issue, most notably the author’s assertion that one mission was observed by members of Iranian intelligence.
Hunter gives us a fascinating bird’s eye view of life in Basra, from the Army Base, to the slums, to the rooftops. He’s a sympathetic enough narrator: up and down, happy, frustrated. It’s a believable tale, whether it’s Hunter lamenting the lack of Northern Ireland veterans in Iraq or dealing with boredom in between bomb disposals.
Tale being the operative world as Hunter has chosen to write his account almost in a novel style. This really should count as a mark against him, but really it just makes the whole thing more intriguing. Hunter is specifically targeted by members of a Mahadi Army IED group, and spends much of the account helping to track down the ringleaders while they try to kill him.
His tour in Basra is also juxtaposed with his deteriorating family life back home. It’s a familiar story that anyone familiar with British Army NCOs has heard: marriages and families falling apart while Fathers (and less frequently Mothers) undertake tours in the Middle East. Hunter’s interactions with his wife Lucy help keep us grounded in the reality of the situation: while the ATO is risking his life daily dismantling IEDs, his wife and daughters are equal concerns.
It’s not all good. Hunter falls into the usual trap of being completely unable to criticise men under his command. They can do no wrong: even one that goes AWOL towards the conclusion gets a pardon from criticism. It’s always eye-rolling to read. They couldn’t possibly have been so perfect Captain Hunter: one of them was checking for bombs by kicking bushes.
Hunter is also typically concerned with making himself look as good and brave possible, though only occasionally. He’d always in the right during an argument. If he doesn’t intervene in something he should have, it’s never really his fault.
Apart from that, it’s a good read, a page-turner. You can get new insights into the thinking of an ATO and the tactics behind IEDs, such a crucial aspect of modern-day warfare. Little is given over to the big picture (Hunter’s opinion of COIN tactics is given little room beyond Britain Good, Bombers Bad), but sometimes a smaller perspective is just as useful. Recommended reading.