Those who bemoan the loss of empire for the lack of opportunities for adventure should read this book. Now 65, Gilbert Greenall has packed more action into his life than any Victorian, with the possible exception of the fictional Flashman.
After Eton, the Household Cavalry and an MBA, he could have followed a comfortable career in the family distilling and brewing empire. Instead, Greenall travels to Bangkok, where in the bar of the Oriental Hotel he falls in with a Swiss doctor, and joins him in searching for refugees on the Cambodian border following the fall of Pol Pot. He helps the relief effort by finding survivors and carrying those too sick to walk to safety, is briefly captured by the Khmer Rouge, and finds his vocation as a humanitarian.
Nonchalantly, he describes assembling a formidable skill set to help in emergencies. He has a pilot’s licence so he can fly around operational theatres. He qualifies as a doctor having “never studied science at school” and works in a Cheltenham hospital’s A&E department between missions.
Others are not so lucky. We frequently meet aid workers and war correspondents who are killed a few pages later in road accidents, plane crashes or by stray bullets, a reminder of the toll exacted from the dedicated people who make their livings in the world’s trouble spots.
Combat Civilian stands comparison with books of reportage by journalists like John Simpson, and provides a fascinating history of the period, particularly of Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Most importantly, it gives a unique insider’s view and combines vivid vignettes from the sharp end of each conflict or disaster with penetrating insights into the policies and machinations of the United Nations, governments and NGOs.
Like his mentor, the celebrated Eton schoolmaster Michael Kidson, to whom he pays tribute, Greenall has a sharp pen and he is not afraid to point out where British efforts have fallen short. The Foreign Office is “a hot-bed of cold feet”, the Department for International Development were “unlikely to achieve anything… except possibly alienating the Afghan population with their socially progressive ideas”. He reveals the potent accusation made by an unnamed civil servant that we were unprepared for dealing with the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq because the international development secretary “did not approve of the war”.
Threaded through the book is a study of the development of the doctrine for dealing with post-conflict nation building, disaster relief and migrant emergencies. I suspect it will be required reading on university masters courses – and if not, it should be.
The book is skilfully edited so that the pages turn by themselves, but the reader is left wanting much more; it only scratches the surface of no fewer than 25 operations. Combat Civilian captures all the warped humour, excitements and privations of operational theatres, but Greenall’s sharp analysis makes it much more than just a thrilling story. Buy it as a Christmas present to inspire nieces and nephews with an ambition to be a force for good in a world that is still ripe with adventure.