- Security TWENTY
- Women in Security
Author Gary Roberts
ISBN No 978-1-913047-08-5
Review date 13/07/2020
No of pages 282
Publisher Steel City Press
Publisher URL https://steelcitypress.co.uk/product/seven-point-six-two/
Year of publication 24/10/2019
A British Army and private military contractor's memoir has the intimacy of any story told in the first-person, and more; it's a good read and a considerable achievement, writes Mark Rowe.
One of the best things about being a contractor is the time off, writes Gary Roberts in Seven Point Six Two, 'the true story of soldiers for hire in Iraq'. While he has four weeks' holiday, he and wife Nikki take a cruise around the Greek islands.
Roberts tries to be 'Sheffield Gary'; that is, not a private military contractor who has gone through countless 'contacts' with insurgents in Iraq. "Not scanning the surroundings for threats. Not peppering conversation with the F word.' He's trying to fit in with polite society, where civilians are shocked if they even hear what he does for a living. He reads "through a stack of books. There’s some coming through now written by various contractors in Iraq from various countries. I read them to see whether they’re true to life; whether they’ve blagged; whether I recognise anyone in the stories – contracting’s a small world."
As that small story shows, this book of Roberts' has been a long time coming; so long that the Iraq war and the insurgency afterwards - largely policed by private firms alongside the American military - feels as if it belongs to another time; like South Armagh during the IRA 'Troubles', and Kosovo, places Roberts served in while in the Army.
The story shows that even while experiencing work as a private military contractor, Roberts like many others had at the back of his mind telling his story, one day; because of an unspoken feeling that his story and the story of others like him around him were valid, and not really told, let alone understood. At one point while working convoys he sets up a camera on the dashboard to capture pictures (page 197) 'of a country and a time. Massive carriageways where driving is a free-for-all. Surprisingly green settings, given that when you think Iraq, you think desert. Red bursts of fire from muzzles concealed in buildings, ditches, tree lines. Bangs and flashes of explosives.' Symbolically, the documenting ends when an IED brings down the windscreen and smashes the camera.
Roberts presumably has waited for the right moment in his life, or just taken up writing in a break, just as men have after past campaigns of the Army, and two world wars; as did survivors of the Nazi concentration camps; and Americans, going over the Vietnam War, and 9-11, which Roberts also recalls.
Roberts may be at a disadvantage commercially of being late with his memoir, after so many others have been published; is that a bad thing? Far from it; compelling stories well told are welcome any time. Besides, just as some of the greatest and most insightful writing on the Vietnam War (such as Robert Masons's autobiography Chickenhawk, and journalist Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie) took years to come out, so narratives can have more than contemporary vividness; they can improve with perspective.
Roberts' certainly has done; he begins and ends with the interview by a pair from the Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) civilian investigators into his shooting of an armed Iraqi in Basra while in the Army. Roberts makes plain his contempt for the whole IHAT idea, and the investigators' efforts to coax evidence out of people doing their jobs according to rules of engagement. To rub it in, in an epilogue Roberts tells matter of factly how in 2015 he shot dead six pirates who were about to board an Indian-crewed vessel he was guarding off the coast of East Africa. As if daring any authorities to try to take him to court for that.
The phrase 'don't judge a book by its cover' is true here. While Roberts does go over his service in the British Army and then a prompt switch to private-military-security, and details the 'contacts' in Iraq, he gives us the small, quiet but telling everyday incidents, and a sense of generations. The 'desk jockeys' managing the work of private military firms are veterans of Northern Ireland from the 1970s onwards (page 143). A military culture and even vocabulary sits alongside the corporate management of Armorgroup, the contractor (acquired by G4S) that Roberts works for, 'there’s a sense of pulling together in this non-military setting. Each job is just a job (page 144).'
