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Wilfred Edward Salter Owen MC (1893-1918) was an English poet and soldier, one of the leading poets of the First World War

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen MC (1893-1918) was an English soldier in the First World War who was also one of the leading poets of the conflict. He died a week before Germany’s surrender.

It was the email I was dreading: ‘We need a title for your presentation.’

There I was, halfway through my three-month residency at the Australian Defence Force Academy courtesy of UNSW Canberra, happily researching and discovering and discarding and scribbling, but then that emailed request.  Which, frankly, was perfectly reasonable, as I’d committed to doing a presentation at the conclusion of the residency.  But still the request put me in a spin.

All was not lost, however.  I’d been reading a lot of poetry by Wilfred Owen, an English soldier who fought and wrote and died during the First World War.  I’d been intrigued by his poem ‘Asleep’, which Owen had written/rewritten during 1917 and 1918, so I plucked for myself a line, ‘In the happy no-time of his sleeping’, and offered it up as my title.  I was spending the residency exploring the ways masculinity is expressed in times of military conflict and it seemed to be a good fit, at least hinted at truths, or the possibilities of truths.

A reply came almost immediately: ‘We like the title, but what is the presentation actually about? What will you actually be doing?’ Honestly, I had no idea.  My head was too lost in the research side of things to provide anything concrete.  Besides, what did I, a person who’s never even come close to throwing a punch, know about what it’d be like to be a man during extreme armed fighting?  So I wrote back: ‘I’ll be telling stories and asking questions.’

I already had the questions – What is a man?  Who is a good man?  Who is a good being? – but I didn’t have the stories, or anything remotely resembling stories.  Bearing in mind that my intention in doing the residency wasn’t to write about war as such; I’m disinterested in guns, and the infinitely complex political contexts require a much bigger brain than mine.  I was interested in the small moments, the hidden fears and thoughts and dreams.  Bearing in mind also that in 20 years of writing I’ve not once worked with historical fiction.  Whatever that is.

RAF_VOL9_ISS_1Clutching at straws, I decided I’d write one story about the First World War, one about the Second World War, and one about the Vietnam War or the ten-year period of military conflict in Afghanistan.  The First World War story, ‘Holding’, came together relatively painlessly, despite the topic: two men in unimaginable devastating circumstances share a moment of innocent intimacy, which may have profound consequences.  The Afghanistan story (the Middle Eastern conflict was more present to me than that Vietnam War) came together in a whoosh of words.  But the Second World War story, for whatever reason, just never got off the ground.  So, after a white-heat period of editing and polishing, it was ‘Holding’ and ‘The Call’ that I read during my final-week presentation, and it’s completely and utterly thrilling that, after more editing and polishing, they’ve been published in the first issue of this year’s Review of Australian Fiction.  With the added bonus of sharing the pages with the wonderful Andrew Croome, the author of the Vogel-winning Document Z and, more recently, the critically acclaimed Midnight Empire.

I hope you enjoy this issue of the Review of Australian Fiction.  It’s such an innovative enterprise.  Do subscribe, if you can, and help keep Australian literature alive – it’s very cheap (the subscription, not Australian literature).

Plus I need more chook food.

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Three months in this place does what to a man?

Three months in this place does what to a human being?

There’s no doubt that December is the month of looking back, scanning the year for highlights, the things that have mattered.  For me, one of the highlights (amongst many) was my three-month time as Creative Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy via the generosity of the University of NSW Canberra.  I was in-residence at ADFA from September to November, and it’s no exaggeration to say that I loved every minute of it…even though, for the first few hours, I sat in my bare white office in the Academy Library and thought, Oh my, how on Earth did I end up here?

I remember earlier this year how I’d read through the application details and quickly concluded that a military environment wasn’t exactly the right fit for me.  Twice now I’ve protested in the streets about Australia’s involvement in military conflict overseas.  Frankly, I’d rather see the defence budget reduced and money on education and the arts – including education in the arts – increased.  And then there’s the simple fact that I’m just not interested in the machinations of war: the machinery, the strategy, the winning at all costs (and what terrible costs they almost always are).  However, it was said to me that if I was feeling uncomfortable about being in the military environment then perhaps that’s exactly where I should be.  So I started working on the application and soon found that I was interested in definitions of masculinity – how are men truly and perhaps profoundly tested in times of extreme conflict?

Needless to say, it was a complete thrill to be awarded one of the two residencies on offer, and as the time came closer I became more and more nervous.

Really, was this the right thing for me to do?

