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Thin Red Line of Heroes

Unsung and underappreciated, the British Army deserves a country more worthy of its valor.

12:00 AM, Jun 6, 2009 • By STUART KOEHL
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The first is Sniper One by Sgt. Dan Mills (ret.), a 20-year professional who served in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Northern Ireland before deploying to southern Iraq with 1st Battalion, Princess of Wales Royal Regiment (1/PWRR), in April 2004. As the title suggests, Mills was a sniper--the platoon sergeant of the battalion's sniper platoon, in fact. The war on terror has spawned quite a cottage industry of sniper memoirs of late, mostly American (Mike Tucker's Ronin: A Marine Scout/Sniper Platoon in Iraq; Jack Coughlin's Shooter: The Autobiography of the Top-Ranked Marine Sniper; and Joe LeBleu's Long Rifle: A Sniper's Story in Iraq and Afghanistan). Snipers tend to be selected for their intelligence and initiative; their training makes them skillful observers of their environment; the nature of their mission gives them plenty of time for introspection, and this perhaps makes them more inclined to write down their observations after the fighting is over. In the war on terror, snipers have really come into their own, because of the need to collect intelligence on a covert enemy and to be absolutely, surgically precise in the application of lethal force. Man for man, snipers tend to be the most deadly and the most cost effective soldiers on the battlefield, killing more bad guys with fewer bullets than anyone else--and killing far fewer civilians in the process.

Mills and 1/PWRR arrived in the southern Iraqi city of Al Amarah, a hotbed of Muqtadr al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, in April 2004. Soon after arriving, with only the briefest of familiarization lectures, he is sent out on patrol with several other snipers in an armored Land Rover, which happens to drive right by the regional headquarters of the Mahdi Army. Before he knows it, his patrol is ambushed, the Land Rover is hit by an RPG, and one of his men is seriously wounded. Fighting desperately, he and his men take cover in a nearby building, call for help, and hunker down to await rescue by a Quick Reaction Force--which only barely gets there in time.

From there, he and his company are assigned to guard a compound known as Cimic House, home to a civilian Provisional Reconstruction Team (PRT) that resents their presence and blames them for the hostile activities of the natives--like taking potshots at exposed personnel and dropping the occasional mortar bomb into the swimming pool. As the military situation in and around southern Iraq deteriorated through 2004, things got too hot for the PRT, which evacuated. But Mills and his company stayed on to maintain a presence and to keep a lid on the activities of the Mahdi Army. This involved constant patroling, the occasional snatch-and-grab operations, and very rarely (when the natives got too uppity), major punitive expeditions into the heart of the city to smack down the Mahdi Army. Without enough troops to garrison the city, without the ability to win the trust of the civilians or guarantee their safety, this was the best they could do. As expected, things went from bad to worse, and eventually Cimic House was totally cut off from other British units and besieged--for more than 23 days, the longest continuous action fought by any British unit since the Korean War.

The story of the seige is the framework for the book. Hunkered down under constant mortar and small arms fire, the British garrison has to put up with 120 temperatures, lack of water and sanitary facilities, increasingly bad food, constant boredom, and occasional terror. The Brits rise to the occasion with typical self-deprecating (and politically incorrect) good humor, and, when necessary, a stiff upper lip.

The company commander, tired of being unable to move about the compound because of unexploded mortar bombs, nonchalantly picks them up, carries them to the wall of the compound, and chucks them in the Tigris. Two of the company's computer specialists set up a fake account on an on-line dating service, invent a girl (complete with profile and voluptuous photo), and begin a cyber-relationship with another soldier in the unit, informing him of their deception only when the man is getting ready to go home on leave to meet the new love of his life.

Perhaps most telling for me was the story of PFC Johnson Beharry, driver of a Warrior infantry combat vehicle, which is hit by an RPG that seriously wounds him and several of the troops in the back. Despite his injuries and the damage to the vehicle, Beharry managed to keep the Warrior running long enough to get it and its occupants to the safety of a British base. For this action, Beharry was awarded the Victoria Cross, becoming the first living recipient of the medal in 36 years.