It becomes apparent in the first chapter of former SBS soldier, Ant Middleton’s autobiography, that this isn’t the usual story of a young man simply enrolling, deploying to the front line, and joining arguably the most deadliest group of elite soldiers. It isn’t a Hollywood version of conflict or the struggles he faced away from the battlefield. ‘First Man In’ is an honest, often raw, sometimes funny and inspiring account of a young teenager who transformed himself into a man who willingly “leads from the front.”
From the first chapter (or lesson) ‘Don’t Let Anyone Define Who You Are,’ right the way through to the last ‘The Ultimate Leadership Lesson,’ you learn what it takes to become a leader, both mentally and physically. But these aren’t just hollow words devoid of substance. Ant has lived each mistake, each stumble that has drip by drip taught him the importance of leadership. He practices what he preaches.
The opening of the book, you are exposed to this. Telling the story of when he arrived at the gates of Pirbright Camp as a new recruit, only to be turned away as he had arrived a week early, sets in motion a tone within the book, of a man determined to overcome. From the struggle of losing his father, to the fight to regain his identity, each hindrance is defeated but not without hardship.
And that leads me to the most impressive part of ‘First Man In’. Whilst the description of conflict; feeling invincible, “godlike” as bullets soar above his head is utterly compelling, it is the quieter moments of Ant’s story which resonate most. The yearning for answers about his father, who died when he was young; the questioning of whether a career in the Military was the right choice, all amalgamate into an honest, sometimes brutal account of an extraordinary life lived. It is obvious, here is a man who reflects on the challenges he’s faced and commits to memory the path he walked to overcome them.
Now we’re aware we may be making this SBS soldier sound soft, but like most who watch ‘SAS: Who Dares Wins”, this is Ant Middleton and there is plenty of the Chief Instructor we all love (and fear!).
Take his deployment as a Royal Marine to Afghanistan. With such gripping detail he describes the taking of a life, so-much-so you feel you are right there with him, watching the Taliban insurgent. “But the moment he pointed it towards me, he showed me it was a kill-or-be-killed situation. That’s when I accessed my darkness. Two presses on the trigger. Direct hits to the mouth. He was down.”
Breathing again? Nope me neither.
This is what Ant does best, better than most authors; he pulls you in, not because of the visceral nature of killing, but in his line of work, sometimes it is essential. He describes it in a way that most would understand, even something many of us will never experience.
Throughout the book there are many realisations; one, Ant is a tough human being both physically and mentally. Two, his honesty is brightly refreshing in the autobiography world without being self-centred. Three, his commitment to his family is absolute, especially his wife Emilie and five children. Four, he is a man who delves headfirst into the complex and often troubling fight to prove self-worth. And he is unapologetic about it. He doesn’t believe in the self-pitying type. Get up and go. Be a leader. If he can so can you.
‘First Man In’ is Ant’s intimate story told with such detailed precision, you feel you are with him each step, each obstacle course, each test. Through every transformative milestone, from the polite teenager living in France, to the SBS soldier stalking in the long grass, Ant’s life is one of lessons, successes and failures. But it is how he has reacted to each one, that he chooses to allow to define his character.
And as you close the last page, and like any book reflect on what you’ve just read, ‘First Man In’ leaves you thinking just that – you can be one too.