Book review: We Were Warriors
Tory MP Johnny Mercer has written one of the best books about life in the military and coping with sudden loss.
Johnny Mercer left the army in 2012 with the determination to become an MP. Initially he wasn’t too sure which main political party to join, but after talking with friends and some MPs, found the Conservative Party was where he felt most at ease. Eventually he was selected as the parliamentary candidate for Plymouth Moor View, a Labour seat.
His association was weak and Conservative Campaign HQ told him he wasn’t going to win. But against all the odds and using his military knowledge for campaigning he just won the seat in 2015. He wanted to campaign on behalf of military veterans, especially those like himself who had been traumatised by their experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two years later in 2017 he was re-elected with a bigger majority.
Johnny Mercer wouldn’t claim to be a sophisticated man – a blunt, plain speaking army veteran, with a lot of compassion for his military mates. He decided to write his autobiography, concentrating on his military experiences in Afghanistan. We Were Warriors was published in the middle of the election campaign and serialised in the Daily Mail.
It is quite unlike most MPs memoirs, not least because Johnny Mercer was very open about his strict Baptist upbringing and all the emotional hang ups that gave him about what was good and evil, and an ambivalent attitude to his parents. Brought up in a middle class household and sent away to boarding school he was very close to his brothers and sisters. He became proficient at sports but had no hankering to go to university. Mercer eventually decided to join the army and went through Sandhurst and was commissioned into the Royal Artillery. No doubt to prove himself he passed into the Royal Marines and became a fully qualified Fire Support Team Officer in 29 Commando.
Johnny Mercer served three tours in Afghanistan attached to an infantry battalion in a forward base. Mercer writes clearly and vividly, and throughout this memoir captures the mood and attitude of servicemen and women in an earthy manner. Often he appears more at ease with junior NCOs and soldiers.
In Afghanistan he has vivid descriptions of the immediate change in life between the UK and a forward base. He captures the light and darkness, the smells and the pervading fear of being wounded or killed. His description of tactical operations is brilliant and how through his professionalism and the sophisticated signals kit he could bring down accurate artillery fire or gunship fire from Cobra or Apache helicopters. It made me think that without such support our ground troops were extremely vulnerable to the Taliban who were mean fighters.
But war is risk and for Johnny Mercer his tours in Afghanistan saw his great friend Lance Bomb Bombardier Mark Chandler shot dead next to him. This has traumatised him ever since, as such deaths and woundings have done to hundreds of British servicemen and women. Quite rightly he praised the medics and the medical support teams that risked their lives to helicopter in and out of the combat zone. Mercer has little time for the hierarchy – ministers, generals and for that matter the Afghan National Army.
Johnny Mercer must have found it a strange change of life to become a backbench MP and learn the cultural oddities of the House of Commons. He made an impressive maiden speech and has not been backward in pushing the government to do more for veterans.
In We Were Warriors, he comes across as a natural patriot, proud to have served his country, a great believer in small group military loyalty, but whose ties of family became increasingly important to him. It is one of the best books about life in the military in Afghanistan and coping with brutal and sudden loss.
Keith Simpson is Conservative MP for Broadland and books editor for Total Politics.