My Grandfather’s War
EK Books, 2018
32pp., hbk., RRP $A24.99
On this most solemn of days on the Australian and New Zealand calendars, and as the centennial commemoration of World War I come to a close, My Grandfather’s War tells us of a more recent conflict, the Vietnam War, a war where those who served are now the grandparents of its target audience, our primary school students.
At a time when the world had almost emerged into a new era following World War II, the USA and the USSR were the new superpowers and the common catch-cry promoted by prime ministers and politicians was “All the way with LBJ”, Australian and New Zealand joined forces with the USA in this new conflict to stop the “Yellow Peril” of China moving south and overtaking nations just as Japan had tried to do between 1941 and 1945. Among the 65 000 troops of both nations committed between 1963 and 1975 was Robert, Sarah’s grandfather who now lives with her family and who is “sometimes very sad.”
Possibly a natio, drafted because a marble with his birthdate on it dropped into a bucket, old enough to die for his country but too young to vote for those who sent him, Robert, like so many others of his age whose fathers and grandfathers had served, thought that this was his turn and his duty and that the war “would be exciting”. But this was a war unlike those fought by the conservative, traditional decision-makers – this was one fought in jungles and villages where the enemy could be anywhere and anyone; one where chemicals were used almost as much as bullets; one where the soldiers were not welcomed as liberators but as invaders; and one which the soldiers themselves knew they could not win. It was also the first war that was taken directly into the lounge rooms of those at home as television became more widespread, affordable and accessible.
And the reality of the images shown clashed with the ideality of those watching them, a “make-love-not-war” generation who, naive to the ways of politics and its big-picture perspective of power and prestige, were more concerned for the individual civilians whose lives were being destroyed and demanded that the troops be withdrawn. Huge marches were held throughout the USA, New Zealand and Australia and politicians, recognising that the protesters were old enough to vote and held their futures in their hands, began the withdrawal.
But this was not the triumphant homecoming like those of the servicemen before them. Robert came home to a hostile nation who held him and his fellow soldiers personally responsible for the atrocities they had seen on their screens. There were no welcome home marches, no public thanks, no acknowledgement of heroes and heroism, and Robert, like so many of those he fought with, slipped back into society almost as though he was in disgrace. While the official statistics record 578 killed and 3187 wounded across the two countries, the stats for those who continued to suffer from their physical and mental wounds and those who died because of them, often at their own hands, are much more difficult to discover. Like most returned servicemen, Robert did not talk about his experiences, not wanting to inflict the horror on his family and friends and believing that unless you were there you wouldn’t understand; and without the acknowledgement and support of the nation he was supposedly saving and seeing his mates continue to battle the impact of both the conflict and the chemicals, he sank into that deep depression that Sarah sees as his sadness but which is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Disturbed by his sadness but told never to talk to her grandfather about the war, Sarah is curious and turns to the library for help. But with her questions unanswered there, she finally plucks up the courage to ask him and then she learns Grandad’s story – a story that could be told to our students by any number of grandfathers, and one that will raise so many memories as the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Khe Sanh approaches, and perhaps prompt other Sarahs to talk to their grandfathers.
Few picture books about the Vietnam War have been written for young readers, and yet it is a period of our history that is perhaps having the greatest impact on our nation and its families in current times. Apart from the personal impact on families as grandfathers, particularly, continue to struggle with their demons, it opened the gates to Asian immigration in an unprecedented way, changing and shaping our nation permanently.
Together, Harper and Cooper have created a sensitive, personal and accessible story that needs to be shared, its origins explored and understanding generated.
Lest We Forget.