As many of you may already know, this month it’s Non-Fiction November. Started on BookTube, Non-Fiction November is pretty self explanatory; it aims to increase the amount of non-fiction books which readers would normally consume, getting people excited to read the vast array of work which is out there. If you don’t read any non-fiction, then you could participate by reading one such book. If you read five a month, then you could try to read six. There are no rules, just a desire to see people read more than they would normally do. I don’t think I read an incredible amount of non-fiction as opposed to fiction, but that being said I do read some every now and then. Recent examples include A History of Heavy Metal, The Wasp That Brainwashed the Caterpillar and The Book of Forgotten Authors.
Whilst I’m not setting myself any strict goals, I would like to try to participate in some way, so I thought what better way to start the month than with a particular favourite kind of non-fiction of mine; canine military memoir. I know that sounds pretty niche, but it’s amazing how many of these books are actually out there. As a lover of history and an absolute adorer of dogs, I love learning about the incredible work they do alongside their human handlers, risking their lives to protect those around them. These kinds of books are often bittersweet; tinged with the unavoidable sadness and loss of war yet also incredibly inspiring, proving once more the amazing abilities dogs possess. Buster: the Dog Who Saved a Thousand Lives, is a perfect example of this, with the book following Springer Spaniel Buster and his handler, RAF Police Flight Sergeant Will Barrow, as they try to fight back against the deadly threat of the Taliban.
I though the opening prologue and first chapters of the book were really well balanced. We get an introduction to the relationship shared between Will and Buster, as well as a fair amount of action and danger. It’s packed with realism, depicting the truth of the conditions the team must serve in, but also gives us this insight into the camaraderie that exists between the forces who were serving in Afghanistan at the time. In the opening prologue we find the pair working with the Royal Marines and begin to see the alliances which exists not only between the human team members, but also the relationships they strike up with Buster himself. Great importance is placed on working dogs in the military; after all, the dog could quite literally be the difference between life and death, as well as bringing that sense of normality that many of them are missing from their own pets back home. In one scene Will talks about how a tough Royal marine can’t stop himself from showering Buster with affection. He writes:
‘It hit me just how much dogs mean to people so far away from home. Buster was there as a bomb dog, not a pet, but it didn’t matter. At no time would a Royal Marine’s official kit list read: weapon, ammunition, water, food, spare clothing and . . . a pig’s ear – but today it did! Our gentle giant with the secret supply of dog treats chatted for some time about dogs loved and lost in a time and place before both of us found ourselves fighting a war in the Afghan desert.’ (p. 52).
If Buster proves throughout the novel the power he holds over his fellow service men and women, then he most definitely shows the power he begins to have over the reader. I fell instantly for Buster, loving not only everything he stands for, the bravery so many animals enter into, but also the unique quirks and characteristics of his own personality. This is of course all down to his handler, Will, and the excellent narrative which he has produced. You can tell through his writing the love which he feels with such fever for Buster, and it is a testament to him that we are able to fall so effortlessly for Buster. The book as a whole is written with great ease, despite the conflict raging in the background, and feels very immersive and friendly.
Will first joined the RAF police at eighteen, so has many years experience working not only in the military, but also with various working dogs across his career. Whilst Buster is an arms and explosives search dog, Will has also worked with drug detection dogs and patrol dogs, so I felt pretty secure in his knowledge and expertise in this area. On the other hand, what we experience here is actually both Will and Busters first forays into the fight against the Taliban, meaning that we experience this shared sense of the unknown with them.
I think that anyone who has a pet, specifically a dog, will understand completely the bond we are presented with in this book. As Will himself points out:
‘Those who aren’t dog lovers probably think that talking to our four-legged friends is a step too close to crazy, but sometimes there’s no better conversationalist than a dog: if you are afraid they sense it and calm you without uttering a word. If you are making a fool of yourself they draw you to one side and give you that look that says ‘you know, you can be a real prat sometimes’. And if you are lost for words they fill the silence by giving you a big kiss’ (p. 12).
