There are moments listening to Harry Parker when you can fool yourself into thinking he is simply another author discussing another debut novel. Calm, friendly and unassuming in conversation, 32-year-old Parker talks with amused enthusiasm about writing Anatomy of a Soldier, something for which his backgrounds in fine art and the British army had not prepared him.
“I definitely felt like a beginner,” he says when we meet at his publisher’s London offices. “I am not that well-read. I am trying to catch up now.” His naivety did result in a curious style: the novel is narrated by more than 40 inanimate objects including a pair of pristine trainers, a tourniquet, a homemade bomb and a mother’s handbag.
“When I started, I didn’t really know that telling a story from the point of view of inanimate objects was a strange thing to do.”
When Parker summarises Anatomy of a Soldier, he does so in a matter-of-fact tone that belies its intensely personal origins. "It's about a young officer who goes to an unnamed conflict.
“The book opens with him being injured, and unless something intervenes he’ll die, basically…We see the IED [improvised explosive device] that injures him being built. Some of the insurgents and their relationship to him. We see him arriving in hospital, and his mother. It really tells the story of Tom Barnes’s recovery and the route he took to being injured.”
Nevertheless, you only need to glance at the high-tech prosthetic limbs on both his legs to realise how little is conveyed by the word “injured”, to recall that Parker himself experienced the same devastating trials that Barnes does in the book. On July 18, 2009, Parker was leading 50 men back from a night patrol in Nad-e-Ali district, Central Helmand, when he stepped on a landmine.
"My memories of the explosion are pretty clear, but now slightly mixed up with how I reimagined it in Anatomy. I would leave the library [after a day's writing] with the physical feeling, the feelings of sadness. It was pretty grim."
Years of physiotherapy followed, accompanied by a profound recomposition of his character. “Even now, every time I walk down the street and see myself in a glass building, it looks odd because my sense of self is not how I appear in my own mind. When I was first injured and you see this space where you used to have legs, that is very hard to take. I wanted to explore that in the book.”
It is typical of Parker’s no-nonsense optimism that he wasn’t bitter or despairing. “I did mourn the loss of my legs. I was angry, but not for very long. If you are stupid enough to be a soldier then you have to expect that might happen. Recovery and learning to walk again was quite exciting and fulfilling.”
This contrasts with Tom Barnes in the novel, whose emotional range is broader and more volatile. His final thoughts before stepping on the landmine, ironically, concern the romance of soldiering. “I didn’t want to talk about conflict in a way that sentimentalised it, or make people think that being a soldier is a great thing,” Parker says. “But I did want to get some of the excitement and pride I felt about being to operate in those areas.
“There is a definite arrogance being there with your body armour on, feeling invincible in this faraway country.”
Parker by contrast was “just sweaty and tired” after an arduous night patrol. This might explain the reckless shortcut he took away from prescribed routes to camp.
“I made a mistake,” he says, albeit one in accordance with the military intelligence of the time. “The likelihood of something being dug-in in line of sight is pretty low because it is over-watched by our camp. That turns out to be a mistake because somebody snuck in in the middle of the night and put something in the ground. Once that bomb went off, no one operated in that way anymore because everyone learned the lessons. I always feel as an officer I made a mistake, but also that mistake is more to do with luck and things that I can’t control.”
Anatomy of a Soldier is the first major novel by a British soldier-writer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although Barnes never names the country, it is a dead-ringer for the latter.
Like his American counterparts Brian Turner, Michael Pitre, Phil Klay and Kevin Powers, Parker fuses a clear-eyed account of the occupation with a concerted attempt to imagine the lives of those he was either protecting or fighting.
“At one end you have Al Qaeda. At the other, a guy who has just bought a pair of trainers for $10 and has slightly got [involved in the insurgency]. In between you have a whole array of different motivations. Writing the book and characterising those people re-humanised them.”
In the novel, these complexities are personified by Faridun and Latif, friends with competing conceptions of duty. Latif joins the insurgency and eventually plants the explosive device Tom Barnes triggers. Faridun follows his father’s footsteps in treading the treacherous line between occupiers and “terrorists”.
