The Weekend Australian - Review

Not an easy one to swallow

A new book on the Vietnam War takes a significan­t step in the short, controvers­ial history of recording the conflict and its aftermath, writes Mark Dapin

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ANOTHER ROUND (DRUK) (M) Limited release David Stratton

Danish director Tomas Vinterberg’s Druk/Another Round won the audience award at last year’s London Film Festival, and advance publicity promised a “feelgood” crowd pleaser. I don’t know if I saw a different film from those advance audiences, but Druk’s charms escaped me.

The film’s premise is that, with some reservatio­ns, alcohol is good for you. I hasten to say that I enjoy a glass or three of wine with dinner, so I’m not immune to the delights of a tipple. But the film is extremely problemati­c.

For the second time in a Vinterberg film, Mads Mikkelsen plays a schoolteac­her (the other instance was The Hunt/Jagten (2012), Vinterberg’s best film, in which he played a teacher wrongly accused of molesting a pupil).

In the new film, Mikkelsen is Martin, who teaches history at a high school, and he’s a bore. He bores his wife, Anika (Maria Bonnevie), he bores his students and he even bores himself. Things begin to change when he attends the 40th birthday party of Nikolaj (Magnus Milang), a fellow teacher whose field is literature. It’s a blokes only affair and the other two guests are staff members at the same school – Peter (Lars Ranthe) teaches music and Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen) is the sports coach. The location is a fancy restaurant and the other three are enjoying the vodka and French wine while Martin sticks to mineral water because he’s driving – until, under peer pressure, he changes his mind and decides to get with it.

As a consequenc­e of this cheerfully inebriated experience, the four decide to try an experiment.

According to Finn Skarderud, a Norwegian psychiatri­st and psychother­apist, we all function better with 0.05 per cent of alcohol in our blood. The four teachers think this is a great idea and at first it seems to work. Suddenly, Martin’s students are paying attention to him and even Anika, whom he suspects of having an affair, is more affectiona­te. Much more affectiona­te. And if it works with them, the reasoning goes, couldn’t it also work with the kids who need a bit of a boost?

So far so mildly amusing, but then – inevitably – the four decide to experiment further and before long they’re falling down drunk, walking into walls, unable to function coherently. There are ramificati­ons, some more devastatin­g than others, but many of the drunk scenes, including the riotous finale, are supposed to be funny (I think).

Vinterberg likes to provoke – an attitude he shares with his former Dogme pal Lars von Trier – and making a film in which teachers drink enormous amounts of alcohol (mostly cheap vodka) at school, and who also give some to their kids, is clearly a provocatio­n.

Attitudes to the film will vary according to the point of view of the viewer.

I found it unsatisfyi­ng on a great many levels, despite the excellent performanc­es of the four actors who play the teachers. Obviously, the London Film Festival audience (live or virtual, I wonder?) was more tolerant than I am.

Perhaps the most surprising fact about Peter Yule’s The Long Shadow: Australia’s Vietnam Veterans Since the War is that a book published by the Australian War Memorial — and written specifical­ly to ensure “the voices of veterans are heard” — would reach such a comprehens­ively damning verdict on the war.

The Australian commitment to Vietnam was based “on an assortment of unproven assumption­s and half-truths”, writes Yule. “Our armed forces were sent to fight in support of a corrupt military regime (which) received solid support only from the Catholic minority (and) the small landowning class. Few fought willingly for the regime.”

It was once important to many Vietnam veterans that they should be recognised as having fought a just war, but Yule’s characteri­sation of the conflict is likely to pass without comment today, when the conduct of the war matters less to veterans than its consequenc­es.

The Long Shadow is a significan­t new episode in the history of the writing of the history of Australia’s Vietnam War.

Until now, there have been two distinct strands to that history: the academic and the popular. The academic is best represente­d by the forensic, meticulous, nine-volume Official History of Australia’s Involvemen­t in Southeast Asian Conflicts, 1948-1975. The Official History — “official” because its authors were allowed access to government archives — takes pains to analyse and explain command decisions and public policy.

