Book review: Combat Civilian by Gilbert Greenall

Book review: Combat Civilian by Gilbert Greenall

This aid worker's life amid the world's war zones reads like something out of the age of empire.

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This aid worker’s life amid the world’s war zones reads like something out of the age of empire.

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.

He survives Angola (where his shot-up Boeing 727 is forced to take off on three wheels); Bosnia and its landmines; Uganda, where he narrowly misses being shot by a child soldier; and Afghanistan, where his Land Rover is stolen from him at gunpoint.

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.

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.

Combat civilian by Gilbert Greenall (Book Guild, $35)

The Telegraph, London

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