Set it down!

WAR IS A particularly slippery subject for any cold eye to fasten on. In May 2014 I was walking through the départements of Lozère, Aveyron, Lot and Tarn-et-Garonne in southern France, and the village war memorials caught my attention. Apart from the horrifying numbers listed, there were various other, quite incendiary, additions: a family of five shot in the village of Grealou, and the ages of the children given; a man ‘assassiné par les allemands’. Germans were walking through these villages every day, and I talked to them and to the French people. The Germans grimaced and shook their heads and were hurt to hear themselves still being referred to as les Boches. The French said the Germans wouldn’t talk about it – and that they had started it after all. Yet both parties said relations between France and Germany were now friendly, bordering on exuberant. This manoeuvring around European war memories prodded me to acknowledge my own manoeuvres, albeit ones of a very different kind.

Of all forms of historical writing, military history is likely to be the least comprehensive, least nuanced and most prone to distortive bias. The health of the national psyche, for a start, is presumed to depend on an upbeat military story. Anything less than a glorious record is going to be unsettling and, in the worst case, treacherous. Accounts of the ups and downs of the wool trade in Australia, or of the battles between free-traders and protectionists, are not going to gut their readers or make them ashamed to be Australian. However, accounts of inglorious defeats or rampaging, murderous soldiery will have such a demoralising effect.

The problem here is more complicated than making historiography subservient to national pride. There are two temporal universes for this historical art: the more-or-less contemporary one where there are living witnesses and evidence may still be extracted; and that of the dead, where no more will be said or written by its participants. Vietnam is still the former, whereas World War I is now irrevocably the latter. In an acute form, military history faces both problems and advantages in that first universe.

Between 2009 and 2011, I researched and wrote an account of an Australian infantry company in Vietnam in 1967–68, All Day Long the Noise of Battle: An Australian attack in Vietnam (Pier 9, 2011), which proved to be a lesson on the in-built constraints on contemporary military history. Of course, whenever we write about the living we’re constrained by libel laws; within those boundaries, anyone from politicians and magnates to cardinals are fair game for exposure and criticism. But war veterans aren’t. The consequence is that accounts of the wars in which they served will almost certainly not be the whole truth. Ideally, the evidence will be gathered, but occasionally it can’t be discussed. It will have to go into storage, and in the fullness of time, when those soldiers have been gathered to their fathers, it can be used – might be used – and the more complete accounts can be written.

MY BOOK RELIED on interviews with sixty-two veterans. Contrary to popular lore about the reticence of returned soldiers, only two men refused to speak to me. I was invited into the veterans’ homes and to their battalion reunion, given diaries, letters and photos. I felt awed and privileged by this generosity, not least because I myself had never been near military combat. Furthermore, on meeting these men it became clear to me that none of them could be regarded as, let’s say, happier human beings as a result of going to war. As they entrusted me with their stories, often with shaky hands, I noticed in them a range of delicate and combustible emotions: they could be scrupulous, angry, resentful and proud. They might be tense with the desire to get something off their chests, determined to set a record straight, open about their own psychological troubles, distressed about a comrade’s lack of recognition, or smarting about their treatment by a superior officer forty years ago.

In time, once my project was finished and I had a book, the sense of responsibility I felt had doubled. I not only felt some sort of duty of care, but also – partly because people said so, and because I came to believe them – it was that I had constructed a memorial to the men and had delivered them some degree of public recognition. But I had not started writing the book for that purpose; nor was the book the unambiguous salute of a carved memorial.

As I was writing it, I was trying to steer between the two evils of intellectual disreputability and hurtfulness to my subjects. For all the tensions that emerged, veterans had a strong sense of comradely solidarity, and early on I came across the often-explicit presumption that nobody should be hurt by what I wrote. I subscribed to this principle as readily as anyone.

Of course, it was naive – people were certain to be hurt. If I had, for example, two or more conflicting accounts of an incident (which was frequently the case) and decided that one was less reliable and less accurate, or even implied as much, then one of my informants would feel slighted.

But some winnowing and balancing of accounts was inevitable. And the veterans themselves saw that there had to be exceptions to the principle of spared feelings when they found themselves saying things to me such as, ‘You have to be frank about X’s behaviour, or you bring other men into disrepute.’ Besides, for all their comradeship, I found a lot of antagonisms and bitterness floating in the soup of memory. Men who were seen as harsh or malingering – now or forty years ago – or as braggarts or monopolisers of the company’s story, aroused angry resentment.

One quality, however, that was never attributed to anyone was cowardice. Not orally, not directly to me. Cowardice is a blunt, ugly word that I never used in the book, not least because the veterans themselves never used it. They spoke freely enough about men breaking down, but generally they didn’t speak about them censoriously. Only twice did I hear any exceptions to this, and the noteworthy fact was that the men criticised in each case were officers; there was an explicit assumption that what was understandable and excusable in an enlisted man was unpardonable in an officer. All the extra training you were given at the officers’ schools – at Scheyville or Portsea or at the Royal Military College Duntroon – should have made you invulnerable to such breakdowns. Furthermore, any breakdown that occurred was a besmirching of that alma mater’s reputation. To me, this seemed harsh and unreasonable, but it appeared to be a principle of soldierly thinking.