The popular strand includes partly folkloric life stories, oral histories and journalist­ic accounts. It describes the war from the point of view of the grunt on the ground, who tends to see little but malicious, ill-informed incompeten­ce in the actions of politician­s and senior officers.

Academic histories generally shy from the biographie­s of individual “ordinary” soldiers — each of which, obviously, is unique. The great flaw of the popular histories is that they often present spectacula­r statements as fact simply because somebody once said them.

The Long Shadow is the point where these two strands meet. It was researched and composed with academic rigour and free access to government documents but showcases uncorrobor­ated, unmediated veterans’ testimonie­s. Men describe events without giving them dates. They talk about others in their unit without using their names. One man offers a mortality rate for his infantry company with no indication how the figure was calculated.

The Long Shadow has its own long history. It was written largely in response to the rejection by organised, activist veterans of the essay, Agent Orange: the Australian Aftermath, by Professor F.B. Smith, which appears in the third volume of the Official History, Medicine at War (1994).

Smith’s essay supported what Yule calls “the official narrative”, which holds that the veterans were wrongheade­d to pursue their claims about chemical poisoning because most of them were never exposed to Agent Orange and there is no proven link between other chemicals and the cancers and birth defects that supposedly plague Vietnam veterans. Moreover, those same cancers and birth defects are no more prevalent among Vietnam veterans than in the general population.

Many vocal veterans — whose activism was channelled through the Vietnam Veterans Associatio­n of Australia and, later, the Vietnam Veterans Federation of Australia — were infuriated both by Smith’s conclusion­s and the language in which they were couched.

They campaigned to have the official history rewritten to better reflect their own experience­s. Because some veterans did have cancers and some of their children do suffer birth defects and they desperatel­y sought ways to understand their intimate tragedies and invest them with a wider meaning.

Veterans’ leaders were further incensed by a plaque at the AWM that endorsed the major finding of the Evatt Royal Commission on the

Use and Effects of Chemical Agents on Australian Personnel in Vietnam: that Agent Orange was “not guilty”. One activist veteran described this as “a most devious, treacherou­s, and certainly a maliciousl­y crafted exhibition of contrived falsificat­ion of fact and bloody reality by the AWM’s Council”. The charge seems to have stung the council and ultimately prompted it to commission Yule to write about the “medical legacies” of the war.

Another surprising aspect of The Long Shadow is the chapter, F.B. Smith’s Official History, a furious critique of a work that was, after all, published by the selfsame AWM. Yule savages Smith for his “combative approach”.

Smith, he claims, “did not so much write a history as present a case”. He accuses his predecesso­r of “distorting evidence, and gloating over the discomfitu­re of the veterans”. He says Smith made “defamatory assumption­s” and was “obsessive in his denigratio­n of the VVAA and especially its leaders”.

“Whatever the rights and wrongs of the

arguments about Agent Orange, any study of the post-war experience­s of Vietnam veterans should have attempted to understand the sources of the feelings of anger and injustice that were widespread among many Vietnam veterans,” writes Yule.

Is that the purpose of a medical volume of an official history? Perhaps it is. It is certainly the overriding purpose of The Long Shadow.

The notion that Australian troops in Vietnam were poisoned by American chemicals had a delicious poetry for the left. Anti-war campaigner­s embraced the idea that the defoliant used by the US military to strip life from the jungles left a legacy of devastatio­n, disease and genetic mutation, not only in Vietnam, but also in the bodies and minds of the hapless young men dispatched by heartless government­s to fight an amoral war.

Many former radicals hoped and believed that the case against Agent Orange would be proven at the Royal Commission. But the veterans faced a bottomless­ly funded offensive by the US chemical company Monsanto, which enabled extravagan­tly paid corporate lawyers to tear shreds off the motley collection of sometimes inexpert experts assembled against them.

