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.