Several years ago, I had the privilege of being interviewed along with American war poet Randy ‘Charlie Sherpa’ Brown by Adin Dobkin for the Military Writers’ Guild’s The Pen and the Sword podcast. The episode focused on how we remember war through the written word and other media. Our discussion covered works of gravity through to comedies such as Blackadder Goes Forth and Bluestone 42.
After watching the Netflix movie Danger Close, I reflected that although I had been aware of Australia’s and New Zealand’s involvement in the Vietnam War, I knew little of the details, much less the epic Battle of Long Tan. This led to me watching a slew of documentaries about Long Tan including some fascinating eyewitness recollections of the battle, the follow-on action, and the long fight of Major Harry Smith to gain proper medallic recognition for men that he felt had been overlooked when official decorations were awarded in the 1960s. As I read and watched more, I came to realise the extent to which Long Tan has become a cultural touchstone and event of national pride that binds the military and civilian communities in Australia; in marked contrast to the way that Vietnam seems to be remembered in the United States of America.
Danger Close ends with a reel of monochrome archive footage of the ‘Diggers’ in Vietnam to the musical accompaniment of Redgum’s song I Was Only Nineteen (A Walk in the Light Green) which features the haunting vocals of John Schumann. As a British veteran of more recent conflicts, poet and author; the lyrics resonated deeply with me, moving me to tears. Anyone who has conducted foot patrols in conflict areas littered with IEDs and legacy mines will identify with these verses:
A four week operation, when each step could mean your last one on two legs
It was a war within yourself
But you wouldn’t let you mates down ‘til they had you dusted off
So you closed your eyes and thought about something else
And then someone yelled out ‘Contact’, and the bloke behind me swore
We hooked in there for hours, then a God almighty road
And Frankie kicked a mine the day that mankind kicked the moon
God help me, he was going home in June
The story of Frankie took me back to my own experience, particularly in Afghanistan, in which I often contemplated the bitter tragedy of soldiers killed in action shortly before they were due to return home from R&R, or at the end of their tour of duty. Over a couple of weeks, I listened to this song frequently, and thanks to the YouTube algorithm, was signposted to more war/anti-war songs by Australian artists. First stop was the Eric Bogle’s classic Band Played Waltzing Matilda, which recounts the Gallipoli experience through the first-person voice of an elderly limbless Digger. This great song has been recorded by many artists, but my favourite is a live version by John Williamson. From here, YouTube helped me find Zeebrugge FOB and Dust of Uruzgan by Fred Smith.
Smith is an Australian singer-songwriter who served in Afghanistan in the diplomatic service. Singing in a country style, Smith tells the story of a US Marine serving in FOB Zeebrugge, which was the main coalition forces base in the Kajaki district of Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. I was especially interested to listen to this song, as I spent the bulk of my time in Afghanistan at Kajaki before the UK handed over responsibility to the US Marines. The first-person lyrics tell of a war-sick soldier, torn between his duty to his brothers in arms and his family at home. Beyond the limited aim of keeping the Taliban at arms-length from the hydroelectric dam and turbine, our soldier’s view of the war conveys a sense of futility and ultimate failure.
With Dust of Uruzgan, Smith takes the listener straight to a military hospital in Germany where we meet Pte Paul Warren, nicknamed ‘Warlord’ who has been wounded by an IED strike in Uruzgan. In composing the lyrics, Smith masterfully conjures images of an Australian soldier’s tour of Afghanistan, blending a narrative littered with accurate military terminology with an upbeat folksy melody. The song conveys the experience of patrolling through desert and green zones, contending with heat, the Taliban, the endemic corruption, but most of all, the ever-present fine dust that penetrates everything:
There’s nothing about this province that’s remotely just or fair
But worse than the corruption is the endless f***ing dust
It’s as fine as talcum powder on the ground and in the air
And it gets into your eyes and it gets into your hair
And it gets into your weapon, and it gets into your boots
When bureaucrats all show up here, it gets into their suits
It gets in the machinery, and foils every plan
There’s something quite symbolic ‘bout the dust of Uruzgan
Between Zeebrugge and Dust, Smith has given us an accurate picture of the conflict in Afghanistan. Everything in the lyrics resonates with me save for the sense of futility that the protagonists’ voices convey. During my time in Afghanistan, I was something of a ‘true believer’, a professional soldier who felt that the presence of coalition forces could benefit the country and that we were winning the war. As I write this in 2021, history has proved me wrong and the sentiments in Smith’s lyrics are a bitter foreshadowing of the ultimate failure of western policy in Afghanistan, and more importantly the guttering flame of false hope that was shown to the Afghan people.
These songs present a golden thread of a century of Australia’s experience in conflict, a common feature being the experience of injury. A century apart, Bogle’s Digger and Smith’s Pte Warren both contemplate a life in disability prevents them from indulging their passions; for the Digger, wandering the outback and Thai boxing for the modern soldier.
I hope you take the time to listen to the songs that I have written about and enjoy them as much as I have. As I reflect on my journey through Australia’s folk memory of war through song, I find myself wondering why the vibrant British art scene has not produced similar work.
©Barry Alexander 2021