Nervous collapse was the most sensitive issue the veterans told me about; it occurred frequently in different forms, and the stories ranged widely. There were those about non-commissioned officers whose nerves gradually deteriorated to the point where they no longer went on operations. Or an officer who was regularly brought in prematurely from operations because of eye trouble, but was eventually seen by one of his subordinates smearing his eyes with mosquito repellent. Or men who were taken out as casualties when harm was more likely done to their nervous system than their flesh. Or men who collapsed, weeping and hysterical, in the midst of battle. Even now, when we speak and read of shellshock or battle fatigue, we tend to think of it as a disability that comes on after battle and makes a return to the field impossible. But there are those confronting cases of a man’s nervous system collapsing during combat. We have long been conditioned towards harsh judgments on any form of throwing in the towel, running away, shrinking from the fight; yet it is common in battle.

WHAT WAS I to do with such facts about Australian soldiers, most of them still living? Some were marginal enough to my story; some I was told about without being given a name. I didn’t pursue these men. Others, however, were more central. I knew their names and I interviewed them. In retrospect, the principle that evolved was that I myself shouldn’t bring up the matter of collapse. If the veteran did, I would follow it up as delicately as possible. In one case the veteran made no mention of any collapse, but made passing reference to a superior brand of toughness that some of his comrades demonstrated. His chronological memory was completely skew-whiff, however, with whole days missing – including a crucial day of battle – and it’s quite possible that he had no recollection at all of what had happened to him. I wasn’t going to press him any further; he seemed to me a truthful witness and a fine man, and there I was accepting his warm hospitality. I would have to find a way to tell the story without spotlighting his problems.

Of another man, I was told that he’d collapsed when his platoon came under heavy machine gun fire; he’d been crying and shouting out ‘No more, no more!’ and had been quite impervious to orders or appeals. I met this man at the reunion and asked if I could ring him – you don’t try and talk intimately to veterans late at night in a vast dining room or even when they’re wandering around during the day bumping into and greeting one another. He gave me his card and some weeks later I rang. I had barely begun to explain who I was when he interrupted and said, ‘I lost it on Coburg [the operation I was most concerned with] and I had to be taken out and I don’t remember anything.’ I was pulled up short and moved by this man’s ready, courageous admission. I included the fact of the breakdown in my account of the action, but I didn’t reveal the man’s identity.

In one instance, however, I did name a soldier. In October 1967 his platoon had come across a group of three Vietcong, apparently resting convivially. The Australians crept forward and fired a machine gun on the three enemy soldiers, killing them all. Several men in the platoon told me that the machine gunner was very badly affected; he had been crying and pleading for the dead to be buried properly, and not just thrown into their trench. Again, I later spoke to the machine gunner himself and he very quickly confirmed the incident: ‘We went forward and I broke down when I saw the mess I’d made.’ When I was writing I wanted this man to remain anonymous as well, so I referred to him as ‘the machine gunner’. But I also detailed how he’d never gone on another major operation, but had held another important function in the company (managing the canteen, which I couldn’t reveal). In this context, the repeated use of the label ‘the machine gunner’ came to seem inappropriate, even ridiculous. So I rang the man and asked him if he’d prefer to remain anonymous or have his name used. Without hesitation he said he wanted his name, Peter Stapleton, to be used. I was relieved, even delighted.

But months later, when I had the book ready to go to the publishers, I still keenly felt the rawness of this story – something I felt beyond anything else in the book. And, as it happened, there was one other story in the book about Peter Stapleton. It was raw too, but in a completely different kind of way: it concerned his friendship, not sexual relationship, with a Vietnamese bar girl. Did he realise, I asked myself, how he was exposing himself? So I sent him the relevant passages and asked, ‘This is what it looks like on the page. How do you feel?’ And he wrote back saying he’d looked at it, and his wife too had looked at it, and they thought it was fine. And later, even after publication, he thought it was fine and wrote to me saying, ‘Thank you for writing this part of history… Another part of my life has now been put at ease, again thank you. I will read it again.’

Such responses have been immensely moving, but I don’t kid myself into thinking I’ve caught more than just tiny fragments of these men’s war experiences, nor that I’ve avoided all hurt. Late in writing the book, I was shown Janet McCalman’s 1997 essay ‘Writing the Living’, about books that are based largely on interviews. This is a cogent and disturbing essay, and its logic seems to come close to affirming that writer and interviewee are co-authors, and that the interviewee should always be shown the proposed text, if not actually given some power of veto over it. The argument seems to imply that the originating authors should be ready to deprive themselves of any ultimate control over the books that are to appear under their name.