I think anyone who has experience with dogs will agree with the above sentiments and will know the true beauty that comes from such intelligent and sensitive creatures. You only have to watch a guide dog at work, seeing the upmost care and devotion they have, to realise just how special a dog can be, never mind the added adrenaline which comes with placing a dog in front of a potential explosive!
Despite the love which is depicted throughout this entire book, Will does not shy away from the often unfair truth which comes with handling a military dog. Often the friendships can be idolised, with people forgetting that the military, strictly speaking, still list these dogs as ‘equipment’ (p. 24), even when our hearts tell us they are so much more than a mere object. What I find pretty heartbreaking is that in order for Will to train Buster and take him to Afghanistan, Buster’s former handler actually had to give him up. This was done voluntarily, as this man understood the true worth of Buster and the good he could do, but its still heartbreaking to consider. Will talks openly and candidly about seeing other people working with his own dogs, even Buster at some points, and does not shy away from the jealousy which can rise to the surface. He likens it to seeing another man with your wife, and looking at my own dog, I honestly think I would feel the same in those conditions. I think people often forget the true nature of these heroic dogs, who are essentially there to ‘work’, and it was quite refreshing if somewhat upsetting to learn more about the truth of it.
Naturally, with the team working in a foreign location, the novel does touch upon the cultural differences between the military and the local Afghan community. One of the biggest dividers is of course the treatment of animals, which differs massively to our westernised love for these animals. The Afghanistan culture does often view dogs as purely a working animal, such as guarding compounds and buildings, or even using dogs to fight for sport. This is of course a massive culture shock to many of the troops who served at the time, but conversely it is also a massive shock to the local Afghan community. As we see from the book, many of them have never before seen a dog treated in such a manner as Buster is, or seen the potential that a trained dog can bring. Quite often in the book people would go from hiding from the strange sight of Buster, to tentatively coming up to stroke him, often with a group of engrossed children trailing behind. It was even more surprising how many people tried to buy Buster for themselves, whether through sheer fascination, or because they realised the great potential of having a dog who could detect the deadly hidden explosives.
One of the things I liked most about this book was the way in which we got to travel with Will and Buster as the pair were moved around. I think it’s easy to forget the transient nature of war in the fact that people are constantly working on different operations and being posted where the need is greatest. This was definitely the case with Buster, with everyone wanting the good luck charm of a dog on their team. Whilst we see much of the quite stereotypical views of Afghanistan, areas which are in mass poverty and have been damaged massively by the effects of terrorism and war, we also see cities such as Kabul which have a much greater contrast in conditions. We still have areas of extreme poverty and deprivation, but it was strange to then read of areas which seemed much more affluent and almost touristic in nature. There would be markets and traders, a day to day life which carries on in the community, and I don’t think this is something we learn enough about in the media. It can be easy to forget that there is such a big community actually living and working in these rapidly contrasted towns.
Despite the long stretches that each tour meant for Will and Buster, with the pair normally away from home for six months at a time, the book moves with a very swift place. The chapters and short and quick, and its easy to get through large portions of the book in no time at all. What I will say is that I did feel at times as if we never really focused on one thing in particular for very long, always moving forwards with quite rapid fire. Because of this pacing I did feel that perhaps I didn’t connect as much to the people within this as I might have liked, although I suppose this is extremely reflective of a war environment. Even so there were still so many funny and strange little moments which the author found time to reflect upon. My particular favourite scene was when a local policeman, after being terrified of Buster, gathered the courage to ask if he could feed him a biscuit. Upon Will agreeing and passing one over, the man quickly set to devouring the biscuit himself!
I really can’t stress enough how important I think non-fiction such as this is. Not only do we get glimpses into a completely different culture and insights into the controversial military presence in the fight against the Taliban, but we also gain a much greater appreciation for the selfless work these animals do for our safety. The bond between Will and Buster was an absolute pleasure to read about, and I think it’s crucially important to know the sacrifices made not only by people, but by animals as well. It literally makes my mind whirl when I consider just how crucially we rely on animals such as dogs to keep us alive, and I only wish more people knew and understood the magnitude of their training and their accomplishments.
Publisher: Virgin Books