The Odd Angry Shot (1975) – William NAGLE

I have an odd relationship with Anzac Day. On the one hand, I certainly bear no grudge to individual members of the armed forces of Australia, and admire them for doing a job I never could. On the other hand, though, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable about a public holiday that seems to revel in an Australian culture that, for me, no longer exists: that of the strong Australian male bravely going out into the battlefield with his mates to defend us. It seems desperately at odds with the fact that modern Australia was not born out of violence or war, a fact of which we should be quite rightly proud.

Here, then, is Text Classics’s answer to Anzac Day 2013: William Nagle’s The Odd Angry Shot, a novel that details a year in the life of four Australian soldiers during the Vietnam War.

First things first: this is a very short novel. The Text edition is less than 140 pages. So this is not so much a huge, sprawling epic about Vietnam so much as a series of vignettes, many less than a page, providing a fractured, kaleidoscopic view of what we can probably assume to be a fairly typical Australian draft experience of the war.

Our main group of protagonists are an odd bunch. If I ever met them, I think I’d probably not like them very much. They are, I suppose, the typical Aussie larrikin, built with a quick retort, and a healthy disrespect for authority. In many ways, they seem completely oblivious to the immediate danger they are in, and their reckless behaviour, both on- and off-duty, seems to compound their ignorance. Almost all of them are draftees, and there is a clear demarcation between the enlisted officers—men who are proper military types—and those young men that have been unlucky enough to have their birthday drawn out of a barrel. The tension between enlisted and drafted plays out through the whole novel, occasionally in quite amusing ways.

And yet, so often, these shenanigans are brought sharply into focus by the horrific events taking place around them. Nagle doesn’t shy away from describing the intense results of skirmishes and attacks from the enemy. Friends are often killed, though the emotional impact of this is never physicalised by these men. The only moment of emotional pain in the whole novel comes when one man is informed by mail that his mother and fiancée, living safely in Australia, have been killed in a car accident. The irony of this is too much for Bung who breaks down.

Perhaps, then, we need to see the actions of these men in a different light. They are acting out, not necessarily because they are bad people, but because they are put under intense pressure to perform every time they leave camp. They are in a country that does not want them, doing a job for which they will never be thanked.

But again, we have to come back to the evidence presented. These men take advantage of the very people they are supposed to be protecting. Perhaps this is why soldiers now have cultural sensitivity training. The women of Vietnam seem to be nothing more than receptacles for these men to unload into, and the men and children are to be taken advantage of at every opportunity, despite being desperately poor, living in a country that has been invaded by outside forces.

The final pages of The Odd Angry Shot are reflective and quiet. Two men have arrived back in Sydney, no longer required by the military machine. They are irreparably changed. The things they have seen and done cannot never be unseen or undone. But they have fought a war that has become deeply unpopular, and are now required to never mention it again.

This is the true horror of the Vietnam generation. Left to fend for themselves, these men, many of whom had not choice in their service, were forced to reintegrate into a world that now seemed strange and superficial. It is this that Nagle leaves dangling at the end, forcing us to question our own attitudes towards the politics of war.

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4 thoughts on “The Odd Angry Shot (1975) – William NAGLE

  1. Walter Russell says:

    Hi Matt,
    I’m 66, didn’t draw the wrong number for conscription (the draft was American) and have just read “The Odd Angry Shot”. From what I know about the Army (I was in the old CMF at the time) it would have been extremely unlikely that any of the SAS troopers inTOAS were ‘nashos’. The author is 19, and nashos went in at 20 for 2years. SAS entry criteria even then were very strict, and knockabout larrikins were not the sort of material they wanted, then or now. I know Nagle served as a cook but would be interested if anyone knows whether he went on active patrolling. The SAS had its own support people who were attached butnot necessarily (I believe) SAS trained. Searching the Web suggests he was a bit of a character who enjoyed a good drink and a good story. He’s not alive for me to ask.

    • Matthew Todd says:

      Hi Walter,

      Thanks for your comment. As far as I know – and I can only speak from reading the intro in the Text Classics version – that Nagle was only a cook.

      Interesting that Nagle has bent the truth somewhat for his novel. Can you speak to whether there was a big difference between those conscripted and the officers? Was the divide as prominent as Nagle makes it out to be.

      I’m always interested in the collision between fact and fiction, so it’s nice to hear from someone who can talk about the history from personal experience.

      • Walter Russell says:

        Bother just lost about 20 mins of typing!
        I’m not saying he bent the truth, I’m just curious how much of it he lived. Even cooks got mortared and killed at Nui Dat.
        National Service took a smallish proportion of the total eligible 20 yr olds in the population. Some were selected for officer training, which took about 90 days. There were regular short service volunteer officers there, and at Duntroon. Other rank (the US ‘enlisted man’) recruits shared their basic and corps (Infantry, armour, artillery etc) advanced training with regular army recruits, who still flowed in. They were posted to regular Army units.
        The proportion of nashos to regulars at the same level (private soldier) was always less than 50% I believe.
        The relationship of officer and men in armies has a long history and literature. I read somewhere the Red Army tried to abolish it, but it was back by 1922 or so. Officers are sending men to die, and the men know it. They have to have trust, but separation, is the party line.

        The Australian officer ‘class’ is not hereditary.

        It was said that if you really didn’t want to go to Vietnam as an infantry man or armour (but didn’t want to get out of nashos on conscientious objector grounds) you could make it obvious by political comments and activities during ‘why we are going there’ morale booster/propaganda sessions in the months leading up to embarkation. Transfers out could happen before embarkation. Hearsay only, I wasn’t there.

        Young primates are social animals, mostly adopting the group/tribal ethos. No one wants someone on patrol with them who really doesn’t want to be there. Why would any conscript want to be there with the young regular? They’d both acquired the same skills, esprit de corps. They both largely had the same motivations, adventure, curiousity, pride, the anzac legend. The nashos could always mock the regs with “you chose to be here”. I think a lot did believe that they were doing their bit (the ballot process appeared very fair, to the individual and on a class basis).

        I would be interested to hear from others who actually were there, as nashos or regs.

  2. Walter Russell says:

    The officer / non commissioned officers who appear may be stereotypes, or perhaps the stereo types are drawn from life. As I recall them, there are:
    the engineer officer, slumming it with the ranks to set up the spider/ scorpion combat. letting down the separation mystique
    the senior nco base wallah who accuses them of being tin pot heroes when they try to change their money for a night out
    the senior commissioned officer who pulls them out of the shit, tells them where to get the change done and then, presumably gives the base wallah a rocket for not cutting them some slack
    the rifle range corporal who takes their names to put them on a charge. triumph of larrikin diggers, they give him fake names including the second in command of the base. that’s very suss from several large organisation aspects.
    a couple of interactions with frontline regular junior officers, at the front, when assisting the regular infantry. such officers, if they had any sense, would have treated SAS thus encountered with respect.
    As I understand it, SAS patrols in Vietnam were 5 man, all other ranks, with a non commissioned officer in charge. Occasionally they fought in a more regular role, with their own officers commanding, but they were largely reconaissance or behind the lines mayhem operations.

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