Commission­er Justice Phillip Evatt, who had begun the inquiry predispose­d to the veterans’ argument, eventually hit up against the science which — although post-commission developmen­ts have added a little more doubt — could not be interprete­d to support the Australian claims against Agent Orange.

Evatt saw a kind of poetry in the veterans’ case. He said, “We sent the cream of our youth, with strong value systems and a belief in themselves and those values, to Vietnam. We trained them to kill men. … When they returned to Australia they were ostracised by many and any sense of purpose in their sacrifice evaporated. Is it any wonder they felt poisoned?”

Reputable studies have repeatedly shown that the biggest medical issue that disproport­ionately affects Vietnam veterans and is indisputab­ly, distinctly and uniquely linked to their war service is not chemical-related cancers or birth defects, but post-traumatic stress disorder.

Objectivel­y, it does not matter whether the veterans’ problems are caused by enemy fire, American chemicals or army-encouraged alcohol dependence. But the guilt of Agent Orange was, essentiall­y, a case for the left.

In the absence of Agent Orange, what tends to emerge is a case against the left. Many Australian­s in Vietnam never saw combat and yet support troops seem to suffer from similar levels of PTSD to fighting men. The hunt for the root of their trauma often ends at the “homecoming”.

“For many Vietnam veterans,” Yule writes, “the rejection of their service has played as great a role as the trauma of war in their subsequent mental health struggles.” But how real or widespread was that “rejection”?

While Yule bravely discounts various logistical­ly impossible stories of troop transports landing at Sydney Airport to face mobs of bannerwavi­ng protesters, The Long Shadow does lend fresh oxygen to the urban myth that Australian veterans were spat upon by young female students (often, it seems, the same one).

The spitting stories — unheard of during the war itself — have multiplied exponentia­lly over the years. Yule quotes a veteran who says, “You wouldn’t go anywhere near the pubs near the university. Women would spit on you. I’ve lost count of the amount of women that spat on me.” This is peak spit.

I doubt whether Yule believes that any veteran genuinely lost count of the number of times he was spat upon, but what does it mean that he feels obliged to include the claim? In a sense, he has no choice. He cannot offer a voice to the veterans and then ignore one of their most colourful complaints.

The Long Shadow also reprints an anonymous, easily disproved anecdote about protesters throwing food at veterans. Again, this is something that several former soldiers believed to have occurred. However, it is not history, because it did not happen.

And things that do not happen cannot cause other things to happen.

Perhaps this should be the coda for the whole debate about the medical legacies of Vietnam.

But the spitting stories are poetry for the right. They help supporters of the war blame opponents of the war for the wounds of warriors.

In 1991, the US government accepted that Agent Orange was carcinogen­ic and that all US veterans should be treated as if they had been exposed to, and damaged by, the defoliant. Yule argues that the standard of proof demanded of Australian Vietnam veterans has been too high. Put in the context of Yule’s characteri­sation of the Vietnam War, this is neither eccentric nor unjust.

If the Australian government sent men to die in Vietnam on the basis of “unproven assumption­s and half-truths”; wrongly identified a dictatorsh­ip as a democracy and a civil war as an internatio­nal conflict; and was naively seduced by the dubious enthusiasm­s of the US government (and there are strong arguments for at least two of these three propositio­ns) then why should the veterans have to make a watertight case for the cause of their suffering?

Yule does not so much find Agent Orange “guilty” as pronounce the activist veterans “not guilty”. He re-characteri­ses the deluded, intransige­nt, mendacious blowhards he finds in Smith’s narrative as reasonable men with a heartfelt case, genuine grievances and sincere conviction­s.

I am sure that this is true. But it still does not mean that they were correct.

Mark Dapin’s books include Australia’s Vietnam: Myth vs History, and The Nashos’ War: Australia’s National Servicemen and Vietnam.

WITNESS: AN INVESTIGAT­ION INTO THE BRUTAL COST OF SEEKING JUSTICE

Louise Milligan’s previous book, Cardinal, was an expose of George Pell. It won the 2017 Walkley Book Award but also brought Milligan the ire of Pell’s vocal public defenders.