This essay certainly put extra pressure on me to read my text as the soldiers, its subjects, might read it. Yet McCalman’s own books dealt with numerous individuals, few of whom would have heard of any of the others. My book, on the other hand, was partly about conflicting memories and my research had revealed, and sometimes brought to the surface, tensions, rivalries and antipathies within a group of men who had lived and fought in intimate proximity for several years. It would have been totally unfeasible to submit my proposed manuscript to all its contributors and participants. Had I done so the result would have been anarchy, and a dead stop to the project.

So McCalman’s best practice was closed to me. The sifting and the final judgment had to be mine. But I knew that even so, my account of this company of soldiers would be limited. My interview notes bear the evidence to take the account forward, but not in the lifetime of my informants and subjects. Without extraordinary permission, you can’t write of a man still living that he lay down on the battlefield and cried – not least when he has no memory of that behaviour. Yet such abject breakdown is the reality of Australian military history, time and again, even if CEW Bean doesn’t mention one case. Nor Gavin Long, nor the official historians of Vietnam.

Meeting these veterans was, inevitably, an introduction to their lives post-Vietnam. I had no intention of writing past Vietnam and 1968, but I found one small, brilliant flare going up over the postwar period that gave me a moment of illumination. It was a story told to me by Peter Dowling, a National Serviceman from Werribee, a house painter in civilian life, a popular man and a good soldier, wearing a lance corporal’s stripe before he left Vietnam.

His story consisted of a yarn and a tiny coda, and I decided to end the book with them. His yarn concerned the night he was flown back to Australia from Saigon; he and his comrades of the fourth National Service intake were put in a room at Sydney airport, given tea and biscuits and told they would be leaving for their home states around 6 am the following morning. Dowling and his friend from Perth, Peter Curley, took a taxi to Kings Cross. Dowling wanted a drink of milk more than anything, but the Cross wasn’t offering it. Then, on their way back to the airport, they sighted a milk van on its early morning run. They stopped and Dowling asked the milko if he could buy a couple of bottles. ‘Give us your empties,’ said the milko. ‘I haven’t got any empties,’ said Dowling. ‘No empties, no milk,’ said the milko. Dowling exploded. ‘I’ve just got off the fucking plane from Vietnam! Where would I get empties!’ The milko shrugged and turned his back and drove on. Dowling got back in the taxi. But then the van stopped, the milko jumped out, ran across the road and left two bottles on a doorstep and drove on. Dowling nipped over and swiped them.

As a master of narrative, Dowling immediately cut from this story to a low-key coda. ‘When I got home to Werribee,’ he said, ‘I went into my old room and threw down my kit and sat on the bed and burst into tears. My mother came in and said, “That’s enough of that. You’re home now.”’

For someone like myself, educated to be aware of literary tropes, this story was a gem. To move from the man’s childlike craving for milk to his mother’s refusal to succour him, is the delicate, nuanced metaphor that writers dream of. Immediately, I knew this was where I would end my book.

After it was published, another man rang me, Jim Feeney – a fine man, a brave soldier and a selfless medic. He ruminated on the book for about twenty minutes and then suddenly said, ‘I didn’t like Peter Dowling’s story.’

I was rocked.

‘Why not?’ I asked him, as mildly as I could.

‘I didn’t like it’ turned out to mean ‘I didn’t believe it’. He was a fourth National Service intake soldier too, Feeney said, and was on the same flight home as Dowling, and yes they had been put into a room at Sydney Airport. But…the room was then locked. Military Police were stationed beside the door inside and airport security personnel outside it. No one could have got out.

Oh dear! I was mightily pleased the book was already in print. Throughout it I had argued the merits of differing memories, but I hadn’t questioned Peter Dowling’s wonderful quest for milk. Even now I still don’t want to query it. I tell myself there’s probably a way of reconciling the stories of two good men. Under fire, Dowling had held a dead comrade in his arms; under fire, Jim Feeney had rushed to the aid of wounded comrades. You don’t want to shine any torches on the stories of these men. After all, on Jim Feeney’s side, it would make sense that the Army didn’t want to risk any accidents with these young National Servicemen, not during these last few hours that they were in the Army’s care. So yes, it might make a perverse kind of sense to lock them up. But, on Peter Dowling’s side, maybe the lockup wasn’t entirely effective? Maybe there was a moment of inattention before everybody got into the room. Maybe the authorities somehow discriminated? Or maybe there was some lapse of time, very early in the morning, between them being let out of this detention and catching their flights home, and it was then that Dowling made his bid for the Cross and met his milko?

One day, some researcher might do a micro-study of the last twenty-four hours in uniform of Australian National Servicemen of the Vietnam era. They might manhandle my story and set it right, if badly mutilated. For the present it stands as a tale I want to be true, possibly as another brick in the rickety edifice of the Australian digger. So that Australian military history sails on, incomplete, not just because there are some stories you can’t tell, but also because there are other stories that are just too good not to tell.


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