Inside Story

Ticking like a bomb

Two new books show what Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war left in its wake

Sara Dowse Books 12 November 2022 2174 words

“Get Out of Vietnam”: anti-war demonstrators captured by a Tribune photographer in Sydney’s Martin Place in 1965. State Library of New South Wales and courtesy SEARCH Foundation

What are the odds? Two books about the war in Vietnam landing on my desk in as many weeks. Curious that they’ve appeared when the median age of Australians is 38.4, which means that a sizeable chunk of us weren’t even born when the war was being fought. Vietnam has become a country Australians visit, not the site of brutal devastation.

As is often noted, this small Asian country — a country that most Australian conscripts had never heard of before they were drafted — was the target of three times the tonnage of bombs dropped during the second world war. The exact figure varies, though not significantly, and the bombing was just a part of it. The land was heavily drenched and its people poisoned by the chemical defoliant Agent Orange.

Note, too, the word “conscript.” After Vietnam there were no more conscripts, and both the books, each in its way, tell us why. Though they come to the subject from different angles, reading them together is like entering a long-overdue discussion about an ugly yet largely forgotten war, the painful reverberations of which extend to this day.

Bronwyn Rennex is the daughter of a man she scarcely knew, a man who was sent to Vietnam in 1965 when she was only a year old. Fifteen when he died in 1980, she noted in her schoolgirl diary: “Everyones really upset. I was crying all night. He died of a heart attack about 1/4 past 12 last night.” Now a woman in her fifties, an artist, curator, former part-owner of a Sydney gallery, she documents her search for the cause of his death at fifty-two and her inability to reach him when he was alive.

Life with Birds: A Suburban Lyric is also a record, as its subtitle suggests, of a kind of suburban life that has passed from contemporary reckoning. There’s the modest house set on a reasonable-sized block on the city fringes. There’s the male breadwinner and the mother who looks after the house and three daughters.

But there’s also an embroidered green silk coat that Bronwyn, the youngest, and her two older sisters think is a kimono, though the father had sent it from Vietnam. “Coming from the suburb of North Ryde — a land of wood panelling, beige carpets and wall units filled with clown statues and crystal trinkets — the coat didn’t just seem from another place, it was from another planet.”

By the time her father returned, Bronwyn was four, old enough to pretend to be a dog, “growling and tearing at the bottom of his trousers with my teeth, while he tried to hug Mum.” She didn’t think much of this stranger, and a stranger he largely remained.

John Rennex’s early death was not just a shock but also placed a great strain on his widow. At one level, though, she must also have been relieved. In the letter Elsie Rennex wrote to the veteran affairs department in pursuit of a war widow’s pension, she claims that her husband had once been “a loving outgoing type of person” but after his service “the close communicative relationship we enjoyed before his departure had changed considerably, he became quite withdrawn, he refused absolutely to speak of his term in Vietnam, and our everyday problems were left for me to resolve.”

He couldn’t sleep, took to smoking heavily and developed a persistent cough. Despite a doctor’s warning, he kept smoking. He had pains in his arms and was treated for rheumatism instead of the heart condition ticking away like a bomb. Elsie leaves it to her last paragraph to explain the reason for her request for help: “I still have two daughters dependent on me.”

She never got her pension. The repatriation board found no direct connection between John Rennex’s service and his death. He was overweight and smoked too much: end of story. Her pursuit of a pension is a biting illustration of the Kafkaesque maze she had to contend with, as her daughters did later.

Years down the track, after finally locating the relevant section of the veteran affairs department, Bronwyn requested a photocopy of her mother’s letter, eventually receiving one with the bottom chopped off. Asking about the missing lines, she was informed by a department office that the original was foolscap and they only had an A4 printer. She then asked why they couldn’t print the letter out on two pages. The second page would only have two lines on it, came the reply. Was she exasperated? Was she angry? Of course she was. My head spun just reading about it.

Yet Life with Birds is a beautiful poem of a book. I’ve given you the bones but little of its spirit, which is lyrical and quirky, if laced with piercing irony. Accompanying the text we have the author’s photographs, mostly underexposed and blurred, mimetic of Rennex’s defective memory of her early years and her long, slow awakening to her father’s story.

