“With the SAS and other animals” provides a fascinating account of a young, Royal Army Veterinary Corps officer’s, six-month tour of duty in the Sultanate of Oman. The significance of this, somewhat unusual, attachment emerges through the author’s biographical account of his contribution to the Dhofar War. The account is colourful, vivid and entertaining, bringing to life the many challenges of this fine example of a “Hearts and Minds” operation.
In 1970, the British supported the young Sultan Qaboos of Oman who, having come to power, was faced with a huge range of challenges. On the one hand, he had to deal with rebels who controlled large tracts of the country. On the other hand, the country urgently needed modernising. Health, education and transport infrastructures all had to be developed. Peace and security was therefore as much an aim of this campaign as the creation of an orderly, safe and attractive society.
The SAS played a key role in supporting and training the Sultan’s Armed Forces. It was also recognised, however, that they needed to persuade the villagers caught up in the conflict of their good intentions and that they had much to gain from integrating themselves into the new regime. Critical to this work was the development of a veterinary service that the locals could turn to when the livestock they were totally dependent on became ill.
Andrew Higgin’s account of his experiences as the last of the British Army Training Team’s vets in Dhofar is fascinating on a number of levels. Firstly, it will be of interest to veterinary professionals who have worked and travelled in the developing world. It will be particularly inspiring to young vets in their first year or two of practice, who are wondering where their new qualification, skills and training can take them.
For myself, as someone who works a great deal in the Arab world and who is fascinated by the cultural similarities and differences in the way we relate to animals, this book held other meanings. Andrew Higgins describes some of the traditional remedies used by the tribes people, including branding, and discusses these in a relatively open, non-judgemental and pragmatic manner. This account thus relates the challenges of providing veterinary care and developing an animal health system in a developing country and the various problems that have to be resourcefully tackled. These include lack of infrastructure, the uncertainty produced by sudden change, the importance of watering holes, the need for quarantine systems and the compromises that have to be struck in an imperfect world.
The book is written in a style that I can perhaps best describe as “Officer’s Mess” for Andrew Higgins was very much an insider within the British Armed Forces looking out on a very different culture, with traditions and values to match. This leaves one wondering what the reality was like for other people (locals, rebels and other less privileged individuals). This is not a criticism, but one should always give some thought in reading any account to the voices that go unheard.
The book is full of lovely sketches and some of the military anecdotes are very entertaining. I chuckled, for example, when reading that the best defence against landmines was to make sure that you were in an open top Landrover, thereby ensuring that you have a good chance of being thrown clear. How very different the recent debate in Afghanistan has been…
To finish, it is worth returning to my suggestion that this book may prove inspiring for young vets wondering what to make of their future careers… And the all-too-famous motto of the SAS that finds itself on the front cover of this book: “Who dares wins”!
With the SAS and other animals: A vet’s experiences during the Dhofar War 1974.
Pen and Sword Military, Barnsley, South Yorkshire.
Date of Publication:
£19.95 (hard back).
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