It’s alright. Not the best military memoir I’ve read, but not the worst either.
Flynn is one of the most experienced and decorated soldiers in the British Army and this is his story, from start to finish – Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Flynn’s account is all about the tactical and the immediate things he encountered. There is no commentary on wider issues here and Flynn becomes almost the atypical ranker with no thoughts about the overall situation of his wars at all (notably, he glosses over his units search for WMD in Iraq in a paragraph). This isn’t a bad thing and is almost to be expected from a man in Flynn’s position: it leaves room for the more gritty matters of combat, expanded upon and described well in episodes on the Falklands liberation, the initial invasion into Iraq and Taliban ambushes in Helmand province. Flynn only seems to have time to discuss his mixed feelings about serving in Belfast: As a Catholic, this created family issues that are to the fore of his thinking, though he remains distant from such problems when it really matters. One gets the sense that there are few arenas more bewildering to be shot at for the first time, then a Belfast street by a long-haired IRA member who flees the scene through civilian houses.
In those, the account is fast-moving, readable and full of heart. Flynn brings the heat of battle and the horror of war to life in these parts, from taking on an entire Iraqi Armoured Division, to losing men in terrible conditions. Of note is the horrific circumstances in which his unit loses its Intel officer, drowning in a mud-filled Iraqi ditch.
Flynn seems to be a good judge of character and Bullet Magnet does not fall into the typical NCO memoir trap of trashing officers left, right and centre: the author gives credit where it is due and is critical where he deems it fair. To that extent, I find Flynn’s interactions with Officers and superiors to be more honest than you might usually find though he does seem to get a little starstruck by General Sir Mike Jackson at one point.
My own personal favourite passage is probably his time in Bosnia when he must interact with Serbian Mafia members and unwittingly gets drawn into a major surveillance operation. Part of this episode are incredibly bizarre but do ring true: Flynn admits that a slip of his tongue resulted in a notable member of the local gangs evading arrest during a raid, not something you would expect him to relate in a memoir.
It’s not all good of course. Flynn bridges the account with plenty of time spent on his civilian life, from numerous women and relationships (that whiz by fast until he gets married half way through) to his jobs outside the army. Flynn gets points for honesty if not for pacing: his account of time spent AWOL and setting up a fish tackle business might make him appear more ordinary but they aren’t especially interesting or noteworthy. No one picked this book up for notes on how to break into the maggot business in the Netherlands.
Other criticisms: Flynn loves to fight and I don’t mean combat. This results in endless accounts of barroom brawls that all seem to follow the same pattern – drinking, mild insult, fist fight, dirty tactics, pulled apart, “…but then we became best friends!” – to the extent that I can submit the theory that the author is bullshitting slighty. The only one of these that interested me was his story of nearly being stabbed to death while doing work in Cyprus. Here, the only real-time he’d been wounded, we see how he reacts to his brush with mortality, and its blunt and uncompromising: It really really hits home that Flynn is a family man as he struggles to survive so he can walk his daughter down the aisle (though she’s only 12 at the time). It’s the kind of slightly strange thought that one can hold on to as the world goes black.
Other parts defy belief a little and make me suspect an element of ghost writing. Incidents like his father, a devout Catholic, finding out that Flynn was serving in the North during the Troubles. That’s fine but it happened on Flynn’s wedding day? And the Father was fine with it? Seem’s too hocky, too manufactured like an after-school special. Of similar note in the books concluding pages where Flynn returns to Belfast 30 years on from his tour, which drip with maudlin sentimentality, an unsatisfactory ending I thought.
Overall impressions are positive though I wouldn’t be rushing to pick up anything else he may write. Those looking for a more thought-provoking analysis of Britain recent wars should look elsewhere but Ranker aficionados will love it.