BAGHDAD OPERATORS, Ex Special Forces in Iraq – Review by Mark Barnes


Ex Special Forces in Iraq
By James Glasse with Andrew Rawson
Published by Pen & Sword Military
ISBN: 9781781593653

Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online

Ah Iraq – where the ghost writers roam! Don’t knock them, they’ve helped bring us some very entertaining fayre. We’ve had snipers, bomb disposal experts and chopper pilots. We’ve seen every shade of marine, para and recon tough nut. Special forces elites and a procession of colourful heroes have been coming out of our ears. I’ve loved some of these books and fair to say a good few of them have been written by the actual chaps themselves or they’ve buddied with experienced scribes. But how they get from battle fuelled memory to printed page doesn’t bother me one bit. These books are a hoot and I’ve enjoyed reading a lot of them. They fulfil an important purpose and they follow a fine tradition of military memoirs. Some of them will stand the test of time.

Given the amount of time since the Coalition withdrew from Iraq you might have thought this rich seam would be drying out but here’s something different from James Glasse, a former British SF soldier working as private contractor amid the chaos of the post war upheaval. The book is set in that time after George Bush prematurely declared mission accomplished when a lot more people were yet to die and develops with all that horrible nightmare as a backdrop. Mr Glasse is teamed up here with the experienced hand of Andrew Rawson, a prolific author of military books and, presumably, a neighbour of sorts of our hero in sunny Mallorca.

This is an unusual book because we never know the names of any of Glasse’s mates or the people he works for. It is, at one level, deeply personal and yet entirely lacking in an area where the majority of books of this kind have their strength. There are no relationships and there is nobody to build any kind of attachment to, save the author himself. I found this aspect difficult to surmount, but it creates a dynamic of its own and the book rattles along at a fair pace with a mixture of straight reportage and elements of derring-do that make for a good read. Post invasion Iraq is vividly described in all the anarchic nastiness we have seen on the telly and it does make you wonder if the money earned for being in that madhouse was really worth it. People die in ambushes and although we have been allowed no attachment to them, there is no question their deaths had an impact on the author and his friends. How could it be any different?

Mr Glasse’s descriptions of the everyday joys of running a security business in Iraq are genuinely fascinating. There is a lot of detail about how the business was expanded and the logistical trials of acquiring vehicles, weapons, ammo and premises. We learn about where the operators come from – the UK and South Africa appear to dominate. There is a brilliant story about setting up a bar. And yet, it’s all matter of fact like some kind of after action report. The people involved are anonymous almost like ciphers of the conflict itself.  As I said we’ve seen stuff about the security contractors on our televisions – those big ex-forces guns for hire with their bandanas and wraparound shades. They are enigmatic, like scary boys of summer. There is a temptation to call them mercenaries, but you can’t quite bring yourself to go that far because the old name has a kind of grim side to it. You can see the convoys of Pajeros and armoured SUVs rumbling through the dust with those blokes earning good money at quite terrible personal risk. They are something!

So, in the end, I liked this book – for the brutal honesty and even for the men with no name. It is a bit like a modern day Sergio Leone canvas, but in print. Whether it stands up to the test of time is something we will have to wait and see. Mr Glasse is out there somewhere relaxing by a swimming pool or sweltering in an SUV on a filthy road thinking about the Wild Geese and a particular crock of gold at the end of an often malevolent rainbow. It’s a life he can’t quite let go.

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Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.