Flight Command by John Oddie

flight-command I first saw John Oddie in a documentary about official war artist Ben Quilty. Oddie was sitting for a series of portraits that are currently part of the After Afghanistan exhibition at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.*

The paintings of Oddie are haunting.  In Oddie’s words Quilty had “not only captured the worn-out air commodore… he had somehow seen and exposed the burden I was carrying and had yet to understand.”

When I knew that Oddie had written this autobiography, I added the book to my reading list, wanting to know more about the man and the “burden”  Quilty had revealed in his paintings.john oddie

After a short introduction into his family background, Oddie moves on to the difficult technicalities of learning to fly various types of aircraft. He covers both fixed wing and helicopters as he progresses through his training and into operational flying. Some of that went completely over my head but in doing so I was left in no doubt about the skill and determination needed to become an accomplished pilot, especially one flying under difficult and dangerous conditions.

As the pilot of a Chinook, one of those familiar, large double rotored helicopters, Oddie had the opportunity to be seconded to an RAF unit in Europe and during this time became part of Britain’s involvement with the first gulf war. One of my favourite anecdotes in the book relates to this period when the RAF (Oddie included) mislaid 14 Chinook helicopters.chinook

Later in the book Oddie moves on to the management side of his experience, as he progressed through the ranks and had to deal more with the bureaucratic aspects of the military. One thing seems clear, that he was intent on improving the way things were done to help his crews increase their efficiency and their safety.

One of Oddie’s more significant roles was overseeing the first response to the 2004 tsunami that devastated so many communities around the Indian Ocean. Oddie’s role was taking aid into Aceh, the worst hit region where around 160,000 lost their lives. Working 22 hour days, Oddie  organised the the aerial delivery of supplies and evacuation of survivors while acting as diplomat alongside the Indonesian military and other aid agencies (many of whom were determined to do things their own way despite the wishes of the local authorities).  I found this to be one of the more interesting parts of the book,  contrasting the earlier technical and bureaucratic elements with the emotional cost of a major disaster. Here is the first glimpse of the “burden” captured in Quilty’s portraits.

Oddie’s final operational military role was overseeing Australian involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a time of many challenges when several Australian servicemen lost their lives.  He writes:

In the eight months I was Deputy Commander JTF633, eight of our people were killed, and I reflect sadly on that price and the eight families damaged as a result…

…By the time I sat down to write this book, Australia had lost forty of its finest sons and over 250 had been injured. In total, including those with lasting emotional or mental damage, well over 300 families will be affected.

Flight Command gives an overview of a military career from recruitment to retirement; from the technical aspects of operating military hardware to dealing with personnel and reducing the risks they face in a high risk occupation. It also shows the emotional cost that is felt most keenly when constant pressure is removed.

What I initially thought was exhaustion from eight months of work in a stressful environment, I later felt was some emotional damage. This increasingly surfaced as the demands of being an active and present military leader faded.

For me the strong points of this book were the parts showing the more human aspects of Oddie’s military service, how people were affected by what they saw and what they did. And also the effects of knowing they couldn’t do enough when a need was too large or a bad situation was unpreventable.

It was the portrait of a haunted man that brought me to this book. While its intensity may not match the painting (for me there was too much technical information I couldn’t follow), we do get quite a bit of insight into the emotional cost of Oddie’s experiences and responsibilities.

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* Ben Quilty’s After Afghanistan Exhibition:  http://www.awm.gov.au/exhibitions/quilty/

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Carte Blanche by Jeffrey Deaver

carte blancheWhen I first read an Ian Fleming Bond book I was a young teen. Bond was someone I could aspire to be, with an adventurous life, unlimited travel and of course, there were always the girls.

For a time James Bond became an obsession. Instead of labelling my school stationery with my own name, their owner was identified as being “J Bond”.

For creative writing assignments, I’d write about Bond-like characters. In the only story I remember, my hero was rescued from an accident and found himself as the “guest” of various Bond villains who had mistaken him for the OO agent. They put him through variations of scenes from the Fleming books, but each time with a different outcome to the one experienced by Bond.

I read some of the Fleming books again a few years later, with slightly less naiveté, but with no less attraction to the adventure. If anything they made me more aware of how mundane and predictable my own work life was, but by then I had more of an idea of the gap between reality and the escapism of Bond and I had a growing awareness that in the real world a promiscuous and violent “Bond lifestyle” comes with consequences.

It’s now been decades since I read a Bond book so my memories of them are quite vague, but when I read Carte Blanche by Jeffrey Deaver I noticed what seemed to be clear differences. The most obvious is that I’m now much older than Bond; in fact I find I’m around the age of his late parents and THAT was a disturbing thing to realise.

