If I Die in a Combat Zone by Tim O’Brien

I read the previous book (Confessions of a Serial Alibi) within two days. This one, although quite a lot shorter, hasn’t been as easy to get through. There’s a lot to absorb and consider. It’s not the kind of book that can be rushed. Parts of it need to be savoured – enjoying the language and way it enhances descriptions of O’Brien’s experiences – while other parts require reflection, to think about the consequences of what has just been read.

Written from the author’s experience, it is an account of the absurdity and incongruities of an unjust war in Vietnam. A war motivated by ideology and political ambition.

O’Brien writes about the moral struggle when faced with the prospect of being drafted, and how escape to Canada would bring shame on his family and community.

He also considers the ramifications of desertion after the chance for dodging the draft has been missed.

And then there’s the basic training intended to prepare new recruits for what will be faced when they are deployed to Vietnam.

The obsession with (cadence call) singing while marching during training was surely intended to inoculate them to the absurdities ahead, and seems to be a unique, comic feature of American military life made familiar around the world  through many army-based films and TV series.
The examples of this in O’Brien’s book would be laughable if not for the crude misogyny and racism, reflecting the boy’s own patriotic machismo being instilled into young recruits, desensitising their consciences in preparation for the brutalities and atrocities ahead.

On arrival in Vietnam the drafted recruits are welcomed with warnings they are prone to be killed or maimed.

After being given that spiel they are offered a potential life and limb saving option: to “re-up” – basically to sign up to extend their military service to three years, on the “promise” of being given a:

“nice, safe, rear job. You get some on the job training, the works. You get a skill. You sleep in a bed… So. You lose a little time to Uncle Sam. Big deal. You save your ass…

And there’s the experience of endless jungle patrols, raids on often deserted villages; monotonous and pointless manoeuvres in a foreign country for reasons unknown, and probably reasons better NOT known.

…no one in Alpha Company knows or cares about the cause purpose of their war; it is about “dinks and slopes”, and the idea is simply to kill them or avoid them. Except that in Alpha you don’t kill a man, you “waste” him.

Finally there’s the conscience-numbing, empathy-eroding effect of combat, with friends being killed and excessive retaliation resulting in villages being napalmed, and innocent villagers, including children and babies being “wasted”.

And feeling no pity afterwards.

O’Brien’s book has the authenticity of being written by someone with personal experience, and experience is what he conveys: the feelings, the emotions (or lack of) the wrestling with conscience (or lack of) – how war affects and changes a man according to that experience and according to the situation in which he finds himself.

Humanity can easily be suppressed, and yet equally that humanity can resurface in quieter times, when there’s opportunity for reflection on what has been done.

She had been shot once. The bullet tore through her green uniform and into her buttock and went out through her groin. She lay on her side, sprawled against a paddy dike. She never opened her eyes…

…”I wish I could help her.” The man who shot her knelt down…

… The man who shot her peered into her face. He asked if she could be given some shade…

…The man who shot her stroked her hair. Two other soldiers and a medic stood beside her, fanning her and waving at the flies…

…The man who shot her held his canteen to her lips and she drank some Kool-Aid.

Then she twisted her head from side to side. She pulled her legs up to her chest and rocked, her whole body swaying. The man who shot her poured a trickle of water onto her forehead.

Soon she stopped swaying.

 

 

 

 

 

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View From a Low Bough, by Barrie Crowley

I’ve mentioned this book in two earlier posts in which I said that it wasn’t an easy read and that it contains some the very coarse language. It would also fail almost every standard of “political correctness” with its references to “Nogs” (the Vietnamese locals) and “sluts” (local prostitutes).
But among all of the unpleasantness there are some very astute observations about the war in Vietnam and the Australia to which troops returned after their year long posting.