It's work that soldiers want to know about because it's appealing, financially, culturally and practically; in a telling episode, at the port of 'UQ' (Umm Qasr), Roberts finds that an old Army pal is nearby, still serving; when he goes to the Army base for a catch-up, he finds himself in a 'huddle of blokes, all wanting to find out more about what we do'.
The backbone of the book is not so much the shooting, as the cover might imply to entice you to buy, but the private contractor's world - a small world. "The magic of the private contractors’ network," Roberts writes (page 189); "meet a Brit out here and you can bet you know the same people. It’s a tight network, and if you have a good rep [reputation] then you’ll get helped out." As that suggests, there's plenty of lingo peculiar to the contractors, much taken from the military, and it's welcome that the book begins with a glossary.
It's not in the least glamorous, contract work, and Roberts has no time for colleagues who try to show off as if it were. While Roberts takes the trouble to learn Arabic, to better work with the LNs (local nationals), he judges some Iraqis harshly, again in terms of being unprofessional and endangering themselves and him. Yet the work is, as he put it, the 'best career choice' (page 118). On the brink of leaving the Army he took a month-long close protection course, at Hereford, and decided the CP life - eating with proper cutlery, not swearing in front of the clients, 'standing outside changing rooms in Harrods waiting for some millionaire’s spoilt kids' (page 121) - was not for him.
That does imply that work in Iraq, as well-paid, was for him, despite the cases of contractors being kidnapped and killed. Roberts notes (page 213) how the UK Government, if prepared to push out the boat to save hostages, was "going to prioritise the likes of a civilian IT consultant over a PSC [private security consultant]. Best we can do is pray we’re never caught in that web."
For all this, the thread through the book is violence, against the contractors and by them. Roberts loses his patience with a driver for leaving dangerous gaps in a convoy - 'Make it too long and I could lose radio contact with the other vehicles' (page 216). Roberts pulls the man out of his truck and whacks him open-handed across the face. It works.
A line about the expert marshalling of the memoir material, dotting from year to year, and the sure way that the writer handles the tempo. It's not all life and death checkpoints and shoot-outs, but a poignant page where Roberts back in England meets a former colleague dying of a brain tumour. It serves as a reminder of what life is about, and of the ultimate end. Like many veterans, whatever the era and whatever the colour of uniform (or none), Roberts has the bitterness of the man risking his life for the TL [team leader), the people in safe offices, if they're blind to what risks are run outside.
Roberts is interesting on comparisons between the Army and private work. Out of the Army, contractors have freedom to choose; and Roberts doesn't much care if the bases and food are basic; what else do you expect?! Men could 'vote with our feet if we thought they [managers] were taking unreasonable risks with our lives. There’s a limit as to how far we’re prepared to push being expendable.' (page 228)
The connections between the two, uniformed national army and contractor, are interesting as told by Roberts; as are the reasons why he is drawn to the work, not only the (tax-free) money; 'perhaps I felt that I hadn’t exhausted my full potential' (page 116). He acknowledges the bad name that the private military sector has, partly thanks to the American company Blackwater; except that intriguingly he does score private contractors of his experience above the Army for professionalism. "You have to really be a fuck-up to get kicked out of the Army, here it's different. The first firing [that is, employee dismissal] I see comes after someone’s caught drinking. This is Armorgroup’s most important contract, worth millions, and they can’t afford mistakes. So it’s a dry contract – no booze." Hence he has harsh words for media misreporting, or poor work - such as talking about British troops, but using pictures of Americans (the uncaring public won't notice, but the informed like Roberts do).
Two particular strengths of the book are the colour pictures that give a vivid flavour, even the smell, almost, of Iraq in the 2000s; and Roberts' analysis of the war and its by comparison far longer, drearier and deadlier aftermath. Roberts has a level-headed and balanced view of the private military, and concludes (page 264) that contractors are here to stay, and are neither automatically good or bad; rather, the work is done well or badly: 'contractor utilisation in the twenty-first century battlefield must be considered a strategic activity and integrated into all levels of planning - indeed, ignore them and one may risk operational failure'.