Manfred’s number comes up, and he goes into the Australian Army, and is sent to Vietnam. Tony goes to college and become a leader in the antiwar movement.
Early in the novel Manfred reflects: “He knew that every person who came back from active duty in war was damaged goods to some extent.” There is no doubt in this reader’s mind that the author of this book thinks that is so. The book is written to make that point and the point that the Vietnam War “became one foul deed for another.”
Manfred arrives in Vung Tau on February 3, 1969, when the “whole country was writhing in the shadow of the previous year’s major Tet Offensive.” He is posted to Nui Dat Camp in Central Phuoc Tuy Province. His duties are described as “counter-insurgency—cordon and search.”
As a craftsman, Manfred is assigned to the 102nd Field Workshop at the First Australian Logistics Support Group. He works as an armorer, looking after small arms and as an armament fitter who maintains and repairs heavier equipment. After being in-country for a while, “what he could not understand was why the Viet Cong could not surrender.”
He points out that in World War II the average soldier spent forty days in combat. In Vietnam, he says, the average soldier had 240 days of combat in just one year. He sees himself and other troops as sustainable cannon fodder. Much is made of Agent Orange and what it can do. Napalm also is discussed.
When a tank detonates a land mine Manfred takes a massive hit to his right ankle and his left thigh and shrapnel to his chest. When he returns to Australia, he and other Vietnam veterans are met with hostility at airports and are called baby killers, spat upon, and pelted with eggs and rotten tomatoes.
It seems that the vilification of Vietnam veterans took place in Australian as well as in the United States. Gen. William Westmoreland is quoted as saying life is cheap in Asia. It is mentioned that the VFW refused membership to Vietnam veterans.
I have not read many novels or memoirs about the Australian participation in the Vietnam War, so I found this one an eye-opener. However, I’d hoped for better in Australia.
Lots of space is devoted to Tony’s very different life at home as a hippie antiwar protester. Tony “frolicked with the nymphs, swam with the fairies and floated on clouds of marijuana” while Manfred was “crashing and bashing [his] way through the jungles in Vietnam, in the mud, and the rain, being bitten by mozzies and sucked on by leeches.” I guess we all had a choice, and these days I find myself thinking often that I made the wrong one.
Those readers eager for information about how the Vietnam War affected Australia will learn a lot by reading this novel, as there is a lot of potted history in it, and the author is a talented story teller. I enjoyed much of the book.