Review of Peter Haran and Robert Kearney, Flashback: Echoes from a Hard War (New Holland, 2003). First published in Quadrant magazine (Australia), 49, 1-2 (January 2005).
‘It is difficult to believe that there are worse things than being killed in war,’ write Peter Haran and Robert Kearney in Flashback: Echoes from a Hard War. But for some veterans of the war in Vietnam, survival has been the harder option.
Flashback builds upon the insights of Haran’s previous book Trackers (2000) and the jointly-authored Crossfire (2001). Like the earlier books, Flashback is poignant, thoughtful, sometimes funny, and a good read. It interweaves the war memories of several Australian soldiers, trying to convey something of the ordinary experience of war, and describing the scenes which became each man’s flashback.
A flashback takes you back to another time and place. Veterans are prone to flashback in times of stress; for a moment they think they are really back in the war. It can be a terrifying experience. ‘Some flashbacks have lasted since the day the events occurred.’ For the sufferer, ‘those events have never ended’. The term flashback is fairly recent. Originally it referred to an accident in a gun or a Bunsen burner: the flame is sucked back, sometimes leading to an explosion. In the early twentieth century, flashback was used to describe a new filmic technique, when the narrative ‘flashes back’ to an earlier time—a character’s childhood, for example. In film, the flashback might be used to explain a mystery in the present. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945), the main character has flashbacks, images of tracks in whiteness, which are at first enigmatic, even to himself. Eventually, with the help of an analyst, he remembers witnessing a terrible accident in the snow. Here, the flashback brings a completion of memory. It allows the character to recover lost memories, and to mourn. Flashback in film can be disturbing, but it usually leads to understanding and to the healing of a traumatic wound.
In real life, flashback is not a healing experience. It does not explain or clarify, but haunts the sufferer, playing itself out within his mind. It might return to him intermittently, especially in times of stress; or it might be with him always. Sometimes the relentless replay of traumatic events becomes unbearable. In Understanding Trauma (1998), psychoanalyst Caroline Garland describes flashback as ‘the sudden gripping sensation that you are not just thinking about what happened in the past, you are actually reliving it in the present’. In flashback, you do not remember the event; you re-experience it. You are unable to think about it, because you are in the middle of it. The ego is overwhelmed. Ordinary functions break down.
‘Good memories fade fast’, write Haran and Kearney. ‘Bad ones stay in the mind, even intensify. Inside your head can be a dangerous place.’ Some Vietnam war veterans have died at their own hand, unable to live with the pictures in their heads any longer.
All the Australians Haran and Kearney write about were willing to go to war. Most were proud to follow in the footsteps of the fathers and grandfathers who had served in the world wars. However, the sons ‘discovered in Vietnam there were a few things their fathers never told them about the true nature of warfare’. This book tries to fill in some of those gaps, perhaps as a warning to future generations.
Wilf Matusch is especially keen to join the army in the 1960s. The son of German immigrants, he remembers being ‘enraptured’ by the Anzac story at primary school. It does not matter to him that his father and grandfather served on the other side; he is an Australian now, and longs to be part of the national mythology. Wilf hopes to make a career as an officer, and applies to the army when he is seventeen. The recruiting officer advises him to spend time in the ranks. You will make a better officer if you know something about the men’s experiences first hand, he is told. This career choice will take him to Vietnam, and he goes willingly.
When he returns from Vietnam, Wilf is a different person; more thoughtful, wiser, less gung-ho about warfare. To a civilian, these might sound like good leadership qualities. But the army no longer wants him as an officer. He has been traumatised, and has spent too long in the ranks. Going into combat has ruined his military career.
Several of the men in Flashback belongto the ‘Goon Platoon’, a group of irrepressible spirits; larrikins, as Kearney calls them, who drive their commanders to despair. When the Goons feel a bit low, they put on a Yippee Shoot, an activity which is ‘dangerous, strictly illegal, and a great laugh’. Basically, the Yippee Shoot involves much noisy firepower directed into the empty bush. The sheer pointless-ness of the exercise always cheers them up.
