Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Friday, 15 November 2019

For the first few years after the Australian withdrawal from Vietnam, very little appeared on the local literary scene which referenced the war, and what did emerge was bitter in tone. The fall of Saigon, five days after ANZAC Day in 1975 seemed to reinforce the message that the war was a debacle, best forgotten. For many Vietnam veterans this event compounded the moral injury they had suffered on returning to Australia to be met with indifference by most, and hostility by some.
This very negative view of the aftermath is probably best captured by Stuart Rintoul’s Ashes of Vietnam which was published in 1987. This is a compendium of anecdotes by Vietnam veterans collected by Rintoul as interviews, which were initially broadcast by the ABC before being compiled in his book. The stories are almost exclusively stark, and very few of them are positive. Apart from conveying the reality of the conflict from the point of view of those who fought it, they reflect the attitude of many Australians towards the soldiers who felt rejected on return. How much of this was in the eye of the beholder (in this case Rintoul) and how much was reality is open to debate.
Normie Rowe, the entertainer, was interviewed by Rintoul – 
When I came back, I did one concert, realised that it was all wrong — I looked around, felt uncomfortable, like I was on a different planet. I didn't know what to do on stage. For a long time, I didn't want to think about Vietnam, because the rest of the population of Australia didn't want to think about it. I said, 'That was two years out of my life, I don't want to know about it anymore’.
After an interval, however, a literary genre began to emerge which was largely a product of the experience of the soldiers, both national servicemen and regulars. It most often took the form of memoir, although several veteran-authored newspaper articles began to appear, usually around significant events, such as ANZAC Day, or the Long Tan battle anniversary.
One such newspaper piece was written by Graeme Cornes, a conscript who served in 7th battalion RAR in 1970. Cornes, a successful AFL footballer, was something of a celebrity when called up. He went on post-Vietnam to coach the Adelaide Crows and forged a successful media career.
He writes in the context of returning to Vietnam for the first time since his service – 
When I was a soldier in Vietnam, and in the 39 years since, I never once doubted that we were doing the right thing by coming here. Perhaps that is the effect of the brainwashing that is military training, but we thought we were the best soldiers in the world, protecting an oppressed, terrorised country from Communist insurgency. We were wrong on both counts……
Sure, there is some anger that our casualties were for nothing, but I don't know who to blame for that. However, I simply did not expect to be overwhelmed with guilt, or to have such vivid memories of the violence, only the milder forms of which have been recorded here.
In their developing, recovering country, the Vietnamese are a united, industrious, optimistic people. More importantly, they have one other great quality: they are forgiving. They shame me.
The themes of shame, regret, and futility are characteristic of memoirs written by other national servicemen. Brian Hennessey, who was originally a teacher and worked as a special school principal until he succumbed to the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, writes in his 1997 memoir The Sharp End – 
I should let matters rest now, but I can’t. I keep trying to end this war, but it still rages. And sometimes when I’m off the air, I reconstruct traumatic events that occurred all those years ago in an effort to come to terms with their reality, searching for some special insight that might reveal itself if I go over them one more time. It’s a futile exercise, because these events stand as they are in frozen fruitless indifference. 
Hennessey eventually overcame his PTSD by challenging himself to set up a successful consultancy business in China. 
Guilt also emerges as a theme in a memoir by Barry Heard, Well Done Those Men - 
Today I feel no bitterness, only sadness, as I move amongst my veteran friends and see their depression, poor health, isolation, and struggles. They now have opportunities to improve their lot and are well catered for by governments. But, for many, the guilt remains. They are not like the Second World War veterans I saw as a youngster on those wonderful ANZAC days. I believe, for many Vietnam Veterans, nothing will make them feel deserving enough.
Even a professional soldier who served with distinction expresses regret – 
My concern is simple. Regardless of the political and ethical considerations of whether a war should have been fought by foreign troops on the soil of Vietnam (that will always be a matter of endless debate), I remember with sadness that over 500 Australians were killed in that war and many more wounded and maimed; over 50,000 Americans lost their lives.
And we left. And we lost. We mustn't do that with our men and women. Sending troops to war is without doubt the most difficult and agonising decision for any leader. 
My advice to leaders is never to take the decision lightly and, having done so, never to stop until the outcome is worth the cost. 
It is abundantly clear that the tone of the memoirs written by the national servicemen does not mesh well with the stereotype of the Australian digger as represented in the ANZAC myth.
The laconic confident self-assured image had given way to something very different. The national psyche had shifted a great deal between 1964 and 1972.

Saturday, 19 October 2019

I've Bitten the Apple

After years (no, decades) of blogging on the Microsoft platform, I've finally gone to the dark side.

There was no other reason to do this except for consistency. Both my other devices 9iPhone and iPad) are IOS, so it made sense to make the takeover complete.

