11/11/1918 One Hundred Years + One Day.

And a live, more anarchic version of the song I posted yesterday.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

A High Mortality of Doves, by Kate Ellis

doves.jpg

With its Derbyshire setting, within a period immediately after the First World War, this book fulfils both the geographical and historical criteria that attracted me to a particular type of crime fiction.

In Wenfield, Derbyshire, the villagers are well aware of the cost of the recent war. Many of its men didn’t return, others returned home damaged in body or mind.

No less damaged are those who were left behind. Family members who turn to mediums for comfort. And family members who, by clinging to vain hope, make themselves vulnerable to a more deadly threat.

A letter draws Myrtle Bligh to an isolated place to meet Stanley, the man she’d loved prior to reports of his death in battle. In the hope that he’d survived, she follows the letter’s instructions, but it isn’t Stanley who meets her.

She becomes the first victim of a killer preying on Wenfield’s women.

The story alternates between the viewpoints of Flora Winsmore, the local doctor’s daughter and Albert Lincoln, a Scotland Yard detective brought in from London when local police recognise they are out of their depth.

Flora’s local knowledge is valuable to Albert the outsider and they develop an increasingly close relationship as they try to find the perpetrator before anyone else is murdered.

The lingering effects of war upon a community, are at the heart of the crimes within this story, where casualties of war are not always victims of the battlefield and those responsible for the damage may not be considered as enemy combatants.

Thanks to Sarah Ward for making me aware of this book through her blog entry here: https://crimepieces.com/2018/05/31/reading-round-up-2/

Keep the Home Fires Burning, edited by Jen Edgar

home firesKeep the Home Fires Burning (World War II Stories from Swadlincote and Surrounding Areas), edited by Jen Edgar.

For several months I had this book on a wish list with a second hand book dealer, before I finally decided it was time to buy it.

I’ve long wanted to find out more about the wartime history of my family home-village, Newhall, where I spent my childhood. Swadlincote is the nearest town, and by the time I lived there, village and town had more or less merged into each other.

Located at the southern tip of Derbyshire, Swadlincote is close to the borders of Staffordshire and Leicestershire and was developed around the presence of coal and clay. My family had lived in this area for generations until we moved to Australia in 1971.

I’ve heard a few war time anecdotes from my parents, and I’ve been interesting in finding out more of that war time history beyond those family stories. Disappointingly this book didn’t provide what I’d been hoping for.

Based on personal interviews of residents of the area, the book has been compiled as a collection of memories that haven’t been given any context. They remain as separate, unrelated accounts that could relate to anywhere instead of having any particular local relevance.

For me the most significant aspect of the book was the involvement of students from my former school (William Allitt School, Newhall) in the interviewing process.

I’m sure there would have been many more interesting stories out in the community, sadly stories that are being lost as a war time generation dies out. There would also be a framework of historical events that could have given a collection of anecdotes and memories a logical context. Despite what I’m sure were worthy intentions, I found this book misses those opportunities

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?

Old Habits

This month I’ve returned to a practice I’d recently abandoned; that is reading more than one book at a time.

For several months now I’ve stuck to reading a single book from beginning to end before starting another, but maybe two weeks ago I picked up a second, and then a third book, slowing down my progress while I try to juggle between the three.

The first was a book of short stories upon which the TV series Grantchester is based. I heard an interview with the author, James Runcie, and was drawn to the stories of a C of E priest who finds himself drawn into murder solving.

I’ve seen the drama series advertised on TV but didn’t like the look of it, but after hearing the author speak of the differences between book and TV versions, I thought I could give the books a chance. One of those differences seems to be the extent that the lead character pursues “romantic” relationships. The impression I got from the author, and also from the brief advertising clips of the show, the TV version leans more to sexual relationship than “romantic”.

I recall the author saying something along the lines that in reality the minister would have been driven out of his position in the church if his actions had been discovered.

So far I’ve finished the first of the stories in the first Grantchester book, originally titled Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death. The story introduces Sidney Chambers, the Anglican priest, and how he was introduced to the world of detection. The mistress of suicide victim asks for his help, being convinced he hadn’t taken his own life. Chambers reluctantly makes some discreet enquiries and becomes convinced that she’s right. But how does he take that conviction to his police detective friend?

The story itself is reasonably simple. It’s length doesn’t allow for too much complexity, so the murder is solved with relative ease. While enjoyable as a short read, it didn’t draw me in and keep me hooked in the way that my previous crime reading has done. I also see it being in the Miss Marple and Jessica fletcher (Murder She Wrote) line of murder mysteries, that to me stretch credulity too far. How many murders does the average person come across? And is it credible that they could actually solve the countless murders that they somehow attract into the sphere of their daily lives?

My crime fiction preference therefore leans to police centred murder enquiries where the protagonists are more likely to come across crimes of this nature.

I’ve now put that book of short stories aside while I tackle the two other books currently on my reading list.

I’ve written a little about the second book in a previous post, View From a Low Bough, by Barrie Crowley. It’s not an easy book to get through. It is episodic, with Crowley taking the reader on a journey through various aspects of his time served in the Vietnam War. He addresses his reader as a companion being shown around his various haunts and activities. While the surface has a veneer of humour, there is also a clear undercurrent of the horrors and degradation to which he and his fellow soldiers were subjected. It is clear that he recognised (or has come to recognise) the war’s futility and contradictions.

I repeat an excerpt that I used in my earlier post:

“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”

It’s not a “pretty” book. It’s no literary gem. It’s very uncomfortable reading due to its style and the bluntness of its very coarse language, but it comes across as a disturbingly honest account. At times Crowley appears to relish in sharing some R-rated [extreme coarse language], boys own adventures, but he also paints a disturbingly vivid backdrop that brings those “adventures” into the context of a bloody and unnecessary war.

 

And on to the third…

The Hanging Valley is another in Peter Robinson’s DCI Banks series.
A body is discovered in a remote valley near the village of Swainshead. What seems to be the murder of an unknown tourist develops into a story of a village where everyone has something they want to hide; but to what extent will covering up their personal secrets hinder Banks’s investigation?

I started this as an escape from the slow progress I was making through the Vietnam memoir. I was eager to get back to a good page turning read, and I haven’t been disappointed yet by anything in this series.

The only problem with this approach is that I can’t read both at the same time, and I have to decide which one to pick up and therefore, by default, which one gets neglected.

While I enjoy the entertainment value of an excellent crime mystery thriller, especially one where character development is given equal weight, I’m a person who likes to learn – so, while they may not have the same page turning nature, I’m also eager to dive into books that potentially aid my understanding of topics of personal interest (currently the Vietnam war)

If only, after that initial dive, the actual reading was easier than swimming through rough waters against the current.