Dreaming the enemy by David Metzenthen
Allen and Unwin, 2016. ISBN 9781760112257
In what appears to be based on the Battle of Coral which took place during the Vietnam War, Johnny Shoebridge, a conscripted Australian infantryman endures unspeakable terror defending a 'Firebase' of artillery and mortars. The Firebases enabled significant targets such as supply routes to be shelled and also offered support to infantry if powerful enemy forces were contacted.
When hordes of North Vietnamese soldiers and Vietcong guerrillas attack a newly positioned and inadequately prepared Firebase on the first night after it was set up, Johnny and his mates Barry and Lex must fight desperately in their infantry units which were placed to defend the guns.
I liked this story for many reasons, not least because the reader is transported to a place where the gut wrenching fear is almost palpable and the crescendo of explosions and screams is overwhelming. Most important however, is the fact that this is achieved without any glorification of war.
The story is told in a series of flashbacks in civilian life when Johnny is trying to adjust to being an ordinary person after returning from military service. The flashbacks not only recount the experiences of Johnny and his mates but he also displays an acute awareness of the service and suffering of the enemy in his dreams about a wounded and traumatised soldier 'Khan'.
In trying to connect with people, Johnny has no control over the memories and dreams which flood his waking moments, to a point where at times he loses track of what is real. The theme of mateship is omni-present in Australian war literature and the concept of soldiers having a far greater fear of letting their mates down than dying themselves is clearly very real. Metzenthen has created an authentic story which I feel would meet with approval from those who served, on the grounds that the detail is accurate, the humour is realistic and there is a profound respect for the soldiers from both sides which is unwavering even when pointing to the insanity of the war itself.
The author emphasises that what the Australian, New Zealand and American service men endured was so immense and significant that it was literally life changing, often permanently and all too often being terribly destructive in terms of physical and psychological injury. Without insulting these individuals in any way however, the author questions this terrible suffering against the outcome of the war. Metzenthen also reveals the war and post-conflict experience of the North Vietnamese people, who saw only that their country was invaded. The unequal nature of warfare between lightly armed guerrillas and the almost unbelievable might of Western firepower is considered with great sensitivity. The reader is left with the sense that after all the civilian and military deaths, all the injuries and the unspeakable destruction and poisoning of the environment, the outcome was pretty much the same as it would have been if the war had not been waged.