(A version of this piece was published on the Indian news site WSN)
It’s not often a serving British Army officer writes a comic novel about a real war he was involved in. So Eating Diamond Pie by David Thorpe is an interesting one.
When I met him last week, I asked: “Did you think I want to write a book or did you think I want to get Sierra Leone out of my system?”
“I didn’t need to get it out of my system,” explained David. “I just wanted to write a book, but I intentionally didn’t do much research on how to do that. I thought If I do, it will be formulaic. So all I did was find out how many words you’re supposed to write – 70,000 to 90,000 words for a first book – this one is 86,000 words. And the only other piece of advice I followed was Write about what you know. I thought What do I know? Well, I knew about the civil war in Sierra Leone.
“It’s not a military book. It’s about a guy who’s ex-military, working for an aid agency and most of it is really just pointing fingers at the aid agencies. It’s a fictional book, though set in a real war. I could have taken that story and put it against other backdrops I know: Bosnia or Northern Ireland or Iraq or Afghanistan and perhaps I will write books about those in the future.
“I actually wrote the plan for this book on the flight out to Iraq thinking I would write it when I was in Iraq – in my spare time! But this was in 2007, when it was fairly hairy out there and the tour was at such a frenetic pace that there was no time to write. When I came back, I was at based at Catterick in North Yorkshire while my family was still living down south, so suddenly I found myself ‘married unaccompanied’, as we say, and I sat in a little flat in Richmond, North Yorkshire, on my own every evening. It took six months.”
“At what point did you put humour into it?” I asked.
“It was always going to be a comic book.”
“You wrote an article for Mensa Magazine last month,” I pointed out, “where you mentioned the Sierra Leone rebels’ habit of using machetes to hack off arms or hands – which they called the ’short sleeve’ option or the ‘long sleeve’ option. You said it was a conflict completely bereft of sympathy, compromise or humanity. So this war was serious insanity and you decided to write a comedy about it…”
“Well,” said David, “there’s Springtime For Hitler and Catch-22 and Blackadder Goes Forth… War is a fascinating human activity and it’s at the extremes. So, if you’re making any type of social comment or documentary comedy, you can find it easier to hook it onto the extremes of humanity.
“Once I’d written it, I had this moment of terror thinking: You know, this could really badly backfire here: Army officer has written a funny book about war. But, then, none of it is: Look! That man’s had his arm cut off! Isn’t that funny? Let’s crack a joke. And, if you write something that’s bland and completely uncontroversial, what’s the point? Imagine if Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin just painted nice pictures of landscapes…”
“You joined the army when you were 17,” I said. “And have been involved in several wars.”
“Oh yes,” David said. “Always plenty of wars going on.”
“There’s that statistic,” I said, “that, in the last hundred years, there’s only been one year…”
“Yes,” said David, “only one year -1968 – when a British soldier hasn’t been killed in active operations.”
“They used to say a hundred years.” I mused, “Probably much more than a hundred years now.”
“It’s not brilliant, is it?” said David. “I went on a battlefield tour recently. The World War One battlefields. The Somme. And I realised human beings are a fairly ridiculous species. The way we solve our problems: using all our technology to kill each other. When you see the industrial scale of World War One, it’s just so ridiculous. The final trenches ended up just 200 metres further on than the very first trench that was dug. Ten million dead. You just think: Really? And we’re the alpha species on Earth?”
“Why were you in Sierra Leone?” I asked.
“We were part of IMATT – the International Military Assistance Training Team, helping the Republic of Sierra Leone’s armed forces organise themselves.”
“What about the West Side Boys?” I asked. “Weren’t they high on drugs most of the time? They thought they were superhuman and ironically, because they were crazed on drugs, they were superhuman because they would do anything.”
“They’d cover themselves with amulets,” said David. “It’s in the book. They were into Voodoo and they believed it and, of course, if you convince someone – and it helps if they’re high on drugs – and you tell them You are bullet-proof, then they’re going to run towards the enemy very quickly. So we had to try and convince them that this wasn’t such a brilliant military tactic. But without destroying their value set.
“African wars are mostly about logistics and not firing off all your bullets in the first ten minutes. If you can just control your rate of fire you will win.
“We made the mistake earlier on of trying to train them as a Western force. There’s no point. You could give them the most complex set of tactics you could come up with but, ultimately, all they wanted to do was line up in two ranks behind a big truck with a big gun on it and march forward and then start firing. And whoever had the most bullets left won. Variations on that theme.”
“Ultimately, you won,” I said.
“The Revolutionary United Front was a loose affiliation of criminals and ne’er-do-wells,” explained David, “and there was a lot of swapping of loyalties, jumping sides. Groups would fight sometimes for the government, sometimes for the rebels, depending on what suited them.
“In Africa, though, there’s a capacity for forgiveness you often don’t find elsewhere. We took all the weapons off the various warring factions, put them all in a demobilisation camp and, after some antagonism in the first 24-48 hours, they all calmed down and they were playing football together within two days. You witnessed this and you suddenly had hope. You thought There is a real chance of peace here, because these guys are prepared to forgive.
“But, if you go to Bosnia and bump into a Serb, he’ll have a tattoo on his forearm – a large cross with four Cs in each corner – which, in Serbo-Croat, means Only Unity Can Save The Serbs. He’s celebrating and remembering the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. He’ll absolutely hang his hat on that as a reason he hates the Croats and the Bosniac Moslems. So what chance have you got of peace?
“And you go to Northern Ireland and the Catholics will be raging about the Battle of the Boyne and you can never go forwards if all your politics is based on what’s behind you. What happened in the past may be unjust, it may be bad but, if it’s 400 years ago – you know – get over it. We are just blips in history. We’re here and then we’re gone.”