A merry mercenary

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Of Australian witnesses to the Vietnam War there are few, considering that this was the longest, if hardly the most costly, overseas military venture in the history of this country: a handful of novels, a film, a few television mini-series. There are unit histories growing by the year, besides the fine volumes in the Official History by Ian McNeill (on combat) and Peter Edwards (the homefront). But women’s reckonings of the war are scant indeed. Susan Terry has written of her experiences as a nurse in Vietnam, Jane Ross of a fortuitous research trip in which she investigated the myth of the Digger (see Gerster and Pierce, On the Warpath). Georgia Savage’s accomplished novel Ceremony at Long Nao was, among other things, a benediction for those who fought on either side.

Now—long after her experiences there—Helen Nolan has written a novel, Between the Battles. To a degree autobiographically based, it is about Vietnam in the late 1960s. In common with her protagonist, the reckless Holly Gow, Nolan was recruited from Sydney for a secretarial job with the American armed forces. The novel that she has fashioned—decades after the events that she witnessed and of which she heard—is an account of a tour of duty from a point of view different in many obvious respects, but not in all, from
that of men who served in the military for the United States or Australia.

Nolan’s novel is ambiguous in its essence. At times her heroine disparages the corrupt conduct of the war by the South Vietnamese and the Americans. At others she jokes about and joins in the black market among the allies. Holly’s war seems to take place not so much in the office but in bars, beds, jet planes and helicopters. The incidents with which we are regaled may be based more in fantasy than careful reminiscence: the mile-high delights of sex in the cockpit of a fighter plane, nonchalant survival of the Tet offensive, commandeering army vehicles for joy rides, even the shooting of a black-shirted Viet Cong with a borrowed revolver. Indeed it appears to have been a lovely war for Holly and her girlfriends, with such cheerily titled chapters as ‘Red Dogs, Black Cats and White Mice’, ‘Billygoats, Hammers and Sharkbaits’ and ‘Oh Goodie—More Girls’.

The uncertain tone of Between the Battles attests not only to literary inexperience but to a moral confusion that the heroine does not resolve. She is a mercenary of a kind, not a zealot. The best friends of her female coterie are among the soldiery, especially if they are officers, but Vietnamese who may be Viet Cong are fondly regarded as well. The war is an excitement, and a lost cause. To whatever extent it was intended, Nolan has given us an awkward but revealing memoir of the war in Vietnam, and the careless Western ’60s frame of mind that was brought to it. 

Between the Battles, Helen Nolan. Pandanus Books, 2005. ISBN 1 740 76125 1, RRP $29.95

Peter Pierce is Professor of Australian Literature at James Cook University, Cairns.



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What a pity Peter Pierce did not read my Author's Note, or he would not have made an assumption that the book was written years after the event. It wasn't. It was written in 1978, while it was fresh in my mind, and every event depicted in it is true. Holly Gow is an amalgam of the round-eye women who I knew there.

Helen Nolan | 22 September 2010  

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