The old year wanes. Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve. Thankfully I say goodbye to 2015. What a year it’s been. As I reflect on the last 12 months, I remember the music I’ve discovered and the books I’ve read. They have been an inseparable part of the journey and a great comfort to me along with a supportive body of friends. It’s funny where literature takes you.
As a small child, living on a remote country property, I was the beneficiary of my mother’s loneliness and her retreat into the world of books. Our small farmhouse was always full of books. Nothing much else, but certainly lots of books. This was facilitated by the public libraries in country towns, in those long gone days, where country people could order books through the library and have them delivered with the mail. This came three times per week. It was a forerunner of Amazon for poor people. My mother had very eclectic tastes and I was forced to adopt the same regimen.
One day, I had run out of my own books to read from the library and was rummaging through her pile when I discovered a book – a very big book – From Here to Eternity by James Jones. I was about 16 at the time. The book had been published the year before I was born. This was the first book I ever read about war. My mother, bless her memory, never stopped me reading any of her books. I didn’t know it at the time, but the book would become a classic of American letters. It made James Jones’s reputation, and along with Norman Mailer’s, The Naked and the Dead, became one of the towering monuments to American involvement in word World War II, particularly in the Pacific.
In 1953, the year after I was born, From Here to Eternity, was made into a blockbuster film, starring Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra, Ernest Borgnine, Montgomery Clift and Deborah Kerr. The awarding of the film role to Sinatra, who was then a struggling singer, was the basis of the story in the Godfather movies, where the film producer is made “an offer he couldn’t refuse.” The role made Sinatra’s career.
I subsequently went through the ritual of many Australian males my age of being conscripted for Army service in Vietnam in 1972. As someone from a virulently anti-Communist, Catholic family and the beneficiary of years of instruction in handling firearms, which are another tool for running a farm, the thought of going to Vietnam held no fears for me. Conscription did not seem like a big deal. I didn’t know much about the Vietnam War in 1972 when my number came up in the ballot, simply that it was Us versus the Communists and that was okay with me. We were the good guys. Gough Whitlam spoiled the party, cancelled conscription and I never boarded the plane.
Fifteen years later, with memories of Vietnam long gone, I was looking for something to read in the old Grahmes’ bookstore on the corner of Pitt and Hunter Streets, now long gone. I spied a book called The Devil’s Guard by George Robert Elford. It was the cover that got me first. Loved the cover. Still do. He is such a cranky looking dude and he’s having a very bad day and doesn’t want to be disturbed. It was a fictionalised account of a French Foreign Legion infantry battalion, which unfortunately found itself at the centre of the Vietminh assault on French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. This was a tumultuous defeat for the French, a challenge to the Americans and the beginning of what we know today as the Vietnam War. While this book is fictional, it was a ripper of a read, and made me intensely curious about this period of Asian history and how Australia got wrapped up in it. Over the next decade I read most if not all the great books that came out of the Vietnam war.
I still have most of them although some were destroyed in the fire in my apartment in 2014. The list is:
Fire in the Lake Frances Fitzgerald 1972
A Rumour of War Philip Caputo 1977
If I Die in a Combat Zone Tim O’Brien 1973
Dispatches Michael Herr 1977
Fields of Fire Jim Webb 1978
Going after Caccaito Tim O’Brien 1978
Thirteenth Valley John M Del Vecchio 1982
Chickenhawk Robert Mason 1983
The Tunnels of Cu Chi T Mangold & J Penycate 1986
The Battle of Long Tan Lex McAulay 1987
The Odyssey of an American Warrior Colonel David Hackworth 1990
Highways to a War Christopher Koch 1995
Novel without a Name Duong Thu Huong 1995
A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann
and America in Vietnam Neil Sheehan 1998
This is the order in which the books were published, not the order in which I read them.
Some of these books are fact, some are fiction. Only one, The Battle of Long Tan is Australian. They are all great books and I even included one – Novel Without a Name – written by a North Vietnamese soldier. I finished this particular period of literary inquisition in 1998 with Neil Sheean’s book, which was a retrospective, written years after the war, about rebel US general, John Paul Vann. Great book. There has not been a decent book published about Vietnam and its aftermath in the last 18 years.
Or so I thought. About five years ago I was reading the book reviews in the Sydney Morning Herald when I spied a review of the top 10 books published in 2010. One, Matterhorn, by a retired marine, Karl Marlantes, was a novel based on his service in Vietnam. The review compared this book to The Naked and the Dead and Farewell to Arms. I thought it interesting that a book would get such a wrap, given that the Vietnam war was dead and buried as a source of literary inspiration. For old times’ sake and sentiment, in 2012, I bought a copy at Pages and Pages bookstore in Mosman. It sat unloved and unopened on my bedside table ever since. It’s a big book – about 600 pages long – and given the subject matter, I just couldn’t get into it in the intervening years.
That changed about a month ago. I decided I was tired of the unopened book sitting there gathering dust, and wasn’t going to let it terrorise me anymore. I picked it up and the slog began. Late this evening I finally finished. It probably does rank with Norman Mailer’s Naked and the Dead and James Jones’s Thin Red Line as a consummate story about men and war. These types of books are not to everyone’s taste. I like them, not because they glorify war, but because they describe how men respond when placed under extreme pressure. I like mountaineering books for the same reason. Out of pressure and group activity grows friendship and mutual reliance. I think these are subjects worthy of literary treatment. Marlantes, like Norman Mailer, like James Jones and Sebastian Junger, who have all written about war, is also a great storyteller in the classic American tradition.
Once I got going I couldn’t put it down.
So as 2015 draws to a close – the year of a broken leg and a very sore neck – I have been indulging in a retrospective and trawl through my past, both in terms of my near-miss going to Vietnam and a group of books that I enjoyed very much. There are worse ways to finish the year