The Commando (the life and death of Cameron Baird VC. MG.) by Ben Mckelvey

The Commando, is a biography of Cameron Baird the 100th (and to date last) Australian Victoria Cross winner who was killed in Afghanistan in June 2013.

It was quite a disturbing read, although I’m not sure it was intended to be so in the way I found it. It was written to honour a ‘hero” but (to me) it did more to expose a lot of uncomfortable issues related to Australia’s part in the war in Afghanistan and what it did to the special forces troops trained and posted to serve there.

It shows how Baird and his regiment lived to kill and were always impatient to be sent out on a mission to hunt down the “Taliban”. (The author notes at the beginning of the book that he used the term “Taliban” as a kind of generic name for any hostile Afghan – who weren’t necessarily associated with the religious group, but were assumed to pose a potential danger to western troops).

At one stage Baird and his Australian colleagues were used as the weaponised arm of the American Drug Enforcement Agency, with the aim of destroying Afghan drug cultivation and manufacture: basically as guns for hire, because apparently the US Government wouldn’t allow US troops to be used for that purpose.

Among his colleagues Baird was considered lucky because he died in action on one of the last missions in Afghanistan. Those surviving colleagues have found it hard to settle back into everyday life. One of the men interviewed for the book killed himself not long after giving the interview.

I’ve read or seen accounts of the other three Australians awarded a Victoria Cross for their service in Afghanistan and I was left in no doubt why they were deemed worthy of the award. However with this account I wasn’t so sure about the reason for Cameron Baird’s award. The book just didn’t make it clear why his final action stood out from what his colleagues had also done to earn his posthumous VC.

I feel some discomfort writing this because it might come across as being critical of Cameron Baird, a man who gave his life in service of political decisions made by his country’s leaders. That’s not what I want to do. He was clearly a very likeable man, fully committed to whatever he set his mind to – whether that was football during his youth or his military career as an adult. He wasn’t a man willing to compromise to make do with a second rate effort or to be happy with anything less than a first rate outcome.

Any deserved criticism needs to be directed at the political and military systems that train men to become killing machines but do little to help them return to normality when those “skills” are no longer required.

Advertisements

While History Passed, by Jessie Elizabeth Simons

Knowing that I love to read, whenever I visited Gloria’s family, her dad would hand me one of his very few books.

He’d served in the RAAF in Borneo towards the end of WWII and as a result disliked the Japanese.

I always thought he wanted me to read the book so I’d know why the Japanese were so contemptible. The book was White Coolies by Betty Jeffrey.
As politely as possible I resisted his attempts to “indoctrinate” me, so after a brief flick through the book I handed it back unread.

220px-paradiseroad1997posterFast forward a couple of decades, and not long after his death, I realised the book was probably something worth reading. By that time I’d heard more about the events it described. Unfortunately no trace of it could be found among his possessions and I regretted the lack of interest I’d shown over many years. If only I’d foreseen the interest I now have in the lives of military nurses.

White Coolies is Jeffrey’s account of her time as a prisoner of the Japanese, captured after the sinking of the ship, SS Vyner Brooke that was taking her and other nurses away from Singapore and its imminent capture by the Japanese army.
The story was adapted into the 1997 film Paradise Road

I haven’t yet obtained a copy of Jeffrey’s book. Maybe I need to get over the realisation that I could have obtained a hardcover copy, old but in good condition, that also had a few relevant, period news clippings slipped between its covers.history But I have come across other accounts of the same events such as On Radji Beach by Ian Shaw, a book I’ve had for a while but haven’t yet read and While History Passed by Jessie Elizabeth Simons, who was part of the same group of nurses held prisoner by the Japanese. I came across a second-hand, ex-library copy a few weeks ago. Until then hadn’t been aware of the book’s existence, so was willing to overlook its condition. (It seems a child decided a lot of the pages were too plain without their addition of colourful scribbles).

Simons tells her story of evacuation from Singapore as the Japanese were moving in, of the sinking of the ship taking her to safety and of her subsequent capture and imprisonment by the Japanese after surviving some time afloat at sea.

Others weren’t so lucky. Many drowned and those reaching shore first were rounded up and murdered by the Japanese. Men were taken into the jungle and bayonetted. The nurses were forced into the sea and machine gunned.

Simons survived three and a half years of the malnutrition and disease that claimed the lives of many of those imprisoned with her. She wrote:

“…the death rate soared to a new record, daily broken.
We had to dig graves, construct rough coffins and bury our own dead, often at the rate of three a day in our own circle of acquaintance. For mothers who had sacrificed from their own rations for the past two and a half years to give their children a better chance of coming through, Muntok camp was a grim, never-to-be-forgotten last stand against their children’s starvation. Far too many of them fought a losing battle; one woman saw four of her five children die within a week from the accumulated effects of malnutrition. Total war!