Another is his move into the higher tech world of computers, mobile phones and the omnipresence of CCTV; and how they all impact the world of investigation and surveillance.

There’s also a technique used by Deaver that I don’t recall from the original books. It’s something I call the false cliff-hanger. It brings to mind old movie serials (that were before my time) where the hero is shown dropping off a cliff, locked inside an out of control car, unable to open a jammed door. Then the following week, in the cliff-hanger reprise, it’s shown that he actually rolled free of the car just before it reached the cliff edge; even though it had previously been obvious there was no opportunity for such an escape.

With Carte Blanche there are several inescapable situations where Bond clearly has no way out – but then we are told of earlier preparations made for such a possible outcome, where his forethought pays off and he survives.

While that approach might provide a heightened moment of suspense, I couldn’t help feeling cheated. It’s like a who-dun-it where the identity of the guilty party is totally unexpected, but unlike the best of that genre, there are no cleverly hidden clues beforehand that, with hindsight, make the outcome seem obvious.

One thing that isn’t too different is the eccentricity associated with Bond villains. Their extreme actions and ambitions are mirrored by their extreme psychological aberrations and their imaginative methods of carrying out their crimes.

And there are several increasingly deviant and clever crimes in play, some of which are worthy of a place in a Bond story. However I found the “best” ones all seem to be incidental to the main event – a crime that may have been big in scope but was unimaginative and anti-climactic compared to what had come before.

The Wasted Vigil, Nadeem Aslam

wasted vigilI’m writing this before I’ve finished the book, because Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil is book that I don’t want to end. I want to write something about it now before I face the disappointment of reaching the last page.

 There have been books I’ve read recently that I haven’t wanted to put down, that I read at every opportunity until I finished them. This one is different. It isn’t a gripping page-turner to be consumed like fast food, it’s something I want to savour – and enjoy for as long as possible.

 Two years ago my wife took me to lunch on my birthday. We ate at a cafe attached to a commercial art gallery. Both of us ordered vegetable lasagne, and were initially disappointed when the meal was served. It seemed tiny in comparison to our expectations – and apart from a small quenelle of pesto on top, a small rectangle of lasagne was all that was on the plate. There wasn’t even a token garnish of lettuce leaves.

But as soon as we had the first taste,  all disappointment vanished. Every mouthful was rich with the flavours of roasted capsicum, eggplant, zucchini and sun dried tomato, with an occasional burst of pesto…

…but this is not about food. I mentioned that because reading this book gives me the same kind of rich experience, full of different flavours.

quote 1 Set in Afghanistan some time after George W Bush made it the focus of his war on terror, the book sweeps across the country’s turbulent history, throughout which  local war lords and foreign invaders have preyed on the population.  Only the source of oppression or hardship changes: warlords, Russians, The Taliban/Al Qaeda and the United States all have the same kind of  effect on the people, creating fear through the threat of death, disability or even hell’s fire.

The main characters in the book are representative of the major powers of recent Afghan history. All of them are brought together for various reasons in the house of an English doctor who moved to Afghanistan decades before after falling in love with (and marrying) an Afghan woman, also a doctor.

 There’s a Russian woman searching for information about her brother who went missing after trying to defect while he was part of the Russian occupying force in the 80s; a former CIA agent who was part of US involvement with Afghan warlords opposing the Russian occupiers; and then there’s a young man devoted to the Taliban and Al Qaeda who needs to take refuge (hiding his true identity) when he is mistakenly seen to be a traitor by his fellow terrorists.

 This strange collection of “housemates” allows the author to give a vivid and disturbing look at the plight of average Afghan people and the ongoing suffering under several regimes and the various conflicts waged around them.

quote 2The author gets into the minds of each character so that the reader can “understand” what motivates them. The young terrorist is a particularly interesting example, as we are shown how his corrupted world view has been shaped by religiously motivated misinformation to create a hatred for anyone not taking the extreme path that has been instilled into him from childhood.  (Did you know that the Americans have always hated Islam so much that they even assassinated their Moslem President” Ibraheem Lankan”?)

The book presents many heartbreakingly cruel and violent incidents that the western mind would find hard to understand: especially that such things could be officially sanctioned, or at least tolerated, not only by the Taliban, but also, when politically expedient, by the Russians and Americans. But although very disturbing to the reader, those incidents are not treated graphically or gratuitously. Its not the physical horror being highlighted, but the human cost.

 It is a beautifully written, intellectually stimulating book with a compelling story, vivid in imagery and touching multiple senses while stirring the conscience. It ought to be read by every politician potentially in the position of committing troops to conflicts in foreign place.