“To say that this former SAS man’s view of the world is unhinged is only to observe that it constitutes an entirely accurate representation of the world as seen by many decorated soldiers.”

Andy McNab London Review of BooksLondon Review of Books contributing editor Andrew O’Hagan reviewed Andy’s Crossfire in their January edition.

In his article called “Living it” O’Hagan links the present video game generation (“If you want to know what is happening in the mind of the average teenage boy you must follow the action of his thumbs”) to the rising popularity of books written by “been there, done that” writers like Andy McNab and Chris Ryan.

Greymansland gives you an abstract.

O’Hagan is not too positive (to say the least) about the violent video games (like Halo, Assassin’s Creed, Eternal Forces) which, according to researchers may lower the “P300 response”: a way of measuring the emotional impact of what players see. The researchers concluded that real-life violence troubled the players of these games much less than other children and that there’s an increasing risk that children and adults will behave aggressively.


“Many of the British and American forces now deployed in Iraq and
Afghanistan grew up on computer games and their understanding of their mission, their power, their enemy and their equipment may be highly coloured by the virtual lives they have lived and the vivid, hardened sense of worlds changed and prisoners not taken.”

In his in 2004 published account “Generation Kill”, journalist Evan Wright says ‘Soldiers raised on hip hop, internet porn and video games, a disparate band of born-again Christians, dopers, Buddhists and New Agers who gleaned their precepts from kung fu movies and Oprah Winfrey…They were a new breed of warrior unrecognisable to their forebears,’ In Wright’s book, Lieutenant Fick, a Dartmouth graduate who joined the Marines in a fit of idealism, shakes his head, grinning. ‘I’ll say one thing about these guys,’ he says. ‘When we take fire, not one of them hesitates to shoot back. In World War Two, when Marines hit the beaches, a surprisingly high percentage of them didn’t fire their weapons, even when faced with direct enemy contact. They hesitated. Not these guys. Did you see what they did to that town? They fucking destroyed it. These guys have no problem with killing.’

The problem with having no problem is that caution isn’t seen as anything other than cowardice, a rude philosophy that may have reached its zenith in the novels of Andy McNab. To say that this former SAS man’s view of the world is unhinged is only to observe that it constitutes an entirely accurate representation of the world as seen by many decorated soldiers. That is the reason men who don’t ordinarily read have come in great numbers to love the insiderish bravado of McNab and Chris Ryan.

McNab and Ryan fully meet the present culture’s demand for the seemingly real, though it’s a reality centred on complete fantasy. Like Method actors, they have done their stint in the realm of the actual, have tasted the fare of which they speak, being former soldiers, decorated men who write under aliases.

Who knows how many of the sentences in their books were actually generated by them, but that is not the kind of authenticity that matters in this kind of authorship. Each writer has been embedded with the fantastical elements of modern war – they have lived the virtual lives they write about – and that makes them the right kind of war novelist for this kind of generation. The only thing that could kill their books – reduce their relevance, vanish their massive audience – would be to make them better written. Their lousiness is their genius.

If you’re in a novel by Andy McNab, you don’t have hair you have a barnet. You don’t eat dinner you stuff your face. You don’t visit the loo you take a slash. You don’t go to bed you get your head down. You don’t speak rot you talk bollocks. Things are not broken they are knackered, and into every life a rain of bullets must fall.

The average McNab guy will have seen things that are the stuff of nightmares, possibly in Northern Ireland; he will live in a desert storm of acronyms; he will speak pornographically about guns, rifles, rockets and weapons systems; he will deploy a freely offensive shorthand about everybody from the ‘Muj’ – the Mujahideen – to rag-headed Iraqi insurgents, knocking off a few corrupt Russians, useless journalists, greasy Serbs and ‘sound as a pound’ Scousers along the way.

‘Maybe that was why I’d never found it hard to get on with Africans,
Arabs, squaddies, whoever,’ Nick Stone says in Crossfire. ‘They soon discovered I was like them – waist deep in the shit-pit and happy to get my head up enough to take a few breaths occasionally before I got pushed back down.’

Crossfire features a television reporter who is kidnapped in Kabul and may be beheaded online. Ryan’s new book, Strike Back, features a television reporter who is kidnapped in Beirut and may be beheaded online. The world of difference initially suggested by Ryan’s hapless victim being female is dispelled when you consider his book’s rugged hero, a McNabian squarehead called John Porter, former SAS man and now broken-backed vodka-guzzler under the arches of Vauxhall. All these men have a chance to thwart the `Ruperts` by fixing – via immense personal courage and a lot of guns and knives – the unfixable, getting in and out of foreign situations with an orange-flamed dexterity that would leave the characters in most video games gasping for extra battery power.

Crossfire: “One of the pictures was a wider shot of the room or cell. The door had a sheet of steel screwed over it and a jailer’s spyhole. The last one showed a tabletop with the legs removed, bolted to an oil drum. It looked like an oversized see-saw, but I knew this was no game. Two buckets of water stood next to it. A tap stuck out of the wall. A fat roll of clingfilm sat on a pile of empty hessian sandbags.”

So there you have it. McNab’s fearlessly poor and clichéd thriller, while working itself up to a pornography of virtual violence, manages, nevertheless, to do something that no novel by a literary writer on either side of the Atlantic has so far managed: he describes waterboarding, a government-sanctioned torture, and he does so in a way that will leave no reader uncertain about what it means.

Elsewhere, in the same scarred prose, he captures a truth about insurgents high on heroin; he reports on the mercenary power of private security firms; he refers to the kinds of deal that were done to promote peace in Northern Ireland. One creeps through many forests of childishness to reach the news, but it is there, dangling from the crooked boughs of McNab’s tortuous plot, and it embodies a few truths about our times.

O’Hagan obviously acknowledges the strength of McNab and Ryans books, but for an audience that is not his own by the sound of it. But then someone said “I guess it’s an honour to be reviewed by the literary ruperts” so there you go 😉

As said, this is only part of the review as published in the London Review of Books magazine. You can find the whole article here for subscribers or to buy.

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