It´s a fair bet that when Harry started his basic army training course, he did not think of himself in terms of ´war junk´. He was 18 and a voluntary recruit. It was during his training that they offered him the job of forward scout. He was a good shot, had quick reflexes, and good eyesight. He jumped at it. No second thoughts, no doubts. He knew he´d end up in Vietnam and he couldn’t wait.
He was given a tough job to do and it was an honour for him to do it.
´Our unit was based in Nui Dat. From there we could be sent out anywhere. After every mission we went back to Nui Dat to rest, but most of the time we were out on patrol.’
On patrol: Harry’s unit was flown out over the jungle in helicopters (the legendary ‘Hueys’) and dropped into it like men being dropped into the middle of a wide ocean, an ocean of green and death.
‘We’d stay out there for weeks at a stretch, hunting the enemy and laying ambushes. ‘Search and destroy’ it was called….
The jungle was like nothing I’d seen before, not coming from bloody Perth. There were tall trees fifty metres high, their trunks wrapped in big creepers. The hot sun was filtered by a high canopy of leaves and below, in the undergrowth, it was like a fuckin’ hothouse at the botanical gardens…. there were ferns, grasses, bamboos…. green everywhere you looked. The heat and humidity!. It was like a sauna. Everything was green and wet. In those days Vietnam was covered in jungles and rainforests. There were bloody tigers and elephants out there. Not much of the jungle left now. Completely fuckin’ gone!’
The forward scout went ahead of the unit as it moved through the jungle. The unit in turn, was completely dependent on him. Harry was, as he described it: ‘the eyes, the ears and sometimes, the nose, of the unit…‘There were times I swear I could smell ‘em! ‘ he added.
He was the first to make contact with the enemy. There were several ways in which this might occur, none of them benign:
‘I could meet the forward scout – might be a man or woman – of an enemy company. Either I saw them first and killed them or they saw me first and killed me. I could trip a wire and trigger off a mine or booby trap and be blown to pieces. I could round a bend and find myself aligned in the sights of an enemy sniper or in the fire lane of an enemy bunker….
I had to remain alert, to watch every tree and every bush and every blade of grass; listen to every bird and every cicada. The jungle had a pattern to it and the forward scout had to know that pattern and recognise anything which didn’t fit in, that is, if he was interested in staying alive ….’
Talking to Harry, I found myself uttering glib understatements:
‘A dangerous job from the sounds of it.’
‘Stress? – Harry exclaimed, flabbergasted at my stumbling attempts to enter his world, the world he’d experienced in the 1960’s and never really left.
He laughed derisively.
‘People talk about ‘stress’ ….they’ve got no bloody idea! I’ll tell you what stress is – ‘
It was at this point he suddenly switched to present tense as if he was back there, which in a way he was:
‘You’re living on a knife edge, having to concentrate, totally concentrate…your life and the lives of your mates are on the line. There’s people out there who want to kill you… and you’re there to kill them… you’re whole body’s burning and it never leaves you that adrenalin rush, like your body’s full of electricity….’
He was a mass of contradictions, was Harry. He didn’t make a secret of it. He bared his heart to me. A mass of contradictions but no lies, no falsehoods, no alibis. The legend of Anzac didn’t mean denying his pain and his madness. He was on anti-depressants and whenever he could get to a computer, he emailed his psychiatrist back in Perth – as well as the other Vietnam vets he’d met in a support group.
Those words seemed to ricochet through the night as the rounds of beer continued.
He told me about the three women he’d been married to during the last thirty years and got divorced from; each one of them had said the same thing: ‘it’s impossible to live with you Harry, you can’t put the war behind you’.
‘And they were bloody well right!’ he admitted.
Put the war behind him: he’d tried, god how he’d tried. It had been hard. Incidents of unprovoked violence; of paranoia; of binge drinking; of leaving his job and driving off into the desert and staying out there for weeks on end.
But he’d reached a point where he’d managed to switch the brain off. He had held down a job as a tradesman, started up a business. He’d done alright.
Until the third divorce.
So now he was on his own, wandering in the war zone, a long way off the beaten track.
I couldn’t understand Harry and I don´t believe anyone could, least of all himself. He was very anti-war: a pacifist, a leftie, an environmentalist. He was scathing, more than scathing, about the sending of Australian troops to Afghanistan and Iraq. But get him onto the Vietnam War and nothing had changed. He was still there.