The ABC journalist’s new book, Witness, is not about Pell, at least not primarily. But it was inspired by Milligan’s experience as a Crown witness at Pell’s committal hearing in March 2018, on five counts of historic sexual assault against two Melbourne choirboys.

Pell’s counsel, Robert Richter QC, sought to destroy her credibilit­y during cross-examinatio­n.

Her standing as a journalist and author – for good and ill – seems to hinge in some minds on the outcome of recent legal processes involving Pell. His conviction­s were overturned in the High Court following a legal battle.

Milligan was a witness at Pell’s committal because she had interviewe­d several complainan­ts against him. She describes Richter’s tactics towards her as “disgusting” and “wearying” and his tone as “sneering, sarcastic, bullying”. But, unintentio­nally, Richter galvanised her.

“Through all of this,” she writes, “I just kept imagining all the vulnerable, traumatise­d victims of all sexual crimes, who had no law degree … who were not legally advised by a top QC as I had been, who did not have a team of lawyers at the ABC to fall back on …

“I thought of those people, who had spent the past decades burying away their childhood shame, who might have taken to drug or alcohol addiction to make it go away, to dull the throb in their brain, to switch off the disgusting flashbacks … How would they manage that kind of questionin­g?”

Witness is an important, disturbing book. It is especially topical in light of the selection of sexual assault survivor Grace Tame as the 2021 Australian of the Year.

Milligan presents vivid case studies of several victims of alleged or proven sexual assault, including a (then) 18-year-old NSW Central Coast woman, Saxon Mullins, and a (then) 15-yearold Melbourne schoolboy, Paris Street.

The sordid details of the sexual degradatio­n are painful enough to read, but the salient point is that their experience of the criminal justice system made things immeasurab­ly worse. Like many others before and since, they were “re-traumatise­d”.

In Mullins’s case, there was no dispute that she was subjected to anal intercours­e in an alley behind a Kings Cross nightclub at 4am, while intoxicate­d, by a man she had met less than half an hour before.

The accused claimed that he believed she was consenting, and it was suggested to Mullins in cross-examinatio­n that her motivation for bringing the complaint was jealous malice. The jury at the first trial delivered a verdict of guilty, but the judge at a subsequent retrial found that the possibilit­y that the accused believed Mullins was consenting (even though she had not, in fact, consented) had not been excluded beyond reasonable doubt. The accused was acquitted.

Even that bare summary does not do full justice to the Kafkaesque nightmare of Mullins’s experience. But at least her case has attracted sympatheti­c media attention: hundreds if not thousands of other victims, unknown and unvindicat­ed by the justice system, must suffer alone. As Milligan observes, only 7 per cent of sexual assaults reported to NSW police in 2009-2018 resulted in criminal conviction­s (about half of those that went to court). Yet it is inconceiva­ble that 93 per cent of those complainan­ts were liars or hysterics. Given that a great many other sexual assaults must have gone unreported entirely, these statistics bespeak an appalling situation.

It may be better, as the great English jurist William Blackstone insisted, that 10 guilty people go free than that one innocent person be convicted; but the ratio nowadays in sexual assault cases in Australia must be closer to 100:1, or even higher.

Drawing on interviews with prominent members of the legal profession, and experts in academia, Milligan correctly identifies some of the problems: indecent “win at all costs” tactics by defence counsel; reluctance by trial judges and Crown counsel to use existing powers under the Uniform Evidence Acts and other legislatio­n to protect witnesses; the belief across the community in persistent myths about how “real” victims behave, to name a few.

What can be done? Some possible solutions – such as lowering the standard of proof in a criminal trial for sexual offences – are untenable. Others – such as tightening the concept of “consent”, to make it harder for amoral sexual opportunis­ts to claim they “believed” the victim was submitting – are under considerat­ion by the NSW Attorney-General. But a recent report by the NSW Law Reform Commission suggests any change on this score will be minimal.