Let’s cut through all the media driven official bullshit. I owe you that much. This, we were told, was a war about a global conspiracy to destroy democracy as we know it. It was a war about the Devil leading the fiendish Viet Cong against the simple gentle peasants of this peace-loving little land, and slaughtering them barbarously.
This is bullshit.
This was in fact about ordinary people working a fertile, beautiful land and paying 90 per cent of their efforts to absentee landlords in Saigon or elsewhere, and was getting nothing in return.
This war was about ordinary people demanding a fairer go, and getting obliterated by the American war machine for daring to ask.”

The author’s year away, while fighting in this American war, made him particularly aware of societal changes that had taken place at home during that year.

That’s what shocked me about coming home. It was another country, another country entirely… it was being occupied: the people, the places, the very structure of our society were being eroded… I’d gone away, presumably to defend my country, and someone stole it while I was away…
the invaders continued to come and set up their tents, and our leaders talked prosperity and greatness ahead – and for them it was true. And they opened the halls of justice and our seats of learning and our offices of sacred trust to the invaders, for sale, for commission. And the people saw it was true and lined up for their share. And those who had no soul and no vision proved adept at bleeding the new system: they flourished and built a proud society around themselves. Based on money.

Crowley also makes this observation about the very vocal anti-war movement of the time, ending the observation with a question worth considering.

We had Moratorium marches here – probably well-meaning people organised them – many marched. But they didn’t march so much to stop the war as to make sure that they or those close to them were not dragged into it. Bullshit you say? Then why are they not marching still?

“My War”

At one time I considered the Vietnam war to be “my” war.

Not because of any real personal or family connection, but because it was going on when my family decided to migrate to Australia, and Australia was one of the combatants; taking its usual stance to support the USA in all of its major military ventures, whether that support was justified or not.

So, at the age of 13 we moved to a country at war, where conscription was practiced.

I was still 5 years away from what I thought was conscription eligibility, but at that time who knew how long the war would continue? (Conscription was actually from age 20, so I was two years out in my expectations). If it continued long enough I could have found myself being sent away to fight.

Then in December 1972 Australian conscription was brought to an end by the new Labor government within days of their taking power. They also stopped Australia’s involvement in the war.

Recently I watched a 10 part documentary series about Vietnam,; a fascinating insight into the history behind it, how American involvement came about, and the political lies that helped perpetuate it.

The series also looked at he increasing opposition to the war within the USA at a pivotal time of cultural change.

Some of what was going on in America was no less disturbing than what was happening in the war itself, with Government violence on American soil leading to tragedies like the killing of students at Kent State, a well-known event I’d heard about decades ago, but not an isolated or unique case of its type.

One thing that stood out in one of the early episodes, was the sense of deja vu I had when I learned how America had backed Ho Chi Minh and his rebel forces during WWII when the future North Vietnamese leader was fighting to free his country from the Japanese invader. Apart from the “irony” of the US later usurping that role as invader, the similarity to another situation a few decades later was obvious; when the US financed and trained the future leaders of Al Qaeda in their attempt to free Afghanistan from  Russian invaders, and then went on the be the invaders themselves, under attack from the very people they had trained and armed in the past.

Watching that series inspired me to return to a book I’d put aside a few years ago. View From A Low Bough by Barrie Crowley, is about the author’s personal experiences in Vietnam.

Vietnam Campaign Medal
Vietnam Medal awarded by the Sth. Vietnamese Govt. to US and Australian personnel after 6 months service

 
Once again I’m not finding it an easy read, but I’m determined not to give up this time. Crowley tries to write as if he’s taking the reader on a personal tour of events and places, to see hear and smell the war he experienced. The style doesn’t always work for me, but I appreciate his interesting insights into life in camp and out on patrol. Enough to make me very grateful that it didn’t become MY war.

The book is also full of “Strong Coarse Language” – as it would be described on an Australian DVD censor’s classification. But that seems appropriate in the context of young men thrown together in a harsh environment, witnessing, or involved in some of the worst aspects of human behaviour, for reasons they could never hope understand.
If they understood would they have gone along with the corrupt political hypocrisy that had sent them there? Even so, they were not blind to the ineptitude and irrationality of those directing the course of the war.

