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Book Reviews

Book cover: WEARING THE GREEN BERET: A CANADIAN WITH THE ROYAL MARINE COMMANDOS, by Jake Olafsen

WEARING THE GREEN BERET: A CANADIAN WITH THE ROYAL MARINE COMMANDOS, by Jake Olafsen

Reviewed by Bernd Horn

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WEARING THE GREEN BERET: A CANADIAN WITH THE ROYAL MARINE COMMANDOS
by Jake Olafsen
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2011.
320 pages, $32.99 (HC)
ISBN 978-0-7710-6852-2

Reviewed by Colonel Bernd Horn

There is no real surprise with this book – the title says it all. It is a personal war story. It is the account of Jake Olafsen, a Canadian reservist from Vancouver Island who joined the British Royal Marine Commandos. After more than four years of service, he returned to Canada and wrote an account of his adventures that take the reader through his basic training and two operational tours in Afghanistan.

A good portion of the book, approximately 40 percent of it, deals with his 30 weeks of basic training. The account is interesting, albeit there is nothing radically new for those familiar with the process of military basic training.  Nonetheless, the book does provide some insight into the Royal Marine program, and, more than anything, it reinforces the general belief that British treatment of their recruits still leaves something to be desired.

Olafsen then metaphorically jumps to his first tour of duty in Afghanistan, and provides what amounts to a number of vignettes of some Royal Marine Commando operations. These are ‘war stories within a war story,’ and are largely without context.  Although interesting on one level, they are, in many ways, unfulfilling, as they are simply ‘snapshots’ that fail to provide an understanding of the larger mission, unit, or challenge with respect to  counter-insurgency operations. On a positive note, the text does capture the life of an infantryman in a war zone. As such, the author relates the mix of tedium, excitement, and terror that soldiers characteristically experience in a combat theatre.  Olafsen also highlights the vital importance of camaraderie and unit cohesion to military operations.

In summary, for the uninitiated, the book provides a good glimpse of basic training and a ‘grunt’s’ view of combat and service in an operational theatre. For those who are well read in military literature, there is nothing new here, and therefore, the book ‘falls a bit flat’ overall. The stories of the ‘hardships’ experienced during basic training resonate with anyone who has undergone basic military training, albeit the Royal Marine basic training is longer and harsher than most. The operational vignettes are interesting but also a bit disappointing. At the end of the book, the reader does not come away with a coherent understanding of the Royal Marines, their role, culture, or mission, and their effectiveness in Afghanistan.  In many ways, the book is a ‘literary reality show’ that captures the experience of one member without a clear context or understanding of the organization, or a clear coherence to the events in which the Royal Marines participated.

Nonetheless, it is a window into military life, and it provides an interesting insight into one soldier’s experience in the Royal Marine Commandos, a well-respected military organization.

Wearing the Green Beret is a very quick read. It is written with simple prose and it includes a healthy sprinkling of soldierly jargon. Those interested in reading a good personal war story will enjoy the book.

Colonel Bernd Horn, OMM, MSM, CD, PhD, is the Chief of Staff Strategic Education and Training Programs at the Canadian Defence Academy. He is also an Adjunct Professor of History at the Royal Military College of Canada.

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