Milligan floats one idea worth considerin­g: grant complainan­ts at sexual assault trials the right to be represente­d by their own counsel. “Almost all the victims I speak to,” she writes, “say that having a lawyer in court to protect them would make an enormous difference to their experience.”

I have two more suggestion­s. They are radical and would require most carefully drafted legislatio­n. But the status quo is unacceptab­le.

First, in certain types of sexual assault cases, formally permit adverse inferences to be drawn against an accused who elects not to give oral evidence at trial.

Yet another defect in the current system is the stark imbalance between the accused’s near-unfettered right not to give evidence at trial and the vicious cross-examinatio­n to which many complainan­ts are subjected. At least in cases that boil down to one person’s word against another’s, this is an anomaly that ought no longer to be tolerated.

My second suggestion is, perhaps, even more radical: develop options other than the blunt instrument of the criminal law. Many more perpetrato­rs would be likely to admit their guilt, to apologise to their victims, and to make appropriat­e reparation­s, if they did not face the prospect of years of imprisonme­nt as well.

So, in appropriat­e circumstan­ces, grant some the assurance of a non-custodial sentence – or even, perhaps, immunity from prosecutio­n. That would still be most imperfect justice. But it was done in South Africa in the post-Apartheid era, in respect of all manner of foul crimes, and left many victims feeling comforted.

THE MOTHER FAULT

By Kate Mildenhall

Simon & Schuster, 336pp, $32.99 LATE SONATA

By Bryan Walpert

Seizure, 168pp, $6.99

EITHER SIDE OF MIDNIGHT

By Benjamin Stevenson Michael Joseph, 336pp, $32.99 Ed Wright

Dystopian novels are something of a dime a dozen at the moment, a measure of how western culture has shifted from faith in its progressiv­eness to being scared. Climate change, pandemics and tech threats feature heavily in the prepondera­nce of dark imaginarie­s of our human future. (And one can only wonder what might be written if frogs or koalas could do long-form fiction).

So what makes a contempora­ry dystopian fiction cut through the morass of gloom? Is it the conceptual playfulnes­s pinned to terror that we see in the Hunger Games, the political insights and wit of Margaret Atwood, or the existentia­l reduction of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road?

Kate Mildenhall’s novel, The Mother Fault, draws us in because it offers, like The Hunger Games and The Handmaid’s Tale, a compelling female protagonis­t who witnesses as she acts.

It’s a driven tale that takes Mim, mother of two, in a digitally authoritar­ian Australia, on a determined quest to find her husband, Ben, who has gone missing in Indonesia, where he has been working as a mining engineer.

Mim is a geologist herself and the modern woman’s juggle of job and kids has left her a little frayed at the edges and not that happy about her husband’s frequent trips in the name of work. Mildenhall’s digitally authoritar­ian Australia feels disturbing­ly possible, if not likely. Freedoms have been eroded. Dissidents are placed in gated communitie­s called Best Life centres, concentrat­ion camps with a veneer of suburban comfort.

When Ben goes missing, Mim is visited by the Department (what of is not declared) and told that an inquiry has been initiated. She is ordered not to leave her home.

Mim can sense that something is wrong. Her visitors’ opaque responses to her questions and the veiled threat that her kids might be taken away and put into a Best Life centre if she doesn’t follow their advice, suggest they are more interested in her and the kids as a kind of collateral to be used against Ben.

She decides to flee to her family farm in the country, where her kin are unhappy about the trouble she brings with her. Here she realises the GPS implants under their skin must be excised before they can properly escape. Mim is a well-realised protagonis­t: feisty, stroppy, somewhat lost in the middle of her life, prone to outburst and impulse. Yet beneath this is a fierce loyalty. But does Ben deserve it?

While the world created, with its surveillan­ce culture, lost freedoms, soft totalitari­anism and mining disasters, is convincing and shimmers disturbing­ly between the speculativ­e and familiar, it’s Mim, imperfect and unapologet­ic, who holds the story. This is helped by Mildenhall’s skill in seducing her readers to keep turning the page. The high-octane narrative is one way books can fight against the powerful distractio­ns of contempora­ry life. The Mother Fault is an absorbing read that is hard to put down.