And the question was turned up to eleven on that first day in September when I sat in that bare white office in the Academy Library.  Eventually I decided that I wouldn’t approach my research through philosophical or academic lenses.  Rather I’d simply expose myself to as much material as I could find amongst the extraordinary resources available (the ADFA Academy Library is known to have one of the world’s greatest collections of military material): fiction, non-fiction, poetry, feature film, documentary; I also had some fantastically energising conversations with UNSW Canberra academics.

Just off-screen is your local Nigel Featherstone shitting himself from nerves.

End-of-residency presentation day: just off-screen is your local Nigel Featherstone shitting himself from nerves.

One of the things I found very interesting about being ‘in residence’ at an academic institution, in contrast to other residencies I’ve been on (for example, Bundanon, Cataract Gorge, Varuna), is the feeling of connection to the topic, as opposed to being in delicious isolation (which, at the right time, has benefits).  On the ADFA campus I was constantly surrounded by material, and it wasn’t only the material in the Library – even going to get a coffee got the thoughts flowing as I was almost always surrounded by men and women in military dress.  It all added up to a very stimulating and thought-invoking time.

So, for three months I filled my brain with stories and observations and conversations, and some questions evolved.  Who is a man?  Who is a good man?  Who is a good person?  Who is a good being?  And then other questions came to the surface, questions about fact and myth, how nations tend to love the latter for not entirely malevolent political reasons.  I don’t have the answers, of course, but I’m looking forward to continuing to think about these questions and see what original work might result over the coming months and years, decades even.

Have my views towards the military changed?

I’m not sure they have, but I do feel as though I have a better (though, in the broader scheme of things, still cursory) understanding of Australia’s military history, and perhaps a deeper appreciation of what service men and women go through to achieve strategic goals.  I still consider the military mechanism for resolving differences completely and utterly barbaric and absurd.  But perhaps I’ve been given a touch of insight into the humans beneath the camouflage, and, more or less, there’s a diversity to people who have served and who are currently serving.

When Australians think of their military history, they might always conjure the larrikin ‘Digger’ in his slouch hat.  But that larrikin ‘Digger’ in his slouch hat is not all there is to it.

And that larrikin ‘Digger’ might not even be true.

*

Much gratitude to UNSW Canberra for the opportunity, and thanks to the staff for being so helpful and welcoming.

The life and death of spring? (Illustration: Jim Pavlidis)

The life and death of spring? (Illustration: Jim Pavlidis. Source: Canberra Times, Fairfax Media.)

It happened only a week ago. There I was, working away at my desk, when, coming from somewhere at a distance on my right, the east, there was a sudden airy whoosh, two of them, in parallel, blasting past my window, above, high above, then the briefest of silences, a nano-second, before this in the west: one explosion, two explosions.

Down below my office, on the sun-drenched terrace outside the café, young men and women stopped concentrating lazily on their lattes and cappuccinos and looked into the sky.  An authoritative shout went up and the young men and women, helpfully already in uniform and camouflage, got to running, sprinting.

They knew, and so did I, because the sirens made it clear: we were – our country was – under attack, we were being invaded.

Except we weren’t; my imagination was simply getting carried away with itself.  Two jet planes, some kind of fighting machine, did indeed zoom through the sky above my room, but – thank the deity that is yours, or just your lucky stars – there were no explosions; it was nothing more than one of those fly-pasts, celebrating something or other that I didn’t know.

But those young military men and women: they were real enough, they are real enough, because I’m currently spending three months at the Australian Defence Force Academy.  No, it’s not the most bizarre holiday you’ve ever heard, nor am I lurking behind bushes like some kind of spy.  It’s just that, courtesy of the University of New South Wales, my spring is committed to a place I never thought I’d even visit let alone allow myself to become immersed, enthralled, besotted even.

Some – many, most – may consider it odd for a writer to spend spring in a place that, in essence, is teaching people how to invade and maim and kill and destroy, all for the greater good, a kind of lofty, lofty cause, one that isn’t always entirely obvious (or true)…

*

Keep reading over at The Canberra Times, which commissioned this piece and published it on 11 November 2013.

But what does she really want him to do?

But what does she really want him to do?

Day in, day out, there they are, on the terrace below, in uniform, camouflage for some, others in blue or green or white, so it’s a military uniform – because they’re soldiers.

It’s not because we’re being invaded, though the assumption is that one day we might be, or it might be us who’ll do the invading, all hell might break loose, yet again.  It’s just that those people, those men and women in uniform, those soldiers, are my environment at the moment.

Because I’m currently the 2013 Canberra Creative Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy, courtesy of the University of New South Wales Canberra.  ‘Creative Fellow’ being just a posh name for writer-in-residence.  Which itself is a posh name for professional day-dreamer.