It had a certain inevitability about it.

The transition has not been smooth.

First up, at the time I bought the iMac, I was in the middle of a Uni assignment.
After stuffing around trying to move all my collected data and references to the new machine, I gave up. It was taking too long, and there was the risk that I'd lose something important during the transition process.

I competed and submitted the work on the old machine.

Then I began to try to move all my stuff (that's a technical term) to the iMac.

I made the ignorant mistake of thinking that I could simply move my external hard drive from the old ACER to the new iMac. That, of course, is impossible, so I found at App that was supposed to do the trick and loaded it on both machines.

Then I attempted to make the iMac talk to the old machine on our network.

The relationship between the two operating systems is toxic to say the least - talk about the Hatfields and McCoys....

Nope - nada - never.

It metaphorically shrugged and I was forced to do the whole file swap-over using iCloud, which then became full and started nagging me for dollars to extend its memory.
I did some culling instead.

So now I have all my files transferred, but organising them on the iMac is proving a challenge. I'm slowly getting there.

Apart from these hassles, I'm generally happy with the new setup. The interaction between devices is smooth and intuitive, and there are other advantages such as a more efficient use of physical space in the configuration of the machine, and a very user friendly keyboard.

I can't say that I like the Magic Mouse, however.

Maybe my age (and decades of habit) is catching up with me.....

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Eulogy for a Mate

Poor quality pic of Keith returning from Operation Finschhafen - April 1970

Keith was born on March 13th, 1945 and died on August 13th, 2019.

I was privileged to know him for only a small part of his life, initially when we were marched into B Company 7 RAR in July 1969, and from that time until he left B company in June 1970, halfway through our tour of duty. Keith had thick glasses, and after another soldier who also wore glasses was killed in a mine incident, Keith, amongst others was consequently removed from our rifle section.
I was privileged to experience that period of operational service with Keith, After that, like most Nashos, we went our separate ways.

Later, we would encounter each other at battalion reunions, notably in Melbourne and Adelaide, and recently, when Keith was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, more frequently. This last association was perhaps the most significant for me, when all the qualities that I had observed in Keith from earlier times, came to the fore.

These qualities of generosity, quiet courage, and complete integrity shone brightly as he struggled with his illness. Keith is probably the most selfless person I have ever known.
Along with the rest of us in his National Service intake, Keith adjusted to army life quickly. He did so with the minimum of fuss and maintained his core values more strongly than many of us.
Keith had a strong Catholic faith, and never once did I ever see him do or say anything that compromised that faith. That was a tall order, given what he dealt with on operational service.

Two things stand out when I remember him.

One is that he never swore. He didn’t need to. Keith was never out to impress anyone.
He also, as far as I remember, never had a nickname. Again, he didn’t need one. He was simply Keith.

Towards the end of his life, a group of us from 5 Platoon would, from time to time, converge in Newcastle to spend some time with him. On one of these occasions, Keith invited me to stay at his place, to save the expense of motel accommodation. I never did that again, because he spent the whole time I was in his home, looking after my every need. This was a man who was very ill and in pain much of the time, but Keith put that aside, and became the perfect host for the duration of my stay.

I reflected that perhaps because he had cared so well for his aging mother for so long in that home, he simply reverted to that same generous habit.

Another habit of Keith’s was letter-writing. He was probably the only person I knew who would write to me regularly. I still have a letter he wrote to me in 1991, telling me of a fellow member of 5 Platoon who was killed in a police siege. I remember him writing that we should look after each other so that kind of incident would never be repeated.

Again, his first thought on that occasion was about caring for others.

In summary, I shared only a small part of Keith’s life, but am forever grateful for that association and insight into his character and quiet strength.

May he rest in peace.

Monday, 19 August 2019

Leyburn 2019

Mustang - all sound and fury - not much motion
I headed to Leyburn again this year, gentle reader, with the intention of participating in the annual Show and Shine.
1963 Hillman Imp

It wasn't on - wrong day. I was there on the Saturday, and apparently, the Show and Shine is a Sunday only affair.
Something a little more contemporary 2019 MX5 RF

1925 Austin 7 Sports Special

That's not how I remember it from previous years.
1931 Ford Special

It's unbelievably dry in that neck of the woods (as it s just about everywhere else, so we wandered around the dusty township, watched the racing for a while, and inspected a wide variety of cars.
1933 Aston Martin Long Series Le Mans

This post is a little photographic essay (all with iPhone - my trusty Canon has the collywobbles).
1933 MG K3

One very yellow 1951 Moggy with a V8
Not a paint job - a work of art (1978 Mitsubishi Lancer)
2002 Radical Prosport

Bad shot of an MG Special (1939 TB)

Leyburn is unique in that spectators can mix with cars and crews.
It has an atmosphere all of its own.