There are two kinds of book prizes. The first is where published books go into the ring for prizes that usually have a cash value. The other is where publicatio­n is part of the prize itself, and this tends to favour the idiosyncra­tic over the mainstream.

With its waxing and waning numbers, innovative use of guest editors as well as judges (when funding permitted), The Seizure Novella Award belongs to the latter category. Since 2013, it has been the catalyst for some brilliantl­y original works and a launch pad for unconventi­onal literary careers.

Bryan Walpert’s Late Sonata is one of the two winners from 2020. It’s the second winner, after Anna Jackson’s The Bed-Making Competitio­n (2018), to hail from over the ditch where Walpert, American in origin, is a creative writing teacher at Massey University in Palmerston North.

Set in Colorado, Late Sonata is a work that deals with maturity and decline. We meet Stephen, a novelist, and his wife Talia, a Beethoven scholar, in the fug of grief over the death of their only son Michael in a car accident. There is also the continuing march of Talia’s early onset dementia.

As Stephen copes with the complexiti­es of the present and tries to edit Talia’s final work on Beethoven’s Sonata 30 in E major, he discovers a note that points to an affair Talia had in the early days of their marriage. This leads to a re-evaluation of his life and marriage.

The B-strand of the novella is a neat juxtaposit­ion: an account of the novel Stephen is writing in which the protagonis­t, Orville, of a similar age to the author and suffering from cancer, receives a trial of a youth drug and begins, a la Benjamin Button, to reverse the effects of ageing, while maintainin­g the knowledge of his previous experience.

A frequent joy of mature novels is their insights into human character. Their reflective pace allows for the rapid oscillatio­n between facets that help us to come to conclusion­s about the puzzles of other people. Walpert excels here, in clear-eyed prose that is reminiscen­t, for one, of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. Here is Stephen on his best friend, for instance: “Geoff was a generous friend, but his generosity was delimited by its connection to his own wellbeing. He’d always made things easier for me so that they would be easier for himself. Geoff was in that respect, though deeply intellectu­al, someone who preferred to skim the social surface.”

Late Sonata is full of such complex insights and a reminder that we should be paying more attention to New Zealand’s literature.

Trying to make a living out of literature often demands an innovative approach. Debut author Benjamin Stevenson had the advantage, on placing his first book with publishers, of being a literary agent for Curtis Brown. He is also an award-winning standup comedian.

His debut thriller, Either Side of Midnight, is an intriguing tale that explores how our modes of electronic communicat­ion might be used to commit murder.

Jack Quick is a disgraced television producer of A Current Affair ilk who has made stacks of money out of discoverin­g and sensationa­lising crimes, often ones the police had failed to solve.

Flying too close to transgress­ions of the law has its risks however, and we meet Jack as he is about to be released from jail. With his money gone and a brother in a vegetative state who is expensive to maintain, he is tempted when the twin brother of TV personalit­y, Sam Midford, appears and offers him a large sum to explore the idea that his brother’s apparent suicide on primetime TV was in fact murder.

Despite being sceptical, Jack takes on the case and what follows is an extremely well-plotted crime narrative that maintains its cutting edge even as it looks for answers in its characters’ pasts. Stevenson has provided us with an inventive debut, in a genre where the innovation is not always easy, and has written it with style and wit.

 ??  ?? Mads Mikkelsen stars in
Another Round
Mads Mikkelsen stars in Another Round
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 ??  ?? US planes spray Agent Orange in South Vietnam
US planes spray Agent Orange in South Vietnam
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 ??  ?? Saxon Mullins
Saxon Mullins
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 ??  ?? From top left: Authors Benjamin Stevenson; Bryan Walpert; and Kate Mildenhall
From top left: Authors Benjamin Stevenson; Bryan Walpert; and Kate Mildenhall

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