Maybe I had at one point, but considering the flood of daring Spec Op stories these days, it is understandable that only the most recent exploits are memorable. With that being said, Damien Lewis' ZERO SIX BRAVO details one such mission that I was previously unaware of: A group of 60 British special operators sneaking deep into Iraq to seek the surrender of the 100,000 strong Iraqi Army's 5th Corps in the early days of the Iraq War. While the boldness of the mission plan and the teeth-clenching chaos it produced certainly provide a great storyline, the book seemed stuck in "preheat" a little too long before things started to cook.
The factors surrounding this particular mission are most compelling: Super-elite British SAS/SBS forces (which included a smattering of Americans) driving open-top Land Rovers over 1,000 miles into Iraq to force/urge an enemy fighting force of 100,000 to surrender. The almost absurd risk of the mission earned the nickname "Operation No Return" before it even started. Despite the raiding force's superior technology, weaponry and skills, the uncertainty of how the Iraqi's will react to the surrender request would dictate not only success or failure, but life or death for the British operators. Basically, the mission added up to driving 1000 miles into enemy territory just to kick a hornet's nest and see how it reacts.
This book certainly has the ingredients for a nail-biting thriller, but it falls a little short of being great in the sense that it dragged on a little too long (roughly 2/3s of the book) before the real action starts popping. Another issue is that Lewis opted to focus on one unit's experience of the mission (M Squadron) as opposed to an overall view. In other words, we're only getting part of the story. There are some instances where the narrow perspective of one unit's predicament leaves readers guessing at what other units in the group are doing in critical moments ... Lewis simply details one of several finely-tuned cogs in the well-oiled 60-man machine and it isn't even the commanding cog. When the entire force runs into the enemy and everything goes awry, the narrow scope Lewis presents hints at other units in the group acting less-competently (getting mired in river bed and failing to prevent the enemy from obtaining sensitive/classified equipment). While this surely may be unintentional, it comes across that way at times.
When the British force is ambushed before reaching their objective, the action starts ratcheting up exponentially. The combat described in the book is more "cat and mouse" with the SAS/SBS men (the mice) driving around the desert at night trying to avoid a hunting party that appears to include tanks from the Iraqi 5th Corps and diehard Saddam loyalists (Fedayeen) zipping around in Toyota's with heavy machine guns mounted to them (the cats). The sense of desperation and frustration are clearly outlined as the group finds itself surrounded with avenue of escape and not enough ammunition or manpower to fight its way out of the predicament. The last 1/3rd of the book is action-packed and exciting; it just took a little too long to get there.
While I was a little disappointed in Lewis' presentation, ZERO SIX BRAVO was a worthy read in that it sheds light on how elite soldiers respond so well when the stuff hits the fan. Bad intelligence resulted in 60 men facing certain death, but these men innately found ways to handle everything thrown at them (in the dark, no less) ... amazing. I certainly wouldn't mind seeing a screen-adaptation of the story. One thing I do find mind-boggling: that of the book being written in part to offset these SAS/SBS being labeled as "cowards" for refusing to die or be captured (they fought their way out of a disaster). You seriously have to wonder what special-kind of idiot would seriously label any Special Forces soldier as "cowardly". If anything, the book certainly dispels that ridiculous notion.