The war and its reasons and lack of reasons were definitely a no-go area. He said he had no regrets having fought in Vietnam, no regrets. The North Vietnamese were robots in service of the Soviets and the Chinese. Today the North Vietnamese were still oppressing the south. Communism was a threat to free people. His concept of good and evil hadn’t changed in thirty years.
It didn’t seem to occur to him (or perhaps it did, but he was in denial) that the way the north Vietnamese communists and their southern Vietnamese allies saw it, he and his mates had been foreign oppressors, invaders.
Thirty years on and he was still fighting for his country and for his mates, for the right of free people to live unthreatened by communism. To raise questions about the war, as I made the mistake of doing at one point, was to set him off: he became angry, violent, worked up: dangerous. He was like a dog behind a fence snarling at an intruder.
A dog of war.
One night of Harry was more than enough. I felt sorry for anyone who had to live with him – with those three ex-wives of his, for example.
I felt sorry for him having to live with himself.
Yes, he was too much Harry.
Of all the contradictions and the screw-ups which was Harry, this was the one which made the deepest impression on me: the war was the worst time of his life but it was also the best. Out there in the jungle he’d experienced something which was exhilarating and as well as horrific. He’d seen mates die and he’d killed too, and he’d loved it: the stalking and the hunting and the killing: it had been the most intense, meaningful time in his life.
It had become an addiction. Kill or be killed. Two tours of duty.
‘A natural war’, he explained, it had been a natural war:
‘Nature?’ he snorted, ‘people talk about ‘nature’ as if it’s something kind and gentle. Mother Nature and all that kind of bullshit. Watch your Discovery channel mate; there isn’t anything nice about Nature…
I’ll tell ya’ something about nature: there’s thirty of us, all of us dressed in green, evenly spaced, no one saying anything, moving silently through the jungle. Silent. Everything’s done with hand signals. We blend in perfectly with our environment and so do they…they know that jungle like the back of their hands. We’re both out here playing the same game to the same rules. They’re hunting us and we’re hunting them, through rainforests, across streams and creeks, in storms and rain and wind. The nights, they’re eerie! Insects and owls and birds and creatures out there screaming. You can be camped less than a hundred metres from the enemy and neither of you know it, that’s how thick the jungle is…. it’s the most natural war you can imagine…’
As Harry spoke, the beer vanishing down his throat like water into a drain, I saw before me a primeval world covered in jungles, an ancient world where humans hunted each other like beasts, when Man existed in primordial tribes. Only instead of being armed with spears and stone axes, the tribes were carrying modern weapons, assault rifles and machine guns and mortars and rocket launchers.
Out there in the jungles of his youth, Harry had experienced a high which afterwards, back in Perth, he’d missed. The years back in ‘civilisation’ had brought withdrawal symptoms:
‘People would say to me: you poor bastard. Scandalous the way the politicians sent our boys out there to fight that bloody war!’ I couldn’t tell ‘em that it was the only time in my life that I knew what it was to be alive, totally 100% alive. Out there in the jungle, you live for the here and now. There’s no such thing as the future, none of that crap about mortgages, insurance policies and security.’
Harry could have been a former mountain climber who was no longer strong enough to climb the big peaks and was living in the golden nostalgia of a high adrenaline past. He could have been a god seeker who’d experienced something special, a kind of nirvana, and was desperately trying to find it again. But it was nowhere to be found. The jungles had been cleared to make way for the booming population and there was no turning the clock back.
The war had been fought to defend ‘civilisation’ but it had left Harry driven by a desperate need to escape it: to find something beyond the normal life. Forever restless. ‘Civilisation’ had gone from being the Cause to the Enemy.
Now he was staring at old age, still looking, still wandering to the ends of the earth in search of something to search for. He was a confused and troubled man, a walking living breathing scar, and as the night aged and the sky lit up with stars, a strange and fearful idea stalked my drunken brain: he and I were sons of fathers who had believed in war and manhood and honour and courage under fire…..had worshipped the Anzac, the soldier on the pedestal….and had circumstances been different, had I been born a decade earlier, I would have followed in Harry’s footsteps.
Hunting the enemy in jungles, finger on the trigger: kill or be killed.
When I looked at Harry, I was looking at the man I might have become.
I left him there ringed by beer bottles and fled into the clinging tropical night, desperate to escape from the man I might have been……