Somehow there were always a few flowers for the funerals, pathetic little processions of a few friends paying respects to one who had “gone before” – a banal phrase that leapt to new life and meaning as the half-dead wondered whose turn would be next.”

This was posted on 12th February 2017. I had intended it to be on  the 75th anniversary of the Vyner Brooke’s sinking, but somehow along the way I mixed up the dates. The anniversary was the 14th.

Baghdad Burning : Girl Blog from Iraq by Riverbend

baghdad burningBaghdad Burning should be compulsory reading for every US, British and Australian citizen.

It clearly describes how those nations helped destroy peoples’ lives and culture, all in the name of family Bush and those nations who followed them based on blatant falsehoods.

The book should be compulsory reading for political or military leader who think their invasion of another country is in the best interests of the people of that country.

While published as books in two volumes, Baghdad Burning was originally written as blog entries, as events unfolded, by an Iraqi woman as the life she knew was destroyed by the Bush family invasion of her country and its aftermath.

Well written. Grippingly informative. Devastatingly frank. Even at times joyful and humorous.

It’s not easy reading.  It can’t be read quickly. It requires regular breaks to reflect on what has been said. To reflect on the injustice, outright criminality and corruption all carried out in the name of “freedom” and “democracy”.

The blog is still available on line, don’t forget to start at the beginning by using the menu on the side bar, and don’t read in reverse order by starting at the opening page and working downwards.

https://riverbendblog.blogspot.com.au/

 

However if you are interested in the books volume one is available here, at the time of writing this it was half price: https://www.bookdepository.com/Baghdad-Burning/9780714531304.

Volume 2 almost half price: https://www.bookdepository.com/Baghdad-Burning–v–2/9780714531335

 
BB vol 2

History Mine: a personal history of history (3)

This year I renewed research into my family tree after stumbling across a website giving free access to basic genealogical records. Through that site I was able to track my ancestry back to the mid-1700s to a time before white settlement in Australia, making my PERSONAL history older than the official history of my adopted country.

Tamworth CastleFinding those more distant ancestors helped me make sense of something I recall from my childhood.
Tamworth in Staffordshire is about 25 kilometres from where I lived, but I only recall going there once. My only memory of the place is an outdoor public swimming pool where I braved a high diving board. Around the time of that visit I’m sure I heard something about a bible associated with my family being held in the Castle museum, but I was told no details.

Over time I began to think I must have dreamed up that story or misunderstood. Why would a bible associated with my family be in a museum in that town?

I was surprised when I discovered that part of my family on my paternal grandmother’s side had strong links to Tamworth in the mid-late 18th century. That finding gave some support to the bible in the museum memory, and the possibility of the claim being true. I’m now waiting on a reply from the museum, to see if they can give any confirmation of the story. I’ve supplied my ancestor’s names to see whether there is any match with the several family bibles they have in their collection.

One family story I was able to confirm was that one of my forebears was the bailiff at a large country house. I made that discovery through Census records where the house was listed as his residence. It was only after seeing that record that I remembered that my grandmother had mentioned it in a letter more than 30 years ago, in which she’d told me the little she could about our family history.

That house, owned by the same family for the last 600 years, is now a venue for conferences, concerts and a variety of other activities. I contacted them about my ancestor who worked for their family, but received no reply.

Calke AbbeyHe wasn’t the only family member to work for a large estate. My great, great grandmother was apparently a seamstress at Calke Abbey in South Derbyshire.

Again I’ve tried to find more information. At first things seemed hopeful, but after an initial promising, prompt reply I’ve heard no more. A lot of the work at the property is done by volunteers, so it’s not as if they have someone designated to help with enquirers like myself.

I’m sure it would be much easier if I could visit these places in person, but that brings me back to the point I made in an earlier post: the problem of becoming interested in the history of a place and people after moving to the other side of the world.

_________________________________________________________
photos from Wikipedia:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tamworth_Castle
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catton_Hall
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calke_Abbey

History Mine: a personal history of history (2)

I’ve now been in Australia for almost 45 years after my parents brought the family half way around the world. They saw a potentially better future for my sister and me outside of Britain, so they made the decision to leave their own parents (my grandparents) and everything they’d known, to follow that hope of better opportunities.

At the time we were labelled migrants, or “ten pound Poms” – a reference to the token 10 Pound payment each adult had to pay to be included in the Australian immigration scheme of the time. Today, if we were from a different racial background, our reason for making the move would have us considered as “economic refugees”, and we’d be spirited away to a detention centre.

The move excited me. It was a big adventure. But I didn’t really appreciate the finality of it all. How I’d suffer for years from homesickness, wishing I could again see the people and places associated with the first 13 years of my life; and how my desire to learn more about where I came from would grow.

here to there

I was born in Burton-on-Trent and until our move to Australia lived on the Derbyshire side of the river Trent.
I knew nothing about the history of the area until I was in my 20s, when I was able to learn a little from a few books I was able to track down. Finding those books wasn’t easy in pre-internet years. It took a lot of letter writing to British libraries, museums, and local government offices trying to find someone to point me in the right direction. I then had to find a bookseller able to mail out the books I’d discovered, IF they were still in print.