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Danger Close - A Review

Pic courtesy Sydney Morning Herald

This is my attempt, gentle reader, at a movie review.
Back in the day, we called them “pictures”, but that was a long time ago.

The movie is Danger Close, the recently released account of the Battle of Long Tan on 18th August 1966.

The story resonates with me for a number of reasons.

I went to school at Downlands with Frank Topp, who was killed in the opening few minutes of the battle. He is represented by a few seconds of footage when he is marched into D Company as a reinforcement on the morning of the 18th August. In the movie, he's one of the two diggers given a briefing about the reputation of Harry Smith's crew as he arrives.

I copped a bit of bullying at Downlands in 1961 when I started as a skinny fourteen year-old. I was a schoolies son from North Queensland, not the offspring of a wealthy land holder from the Western Downs, as a fair proportion of my school mates were at the time. Frank, for reasons I’ve never really understood, acted frequently as my protector.

He was well built and burly, so they left me alone. Perhaps the fact that his old man was a small crop farmer from Helidon, rather than a cow cockie from a big holding helped. We were both on the outer.

Frank left Downlands (as I did) at the end of 1962, and joined the army as an apprentice in RAEME. He became fascinated by the warries he began to hear about Vietnam, and transferred to Infantry. He arrived in Vietnam on the 16th July 1966, and was marched into D Coy 6 RAR on the morning of the battle. He didn’t have time to get to know the diggers he died with.

I was first in Long Tan in April 1970, when as a member of B Coy 7 RAR and a Nasho on his second operation in country, we were trucked there and harboured up near that famous rubber plantation until dark. Then we moved on foot through the night into our AO along a dry creek bed called the Suoi Lo O Nho. It was a bugger of a trip.

I also visited the site as a tourist in 2007 with my two sons. That was a much more rewarding experience, But it’s a sombre place.

The movie was well worth watching, irrespective of my experience of the history. It's production is slick, and the cinematography is first class.

The narrative is obviously based on the record, but there were a few incidents written in that, as far as I know, never occurred. There is a short cameo about a VC sniper in a woodcutters hut, as well as another involving two Vietnamese women which I doubt ever happened. It doesn't matter. They don’t detract.

The performances were generally pretty good, especially that of Travis Fimmel who played Harry Smith (OC D Coy) and Daniel Webber who played private Paul Large. There is a back story involving their relationship which may, or may not be accurate. Again, it doesn't matter and provides some diversion from the heavy themes of endurance, courage and loyalty in the face of impossible odds embedded in the narrative. 

The sound and fury of the artillery which was the conclusive element in the outcome is well conveyed, as is the on-the-ground minute by minute ordeal of the diggers.

The production team did a good job of reproducing a rubber plantation (a paulownia plantation at Wooroolin near Kingaroy) and the background landscape captured the Long Tan area pretty well, although I reckon the soil wasn’t quite red enough. Maybe they should have done some shooting on the Atherton Tablelands, where the contrasting red soil and green vegetation mimic Phouc Tuy.

It's very much a Queensland product. Apart from the rubber plantation scenes at Kingaroy, filming was also done in the Gold Coast hinterland near Nerang and at the Village Roadshow studios at Oxenford.

I could carry on about the authenticity and accuracy of representations of kit such as weapons, webbing, packs, but I won't. The weapons were spot on, as far as I could tell, but we never carried F1s. This was set four years before my time, and perhaps they were phased out by then.

The choppers confused me a little. They looked like the UH-1B, shorter than the UH-1H that I was familiar with. Perhaps the B series were replaced by the H series between 1966 and 1970. I'd welcome any guidance from chopper nerds on that. 

Again, it matters not. They made all the right noises. 

Apparently getting the movie going financially was a close-run thing.  It has that in common with the battle, which could have ended in complete disaster.

I'm glad it was made. Kriv Stenders (director) deserves kudos for actually getting it to screen.

It's a story that had to be told.

And that is was made in Australia, by Australians, is gratifying.

Friday, 12 July 2019

Another Anniversary

July 20th (next Saturday) marks the 50th anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing.

By July 1969, I had been serving in 7th Battalion RAR for about a month, having completed Infantry Corps training at Singleton before being marched into the battalion. I was “called up” as a teacher working at Goondiwindi State School.

7 RAR had been "warned" for operational service in Vietnam, and the pace of our training activity was frenetic. Initially, when first marched into the battalion after corps training, I was posted to D Company, but after a week or two was transferred to B Company. I have no idea why the transfer occurred. There is nothing on my retrieved service record to provide a reason, so it was probably down to manpower considerations.

These same manpower considerations were probably also responsible for my posting to Infantry. As a teacher, I had requested Education Corps. I was not happy.