I haven’t talked about it much, because, primarily, it’s taken me some time to work out what I’m doing.  I’m here for three months, and I’m two months down the track, and it’s only now that things are coming into some kind of focus, though that might not be entirely true, or accurate.  The thing is I’m a natural-born pacifist; I’ve marched in the streets to protest wars.  I’ve always been of the view that there must be better ways to resolve disagreements than standing in a field and pointing weapons at each other.  I like books and music and drinking coffee in my garden while chatting to the chooks – hardly the sort of bloke who gets off on putting an enemy in the crosshairs.

So, no, the Australian Defence Force Academy is not my usual habitat.

Thankfully, as mentioned, I’ve come in via UNSW Canberra, which runs the academic side of ADFA, so that I simply get to spend my days in a very comfortable office in the library, looking down at people in uniform…when I’m not madly researching and reading and writing, of course.  And that’s the thing: I’m finding the place extraordinarily thought-provoking, inspiring even, and bloody productive, in a roundabout kind of way.  As I rather childishly (and potentially inappropriately) said to a senior academic the other day after he’d asked me how I was going, ‘I’m having THE BEST time.’

I came here with the idea of exploring ‘masculinity in times of conflict’; this probably says as much about me as it does about Australian military history.  Perhaps, like always, I’m being driven by that central question: what does it mean to be a good man, which, of course, is almost exactly the same as asking, what does it mean to be a good person?  But the military, especially the Australian kind of military, is all about men, isn’t it, the warrior, that iconic ‘digger’, that myth of our country, that brave saviour of everything we’re meant to stand for (whatever that is).

Those men who could do no wrong.  Except I don’t believe that for a second.

Are all men who've served their country 'good'? Peter Stanley thinks not.

Are all men who’ve served their country ‘good’? Peter Stanley thinks not.

Recently, over the last handful of years, historians – the courageous ones at least – have been turning their attentions to what our soldiers were truly like.  Perhaps the best example of this is Bad Characters: sex, crime, mutiny and the Australian Imperial Force (Murdoch Books, 2010) by Dr Peter Stanley, who for almost three decades was the Australian War Memorial’s chief historian and is now associated with ADFA/UNSW Canberra.

This excellent book, which jointly won the 2011 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History, asserts that an army is a reflection of the society it serves, which means it is a reflection of everything that that society is – warts and all.

Stanley has also been instrumental in establishing Honest History, the soon-to-be-launched organisation based in Canberra dedicated to telling military history how it is without the dramatics, especially as Australia builds up to celebrating the centenary of 1915, when, apparently, though I don’t believe this for a second either, our country formed some kind of identity or purpose – or even found its soul – on a Turkish beach.

So that question remains: who were those men who served, and who are the men who serve now, considering there are just as capable women filling key roles, including in active duty?  Eight weeks down, do I have a clue?  No, not a single one, even though I’ve researched and read and written like a bastard.

Except to say this: (1) I couldn’t do what these men do/have done; (2) I maintain my view that war is senseless, barbaric, and an insidiously bewildering mess; and (3) men who deserted – those who discovered that for what reason they just couldn’t blow up another person, or even go anywhere near a front-line – may well be the truest heroes of all.  Because – and here’s that word again – they were honest with themselves.

Really: deserters as heroes?  I’m serious.  Deadly so.

Non saluting V4

Source: Australian War Memorial

A soldier and his dog, Okinawa, World War Two. Source: Australian War Memorial

‘How beautiful maleness is, if it finds its right expression.’
DH Lawrence

‘It is a wise man who knows where courage ends and stupidity begins.’
Jerome Cady

‘To me the definition of true masculinity – and femininity too – is being able to lay in your own skin comfortably.’
Vincent D’Onofrio

‘This is the test of manhood: How much is there left in you after you have lost everything outside of yourself?’
Orison Swett Marden

‘The opposite of bravery is not cowardice but conformity.’
Robert Anthony

‘Only when manhood is dead – and it will perish when ravaged femininity no longer sustains it – only then will we know what it is to be free.’
Andrea Dworkin

‘We have gained a legend: a story of bravery and sacrifice and,
with it, a deeper faith in ourselves and our democracy,
and a deeper understanding of what it means to be Australian.’
Paul Keating MP

‘As far as I’m concerned, being any gender is a drag.’
Patti Smith

‘In a modern war…you will die like a dog for no good reason.’
Ernest Hemingway

‘The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.’
Thucydides

‘Fiction never exceeds the reach of the writer’s courage.’
Dorothy Allison

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