I used to work on a station as a surveyor and field assistant back in the day before every man and his dog worked on the mines in Western Australia. It was a sheep station – with over 3,000 sheep, all flyblown and cancerous. The wool industry did not provide enough money to to make a living, so in order to survive, the crown land was leased out to drilling companies in the event of finding ‘gold in them, there hills.’
The stationhand was appropriately named Neville – the charming Aussie ‘larrikan’ with years of stories etched into his face and a smile that crept up around his crinkly eyes like a Cheshire cat. He was a very likeable chap, with an unwavering confidence that can only come from years of looking down the barrel of a shotgun and accepting mortality.
There was also a soft side to Neville; evident when watching his partner’s fluffy little poodle follow him into his truck and sit on his lap to go mustering with the big boys: rusty coloured station mongrels that blended into the red and dusty landscape of this gold mining town of Kalgoorlie.
Neville’s gunslinger swagger came from his gammy knee, a product of his time spent as an SAS soldier. He had travelled in and out of every country in the world, and boy, could he tell you a story. I used to sit there drinking cups of tea and shovelling Arnott’s Monte Carlo biscuits in my gob on ‘smoko’ break, probing him every chance I could get about what really happened in the war. There’s a part of me that wanted to hear it, because it was like flicking through the pages of a horror story, only someone had actually lived it.
He told me he had a PhD in Murder – he was honest and to the point – however, he seemed to tout it as a badge of honour. He believed he'd been trained to do a job and the past is the past and what’s done is done.
He spoke of some of the horrific torture techniques used in the war: infecting the Vietnamese women with a specific strain of gonorrhea to infect the American soldiers who slept with them. Some, to this very day, still suffering from the consequences. He explained to me that the reason for having concentration camps was, not just for torture, but because it was much easier to burn a carcass without any fat on it.
He had travelled through various regions where the Pol Pot had massacred millions of people; arriving at mass gravesites that were wriggling and moving beneath the ground from 150,000 maggot-ridden bodies. He said you could smell them from at least 10km away – a smell he had become quite accustomed to.
I asked him why he thought that some people end up alcoholics or drug addicts and their lives are destroyed after witnessing such atrocities, and other people such as himself, managed to maintain some level of ‘sanity’ and 'assimilate' back into the ‘real’ world?
“The same reason I got chosen to be a sergeant. I have the mental strength and ability to move on,” he told me.
But had he moved on? Or had this now become his story?
I think of this in relation to our forefathers and the stories they pass down to their children and so forth – the great Aussie battler or the larrikin. The tough guy who lives in a world of pain behind closed doors and cannot show emotion to his loved ones for fear of living through that hell all over again.
We’ve held onto these beliefs for so long. War has given us a story to tell, when it shouldn’t make us who we are. And today, I find those stories playing out through the media – lived out in other people’s lives on a daily basis – and I think, when did war ever make anyone a hero? How can one side of the coin be so shiny and heroic, and the other side be so dark and murderous?