From View From  A Low Bough

“Hearts and Minds, one of the programs was called, one of the greatest abuses of the English language ever perpetrated. It worked this way. Fly over some Nogs and drop some pamphlets about love and peace, fly back later and napalm the ****s. Schizophrenic behaviour; hard to defend allies like that, but we tried”

A third journey I’m taking into 1960s Vietnam is through the 1980s series China Beach. I’m sure I watched some of it when it was first screened 30 or so years ago, but apart from a couple of the characters I don’t remember much.china-beach-season-1

I saw it described as M*A*S*H without the laugh-track – but I don’t think the comparison is fair.

So far I’ve only seen the 90 minute pilot and the first episode and it hasn’t really jogged my memory of any previous viewings.

The opening sequence of the pilot is very evocative in portraying the absurdity and incongruity of the conflict. It starts with a young woman in a red bikini, sitting on a beach. Her solitude is disturbed by the increasing volume of an approaching helicopter. She rises and starts walking away from the beach, firstly through tropical beachside bushes, that start giving way to sandbags, barbed wire, armed soldiers in uniform, and eventually the landing helicopter bringing its cargo of dead and wounded. The woman grabs a surgical smock and puts it on over her bikini…

One clear similarity with M*A*S*H, and the main reason for my interest in the series, is that it’s main character is a nurse in a military hospital, and there’s a regular influx of dust off helicopters bringing casualties to be put back together. Last year I read a few books by (or about) former Vietnam war nurses, and through their eyes got a very different perspective of the war and its human cost, and it’s that aspect that most interests me, so I’m looking forward to having time to watch more of China Beach.

 

nurse badge

Australian Vietnam nurse’s collar badge from my collection.

 

Military Medicine. Three Conflicts

bad-medicine

Bad Medicine by Terry Ledgard.
Subtitled “a no holds barred account of life as an Australian SAS Medic during the war in Afghanistan”.

This would be the most disappointing book of the “military medic” books I’ve read. Firstly I thought it had too little about the author’s work “during the war in Afghanistan “ (as the title led me to believe). Secondly I found the “no-holds barred” description relates more to a style dependant on clumsy “blokey” crudities than on gritty uncompromising reporting of a medic’s work in a war zone. It seemed to me that he was trying too hard to come across as a “bad boy”

 

combat-medicCombat Medic by Terry Pickard.
Now THIS is the kind of book I expected when I bought the one mentioned above. Despite the slight similarity in author’s names, I thought this book presented a far more honest “no-holds barred” account of a medic faced with the horrors of a war zone. In this case the author recounts his experiences during the Kibeho Massacre in Rwanda in April 1995.

Engaged in a UN peace keeping mission, Pickard and his colleagues found themselves caught up in a devastating killing spree carried out against refugees by the Rwandese Patriotic Army where more than 4,000 men women and children were murdered. The exact number of dead far exceeded the confirmed number, but further counting of the casualties was prevented by the RPA after UN officials had reached the 4,000 mark. Also it was clear that many bodies had been disposed of prior to the count starting.

Pickard’s return to Australia after his deployment in Africa saw him suffer severely from PTSD, resulting in his discharge from the Army just short of the 20 years’ service that would have entitled him to a military pension.

 

tearsTears on My Pillow by Narelle Biedermann.
Here is a slightly different side to the military medical story, concentrating on Australian nurses serving in Vietnam.
The first part of the book gives a brief background history of the war, an overview of the successive Australian field hospitals and a brief introduction to the nurses’ role.

The second part gives individual stories of several of the nurses who served throughout Australia’s involvement in the conflict. Heartbreaking stories could never be avoided when young men, just entering manhood were regularly being killed or maimed in horrific ways, but there are also lighter moments of all too short breaks from the heavy workloads of understaffed operating theatres and recovery wards.
Stories from several different nurses show how differently each of them coped (or not) with what they were facing, but two things remains constant, firstly how little preparation they were given to get them ready for the extremely demanding and stressful work and conditions they were sent to face. And secondly how little support they were given to help them return to lives back in Australia.