“For once,” Dan Mills says about the news that his battalion was being sent to Iraq, “we were going somewhere interesting.” A professional soldier in his 30s and the head of his battalion’s sniper group, Mills had been bored stiff by a series of tours in tedious places like Northern Ireland and Bosnia. But finally, finally, he was going to get to do some proper soldiering, in Iraq, although there was the worry that the war would already be over by the time the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment got there.
Those worries turned out to be unfounded, and the PWRR ended up right in the thick of it for months, much to the delight of most of its members. Mills tells his own story and that of his unit and regiment with true British humor and the zest of a battle addict, detailing everything from the type of rounds they used during practice shots, to how snipers dispose of their bodily wastes during long waits.
As might be guessed by the above description, “Sniper One” is not for the faint of heart or the overly squeamish. It’s not particularly gory: the PWRR sees plenty of action but suffers few casualties, and no one is tortured or commits any acts of torture, so that’s a plus for a story about Iraq. However, there is combat. Lots and lots of combat. If you enjoy first-person descriptions of combat operations, you are pretty much guaranteed to like this book, because Mills not only knows what he’s talking about through direct experience, but has a knack for writing gripping action scenes, often intermingled with some self-deprecating humor and no shortage of swear words (if you are bothered by obscenities, this is not the book for you). I personally tend to find too much action to be confusing and boring, but “Sniper One” held my attention from first page to last, and made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion.
Mills and his men are endearing characters, and, in the tradition of British war writing, and unlike the American version, Mills is at least somewhat aware of the history behind what he is doing, and experiences his service in Iraq as a continuation of the British Empire. One of the more touching moments in the book is when he and his men wander into a British cemetery from WWI and realize they are surrounded by the graves of British soldiers just like them. Mills reflects on it for a moment–and then hustles his men out of there before it sinks in too deeply. But the whole time they are aware that they are upholding the tradition of the British Empire and the honor of the British Army, a living part of history.
Not that they think on it *too* much: they’re too busy with weapons, porn, and squabbling over the limited plumbing facilities. Deep thinkers in the classical sense most of these soldiers are not, which is probably a good thing: it enables them to do their job, which is killing people, without fussing too much over the ramifications. No doubt the British Empire and its heir, the American Empire, need people like this. (Like many Brits, Mills has mixed feelings about the US, and is turns thrilled by and dismissive of the American support they receive, saying of the Spectre gunship they call on during one of their battles, “Spectre pilots have call signs only the Yanks can get away with. Brit pilots would never be sad enough to call themselves Steel Rain. We loved it anyway”). I myself find it a little alarming that these people vote, but they no doubt feel exactly the same about me, which is why democracy is a funny old thing.
In short, if you’re looking for a first-person account of combat in the most recent war in Iraq, “Sniper One” is a page-turning and at times hilarious choice. It depicts war as a game, the best, most addicting game in the world, with occasionally fatal consequences. One can disagree with that characterization of war, but it is how many of its actual participants feel about it, and it is important to understand that. Recommended reading for anyone interested in the war in Iraq, although you may need to do a testosterone detox afterwards.