The men take all kinds of risks, perhaps seeing themselves in the long tradition of the Australian larrikin who somehow makes a disciplined and trustworthy soldier. But all the larking about disguises the fear of serious injuries which the men faced personally, and which they saw, often with great distress, among the civilian Vietnamese. Some say they can never forget the suffering of civilians, especially the children.
One group of veterans returned to Vietnam in the 1990s, in the spirit of reconstruction, wanting to help and repair the damage we helped to inflict. The Australian Vietnam Veterans Reconstruction Group (AVVRG) is based near Vung Tau, in the Australian area of military operations during the war. AVVRG has established a kindergarten and an orphanage, provides medical assistance and medical training, as well as micro-financing to help needy Vietnamese people establish small businesses. (Details of their work can be found on their website: http://www.avvrg.org.au)
Haran and Kearney write compassionately but unsentimentally about the young soldiers who were seriously wounded in the war. Ted Harrison, for example, returns to Australia with shrapnel in his lungs and intestines, and ‘fire and pain’ in his head. His body has come home, but his mind is still in Vietnam. He has lost a lot of weight, due to hookworm, and he has open wounds in his chest and abdomen. He is so weak, he can hardly tuck in his own bed sheets. At the age of nineteen, ‘Ted Harrison felt isolated, alone and scared. He felt like a sick old man.’
Ted’s mother remembers checking on her son in the middle of the night. The young man sits on the edge of his bed, ‘slumped over with his arms wrapped around his body, panting with the pain in his stomach. And there was something wrong in his head’. Ted keeps an axe handle under his bed. He understands why some veterans have to sleep with the lights on. He would like to keep a gun under his bed, but is afraid he will use it on himself.
Ted suffers from trauma for many years without knowing it. Nights are especially difficult: ‘Sleep had become a strange landscape.’ He has recurring nightmares, but cannot remember them. He longs for isolation, finding the civilian world shallow and, in its way, more insane than the war. Before his injury, Ted thought there could be nothing worse than being blown up. But there is. Survival can be almost unbearable. Ted feels immense guilt at leaving his friends behind in the war; so guilty that he cannot bring himself to write to them, for what could he say? He reads the newspapers in Australia, which tell almost nothing of what is really happening in the war.
It took many years for Ted to seek help for his war trauma. Like many veterans, he did not understand his traumatic symptoms, and was hesitant about asking for assistance. ‘Therapy and medication helped. So did the booze. He took to growing vegetables, and gained enormous pleasure from just watching things grow.’ But he has one problem: he cannot bear to pull out the plants when they die.
What is trauma? ‘Trauma is a kind of wound’, writes Caroline Garland:
When we call an event traumatic, we are borrowing the word from the Greek where it refers to a piercing of the skin, a breaking of the bodily envelope. Freud (1920) used the word metaphorically to emphasise how the mind too can be pierced and wounded by events.
One’s experience of trauma in adult life is coloured by the experiences of infancy. Some people survive terrible events without becoming traumatised because they manage, somehow, to take in the experience at a pace which does not overwhelm them. People vary in their capacity to cope. But if one is traumatised, the very core of one’s being is thrown into disarray. A wounded psyche can take a long time to heal.
When Australians were physically wounded in Vietnam, things happened quickly. Soldiers took great risks to get the injured to safety. Veteran Colin Coswell recalls that you could be out of the jungle, into hospital, then back to Australia within a few days, where you might later find yourself sitting in a pub, watching the war in black and white on television. ‘How bloody weird was that’, says Colin.