The B Coy posting was the beginning of an association with the men I served with in Vietnam, a unique association which lasts to this day. By the anniversary of the moon landing I will have known these men for 50 years, longer than I've known my wife and kids.

In mid-July 1969, we were flown into the Colo-Putty training area for an exercise in small unit tactics in preparation for tropical warfare in the Vietnamese jungle and paddy. The fact that is was mid-Winter in Australia, and that the country around the training area was scrub rather than jungle seemed lost on the army.

Just as we arrived, a Sou'wester ramped up, and began blowing sleet and drizzle directly (it seemed) from somewhere in the Antarctic. Anticipating the conditions, one resourceful digger had brought a balaclava with him, and when we were encamped in the bush on the first night of the exercise, produced it from his backpack and put it on.

Next morning, when he woke up, the balaclava had somehow turned when he was asleep and covered his eyes. In his groggy state, he assumed he had been struck blind during the night, and noisy panic ensued. The commotion attracted the platoon sergeant who was upset at the noise (we were supposed to be observing tactical silence) and balaclavas were immediately confiscated, and wearing one became a chargeable offence.

We barged around the scrub in the sleet and mud for a day or two, amid much cursing and swearing about the army in general, and national service in particular, and finally, on the last night, were allowed to go "non-tac".

This meant we could light fires and try to get warm. Being warm was a state which had eluded us for the last two days. A couple of soldiers had been flown out to be treated for exposure.

Once we had lit a couple of fires, we began to put out boots as close to these fires as we could in an attempt to get warm feet again. This was not a good idea. The GP boots had a metal plate installed under the sole, which rapidly heated up, and a mad boot removing scramble ensued.

We had been allowed to put hootchies up on the last (non-tac) night of the exercise. A hootchie is a sheet of waterproof plastic, two of which could be clipped together to make a rudimentary shelter. which at least provided respite from the sleet and drizzle but did little to stop the horizontal howling wind which always seem to be blowing through the hootchie. I had a bright idea and put one green army blanket across the end of the shelter as a wind break, tying it in place with coms cord.

Next morning, when we let the tent down prior to packing up for the flight out, the blanket stayed in place. During the night, it had become sodden, and eventually froze in place.

The news of the moon landing came through whilst we were waiting to be flown out of the training area. We were in no position to watch it live. Nor was I at all excited. After all, if the Yanks were so bloody clever, why hadn't they sorted Vietnam years ago?

The wind had not abated, and when we were set to emplane aboard a Caribou transport for the flight back to Sydney, the conditions became a major problem. Once we had boarded from where we were sitting in the fuselage of the Caribou, we could see the flight crew. What we saw was not confidence inspiring. Both pilot and co-pilot seemed to be struggling to keep the ship on track.

Apparently, the Caribou's large tail was a problem in the cross wind. Eventually, amidst a great deal of noise from the big Pratt and Whitneys, we unstuck and commenced a bumpy flight towards Sydney.

As it turned out, the conditions had deteriorated further and were now too dangerous, and we were the last flight out that day. This was a bonus, as the platoon HQ group was scheduled on the next flight, and we arrived back in base without them. The only NCO with us let it be known that if we kept out of sight, we had the best part of 24 hours to our own devices, which meant lots of napping, and a beer or two at the boozer.

That's how I remember the anniversary.
Caribou (not in Oz).

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Travelling North

An early start was the go.

I've been a bit slack with postings of late, gentle reader.

the major distraction has been enrolling at Uni after a gap of 39 years.

The tertiary institutions that I earned RPL* from have had problems with their archives, caused, I understand by the most recent Brisbane floods.

Anyway, they have resurrected sufficient of my academic record to mollify the campus I'm dealing with, so it's all good.
Roadworks were a pain.

To fill in the time whilst waiting to get started at the beginning of semester 2, I took a long road trip north - to Mackay, to be exact, where my 90-year-old aunt was celebrating her birthday.

There were many cousins, most whom I haven't seen for 30+ years, so it was interesting (and revelatory). I seem to have worn better than most of them.

It's all that clean living.

Travel stained at Bororen.

Anyway, I pointed the nose of the MX5 north, and set out early.

An MX5 SE is not designed for long distance cruising, but this little machine acquitted itself well.

It has an excellent driving position, and cruises at about 3000rpm. An overdrive would be nice, but it doesn’t feel (or sound) stressed at this rev range.
Safely in Mackay.

The only problem I had was in 110km/hr zones, because the turbo kicks in at about 105km/hr in top gear, and holding it below the limit required lots of concentration.

It used 7.5lit/100kms of 98 octane, which is pretty good. Prices were surprisingly consistent except for Mackay city.

Despite wet weather and loads of caravans, the trip north ws enjoyable, and the journey back, in fine weather, was great fun.
Town of 1770.
EV chargers at Marlborough.

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