It was many years ago, so I don’t remember who gave me the most help, but someone sent out copies of documents relating to the village where I grew up: documents that included a reference to my great grandfather who had been a men’s barber within that town as well as the local truancy officer. There wasn’t much detail about him, but seeing his name on a document dated in the 1800s gave me a small sense of connection to the town’s history.

Three of my Grandparents were still alive, so I asked them to tell me what they knew about our family background. I still have the few letters in which my Grandmothers told me what they knew; mostly names, but occasionally a cryptic piece of information that at the time didn’t mean much.

Using all of the names and dates, I drew up a family tree dating back to the 1870s, the point where my Grandmas’ memories (and a family bible) ended. The only addition after that point came when my sister went back to England for a few weeks. I asked her if she could get copies of the birth certificates of the two most distant ancestors I knew about.
She came back with two documents. I found one of them wasn’t for the right person, but the other one was – and I was able to extend the family tree back another generation thanks to its information about the parents of the baby being reigstered.

And then my research came to a stop again. For the next 30 years.

History Mine: a personal history of history (1)

My interest in history developed too late: after my parents moved our family from England to Australia. It was only then that I started to regret not taking a greater interest in the historical landscape of the place I’d left. Wishing that I could again visit castles, churches, cemeteries and grand houses that I’d taken for granted as a child.
They were only old buildings to my pre-and early teen self. I’d had no awareness of (or interest in) the people and events associated with them. That only came when they were no longer accessible.

It was hard to get excited about the “history” of my new country. In England I’d been to houses older than Australia’s recorded history*.
Maybe it was partially “home-sickness” that started to draw my mind back, reminding me of what I’d lost and giving it a significance I’d not previously considered.

If only I could see Tutbury Castle again, now knowing of its connection with Mary Queen of Scots. And the nearby St Mary’s church, parts of which date back to the 1100s, where my friends and I raced around the graveyard to see who could find the oldest grave.

Then there was Kenilworth Castle and Stonehenge, visited on different school trips – and the Tower of London where my family seemed to queue for hours to catch a glimpse of the crown Jewels, and where I was very unimpressed when I saw the Bloody Tower, which wasn’t really tower, and didn’t have people sitting around swearing at each other as I’d imagined as a young child.

I could probably list more of those places I visited without appreciating. And I could look back at things closer to home – such as the WWII air raid shelters alongside my school, the entrances of which were all sealed, apart from one, which no-one dared to enter beyond the first few steps, for fear of what may still be down there.

So, separated from those physical reminders of centuries of history, I’ve had to make do with books about that history.

Unfortunately those books can only provide a distant view that lacks some of the thrill of seeing and touching where history was acted out. And that distance is greater when it rarely touches upon the local links I recall, when local histories of places I lived aren’t easily accessible.

Vera Brittain and the First World War

VB My 2015 reading year started off so well – but recently it hit an obstacle or two. I’ve continued with books about World War 1, but started committing myself to too many similar books at the same time.

A few years ago I started my first book blog with the hope that I’d be more disciplined with my reading and would always stick with a book until it was finished. Until that time I had a habit of starting books and then giving up on them if something that appeared more interesting came along.
Mostly I’ve kept up that discipline and the results can be seen in the lists of books I’ve completed over the years (see “books read” tab above).

It has now been two months since my last blog post – which also means two months since I finished a book. That changed last night when I reached the last page of Vera Brittain and the First World War by Mark Bostridge.

It’s a book that I picked up for some “easier” reading to give me a break from those that I’ve been struggling through for a while.

Recently I retrieved Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth from storage (most of my book collection is stacked in cupboards in the garage). I’ve had that book for around 30 years but still haven’t read yet. I sought it out again because it fits in with my current reading about the 1914-18 war.

Brittain’s brother Edward and some male friends enlisted, were sent to the Western Front and didn’t return. Brittain herself worked as a nurse. Her experiences led her to write her best-selling book and set her on a path of pacifism. Her story fits into a primary area of my war interest, which centres on the human cost with a special focus on those trying to pick up the pieces (such as stretcher bearers and nurses), and also the cost born by those who lost their loved ones to a brutal conflict.

Mark Bostridge’s book gives a brief summary of Brittain’s war time experiences: her attempts to write about those experiences in her diary, in fiction and later in Testament of Youth. Bostridge then gives the reader a glimpse of the various ways her story has been explored in other media, including TV and ballet and culminating with a recent film. He also offers insight into some of the unknowns surrounding Edward Brittain’s death, potentially finding answers that Vera herself was never able to discover.