Sunday, 23 September 2018
Up-to-the-minute perspectives on defence, security and peace
issues from and for policy makers and opinion leaders.

     |      View our Twitter page at     |     


Small Wars: Sadie Jones -Chatto & Windus, 2009, Reviewd by Elayne Jude

Hal Treherne, exemplary scion of an ancient Army family, loves Clara, an Englishrose. With her dark blue eyes, red lipstick and pale skin, she is his red, blueand white girl. They marry. Hal is posted to Germany. Twins are born. For manyyears they live happily and quietly in Krefeld. In January 1956, Hal is promoted toMajor. The family is sent to the British protectorate of Cyprus.

EOKA (Ethniki Organosis Kyprion Agoniston's) campaign for union with Greecewas bloody. The insurgency claimed 371 British servicemen. British attitudes changed
largely due to the radical shift in Imperial foreign policy following Suez in 1957.It's a small war, dirty, asymmetric, and the civilian population were,inevitably, implicated, and suspect.

In Sadie Jones' mesmeric novel, bombings are followed by retribution, Britishsquaddies on National Service vent their grief on the 'wogs', confessions areextracted from teenage boys under torture. Under pressure to cover up crimes andpreserve the good name of the regiment and the image of the righteous Empire, moraland military codes are eroded, and personal integrity disintegrates.

Hal, the model Major, destabilised by the violence and his role in it, begins tounravel. He becomes hopelessly alienated from Clara, sending her away from thebarracks at Episkopi to Nicosia so that she may be protected from the terror, butalso as a means of walling up his own humanity. He loves the Army; he loves hisEngland; he loves his wife. None of this is compatible with what he sees in theguardroom by accident, where suspects are hooded and waterboarded, or can preventhim from sending a fifteen year old boy caught with a gun in his bicycle basket to asimilar fate. His sense of justice is exploded when an interpreter comes to him as awitness to soldiers' rape and murder of Cypriot villagers; worse, when theinterpreter withdraws his allegations at the summary hearing, and Hal realisesit's at the behest of his father's old friend and his commanding officer.

Jones remorselessly captures the painful ambivalence of the interpreter, Davis,unable to sustain his self-image as a decent man, and unwilling to surrender it:

The boy was kept awake, standing, for hours at a time, and with eachinterrogation, seeing his deterioration, Davis jumped through the same hoops in thecircus of his mental process. Steeped in shame, he condemned himself, but always, inthe back of his mind the thought:" This is still within the realms of the acceptable. If something really bad wereto happen, I'd do something."

He knew he had failed before, that Clara's husband had been right to callhim a moral coward, but he couldn't easily give up the idea of himself ashonourable. He clung to the notion that he had a limit, that his threshold laysomewhere, uncrossed, and ready to save him, if only he were given theopportunity.

Hal does not let himself off the hook. The choice he makes is his best hope ofself-preservation and recovery. Baffling to his superiors, inexplicable to hismilitary family, misinterpreted by his father-in-law, he attempts to reconcile hiswarrior's code of honour and loyalty with his inescapable realisation that changemust come. To himself, broken down and humiliated; to the emotional inarticulacy ofhis marriage; to the beloved, rotten Army; to a deeper England, symbolised by theoak leaf on his badge. It's an end of illusions.

When he was a child, home from school for the holidays, and alone again, he hadplayed toy soldiers. His armies were vast and loved. At the back of the house, onthe first floor, was a long landing, with doors on one side and cold windows on theother. The wooden floor had a runner down the middle, with brass fixings at eachend, worn patches where the stitching had faded and gone. Hal would lie on his tummywith the lined-up battalions, their cannon and cavalry, all the flags, the minutecourageous figures of his dreams. Above him, painted soldiers looked down from dullgilt frames all the way along the landing. They had seemed to smile at him. He hadnot felt alone. He had been surrounded by legions. But now it came suddenly andcoldly into his head that, really, there had been nobody else there with him atall.

Published in 2009, it's a timely read when Kenyans tortured sixty years ago havejust been given the right to pursue their claims against the British in a Britishcourt of law. Jones's book is also larger than any particular conflict. In itsaddress of honourable people in dishonourable circumstances and its mapping of the
tragic drift of traumatised soldiers from their loved ones, this book is timeless.

Add comment

Security code

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you continue without changing your settings, we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies on the Defence Viewpoints website. However, if you would like to, you can modify your browser so that it notifies you when cookies are sent to it or you can refuse cookies altogether. You can also delete cookies that have already been set. You may wish to visit which contains comprehensive information on how to do this on a wide variety of desktop browsers. Please note that you will lose some features and functionality on this website if you choose to disable cookies. For example, you may not be able to link into our Twitter feed, which gives up to the minute perspectives on defence and security matters.