Did Parker find it challenging to empathise with the very people who almost killed him? “There is as much of me in Latif and Faridun [as Barnes],” he replies. “I would always think, if foreign soldiers were rumbling down my street how would I react? I would probably be planting bombs myself. That is one reason the insurgents are mirrors. The reasons that they joined up may not be that different to the reasons why I joined up.”
Similar ambiguities run throughout Parker’s life and conversation. His family is steeped in military tradition. His father, General Sir Nicholas Parker, was Nato’s deputy commander in Afghanistan at the same time that his son was on active duty. When Parker himself was eventually discharged in 2013, it was the first time for 100 years that a member of the family wasn’t serving in the forces.
He may have been born into a family of soldiers, but Parker doesn’t always sound like a born combatant. He studied art and the history of art at university, and was working for an advertising company in Canada when he enlisted in 2005.
Why, I ask? “The tiniest amount has to do with country. But mostly it’s about a solid job that feels like it’s going to have self-worth. There is an element of the 10-year-old who wandered into the wood to make bases, only you get better kit and bigger bases. It’s also a lot more dangerous, but still exciting.”
Even here, one feels the sort of ambivalence that defines the novel. “[There’s a] flick between wanting to go to war and being anti-war. In my opinion a good soldier is anti-war. Those that aren’t are getting it wrong.”
Later he argues: “There was an idea that laying mines was this really unfair way to fight wars. I always thought that dropping a hellfire missile from a drone at 12,000 feet was also an unfair way to fight, because war is just shitty.”
Parker knew little about Iraq or Afghanistan before being stationed there. What homework he did failed to prepare him for either reality. In the short version, he says: “These places … it’s bloody difficult.”
His longer version? “The British and US army learned pretty quick that you had to have as much understanding of where you were going as possible. But it’s just such a hard thing for a white middle-class bloke from Wiltshire to really, truly understand these places.
“You can read as much as you like, but so few people had the language to communicate properly. Although there has always been a desire to be culturally aware, you do end up rolling through Basra in a 13-ton armoured vehicle.”
Another question lurking around both the invasion and Parker’s personal recovery is: was it worth it? In the novel, the occupying army both safeguards Afghanis like Faridun and endangers them. Parker illustrates the incongruity with a story about being on patrol. “A group of kids start throwing stones at you … Then their dads would come along with their AK-47s and they are firing at you. You are firing back. Suddenly the security that you put up is making the area more insecure.”
Another anecdote suggests how forging alliances with sympathetic Iraqis or Afghanis could compromise their safety. “You would be trying to use a member of the local population. They were offering help and trying to support you in supporting the government of Afghanistan, and you would hear they had had their heads chopped off because of their actions. There was always that sense that you would have to be very careful about how you were acting.”
He has no political insights to offer about ISIL and the crises in Iraq, Syria and beyond. “Ask me in 30 years maybe,” he says. “If I feel anything political about it, it is that you can’t do these things with just military force. The way we create coalitions has got to have all parts of government taking the same amount of risk.”
If Anatomy of a Soldier preaches anything, it is compassion, recovery and "also trying to reframe how we think about conflicts".
Parker himself appears, on the surface at least, remarkably well-adjusted. “I was always pretty clear that being in the army was a job,” he says. “Maybe I was just lucky. I have never woken up in the night screaming. I know that in 15 years’ time I might start doing that. I have a bit, but it has never been something that has really affected me or been debilitating.”
Indeed, he can joke that “horrible reviewers are worse” than anything he faced in Afghanistan, and talks with weary wonder about his four-month-old daughter. A second book is already under way: “no soldiers and no inanimate objects. I am still interested in security and cowardice”.
Did writing help him to come to terms with what happened in 2009, I ask finally. “I think I had already come to terms with it. When I pressed print and this thing was sitting there, there was some catharsis in that. But really it was about the opportunity to write. Having fun each day describing how a bullet heats up as it flies through the air because of the friction.”
You can take the boy out of the army, it seems, but not always the other way around.
James Kidd is a regular contributor to The Review.