If you were wounded but made it to the hospital in Vietnam, you had a high chance of survival—much higher than in earlier wars. This came at a price, for you might find yourself in early adulthood blinded, mutilated, severely disabled, perhaps unable to work. What do you do for the rest of your life? At the age of twenty, Trevor Lynch is wounded in a booby trap explosion. ‘The blast ripped through the front of his body, breaking both legs and shredding his face.’ He loses both eyes. His mother looks after him for many years. After her death, he is sent to live in a residential home for elderly blind people, where he will die in his fifties of liver cancer, another legacy of his war service. ‘I didn’t get much of a go at life, did I’, says Trevor wistfully.
Another veteran, Jimmy Griffiths, survives a fall from a helicopter in Vietnam, shortly before it crashes, killing the others on board. He returns to Australia, ‘a bag of smashed and broken bones’. He has a fractured spine and thirty-seven broken bones, but is alive and goes home to be reconstructed.
Some men regard Jimmy as ‘the best bloke God ever shovelled guts into’. When he works as a helicopter padmaster, Jimmy leaves empty cartons on the pad; soldiers going on patrol drop off unwanted rations, which Jimmy takes to an orphanage run by nuns at Dat Do. The orphanage cares for the most vulnerable victims of the conflict: lost or abandoned babies and toddlers. Some of the children have ‘distinctive Eurasian and Afroasian features’. These are the offspring of foreign soldiers and local women. Others are children whose families are dead or lost in the war. The kids are always hungry, and Jimmy provides a steady supply of spare rations.
Having survived his injuries in 1971, Jimmy dies thirty years later of cancer. If you didn’t get killed or wounded by the enemy, Jimmy reflects, you had a good chance of being killed slowly by your own side, by defoliants. War breeds a form of paranoia, which is also a kind of truth, about a hostile world from which there is no escape.
‘Many men died in Vietnam’, writes Kearney sadly, ‘they just didn’t know it until years after they got home.’
‘What’s wrong with us? What went wrong?’ wonders one veteran. Unable to understand his own trauma, he spends many years trying to forget the war, but the pain of his wounds forces him to remember. Gradually the men come to feel that forgetting is not the solution; it is part of the problem. And forgetting can have long-term effects. Those who fail to remember their own trauma sometimes pass it on, unknowingly, to the next generation. Work with survivors of Nazi persecution has found that the children and even grandchildren of those who suffered—and of the perpetrators of suffering, too—can be profoundly affected by events which took place before they were born, and of which they might consciously know nothing.
Forgetting is a problem that the whole society, and not just the veterans, need to face. As American veteran and poet W.D. Ehrhart writes in ‘A Relative Thing’:
We are the ones you sent to fight a war
you didn’t know a thing about—
those of us that lived
have tried to tell you what went wrong.
Now you think you do not have to listen.
Ehrhart expresses the hope that the United States will one day give its veterans due recognition:
We are your sons, America,
and you cannot change that.
When you awake,
we will still be here.
What would it mean for the nations that fought in Viet Nam to ‘awake’? For Ehrhart, it would involve a greater recognition of veterans’ needs, and a greater concern for the people of Viet Nam, after decades of war and an economic boycott by the West and China which ended only in the 1990s. Winning the war came at an enormous cost to the Vietnamese people. Ehrhart suggests that the combatant nations could do more to help Viet Nam to recover. One feels Haran and Kearney, and the Australian veterans whose lives they describe, might agree. In this and many other veterans’ memoirs, the war remains unfinished business — not in terms of more conflict, but in the need to repair, to rebuild, to put right.
In Flashback, two Australian veterans meet for dinner one night, many years after the war. Eventually their talk turns to their memories of Vietnam. ‘Can’t you speak of something else’, complains the wife of one veteran, ‘The war was a long time ago.’ The other veteran explains quietly that, for them, ‘Vietnam will never be a long time ago.’ Veterans carry a heavy burden for their society. Flashback, like Haran and Kearney’s previous books, helps us to see why that burden ought to be shared more fairly.
Review of Peter Haran and Robert Kearney, Flashback: Echoes from a Hard War (New Holland, 2003). First published in Quadrant magazine (Australia), 49, 1-2 (January 2005). Copyright (c) Trudi Tate, 2005.