Like a Greek chorus, they offer a running commentary on the action. With few exceptions, only the reproduced documents are sharp enough to determine: the girlish diary pages, some army report sheets, a curious photo of a delayed christening with the tops of the heads missing (perhaps reiterating the missing lines in the departmental photocopy?).

So why the birds — creatures already so pregnant with symbolic import that they resist simplistic interpretation here? Birds crop up in songs and poems quoted, and they are resonant in the author’s own flying back and forth overseas. Home again after her mother’s death, she finds a myna bird trapped in the garage while hunting for her things stored there. The dehydrated bird is given water and released, but takes its time remembering how to fly. “Do birds have knees?” is the kind of question Rennex is prone to ask.

Life with Birds is both an idiosyncratic and a resolutely personal book. Its focus is on one family but the circle of its light spreads further.

As we 1970s feminists repeatedly insisted, the personal is political. These three explosive words became the movement’s central tenet as well as its most effective slogan. Nothing illustrates this more than Biff Ward’s The Third Chopstick, a book of great breadth and depth that answers many of Rennex’s questions yet is every bit as personal.

Here I must mention that Biff is a friend of mine, and that we met through Canberra Women’s Liberation. We both appear in Brazen Hussies, the award-winning documentary of the 1970s women’s movement released in 2020 and later screened on ABC TV.

All this is to say that we go well back, and one of the many things that struck me when reading Biff’s book alongside Life with Birds is that both of us are old enough now to be Bronwyn Rennex’s mother. Indeed we both have daughters around her age, neither of whom were left in the dark about Vietnam.

Though they had little choice in the matter, our girls were exposed to the radical movements of the day, for the war John Rennex went to was the one we vehemently protested. Our vocal, passionate opposition was the crucible in which grievances that had simmered through the fifties boiled to bursting point in the sixties.

The Third Chopstick’s first chapter vividly describes such a protest. It’s 1965. The woman who would come to write this book is walking past the Commonwealth Offices in Sydney’s Martin Place handing out leaflets and crying, “Get Out of Vietnam.” To begin with, only a gaggle of protesters had met there every Friday, but their numbers have steadily grown, and on this particular Friday, a group of 200 starts marching along Pitt Street until they meet a police blockade on the King Street intersection.

Prevented from going further, dozens of them sit down on the road, blocking the traffic. The police try to move them; the protesters resist. It is a rough confrontation; some are injured. Pushed against a jewellery store window, they have entered a dangerous new phase.

“I hadn’t seen this before,” Ward writes. “Australia had not seen this. My eyes raced from sitters to police to the onlookers collecting on the pavements. The tone of the surround sound had changed, the car horns now cut through with screams and voices barking on police walkie-talkies.” The next morning the papers were filled with reports of the incident. Forty-seven protesters had been arrested. A doctor, who’d gone to the jail to bail out his son, was arrested as well.

What I’ve left out in this summary is the extraordinary immediacy of Ward’s depiction, so skilfully sustained. For The Third Chopstick is a perfect blend of memoir, history and biography, beautifully and sensitively written. In its short introductory chapter we have the beginning, the veil of smug suburban complacency irreparably torn. What followed were the draft resisters, an easing of censorship, women’s liberation, the freedom rides and the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, the Whitlam government and its dismissal.

But the question to ask is why, after so many years have passed and events have erased the intensity of that day, Ward’s visceral connection with Vietnam remains. She has had a busy life teaching, running a practice for facilitating dialogue, attending other demonstrations and protests, and publishing poetry and two other books of non-fiction. But as soon as she could she visited Vietnam, and it wasn’t long before she was conducting tours through the country herself.

Occasionally I was tempted to sign up for one of those tours but circumstance and other priorities stopped me. I knew she was working on a book about Vietnam and was interviewing veterans for it, but I watched, intrigued, from the sidelines, never understanding the importance of what she was attempting.

In our time of niche politics, deepening polarisation and plummeting trust in governments, it’s easy to forget that we have been here before. We may find comfort in imagining that things were different back then, but The Third Chopstick reminds us that we’ve been divided, and angrily so, before.

It also shows us what it takes to walk across that divide, to establish genuine connections with people whose experiences and views on life are radically different from your own. You need imagination, compassion, commitment and, admittedly, the special skills Ward acquired in years of mediation work. As such, the book is as much about that process as it is about the veterans she meets, and her reactions to them and theirs to her.

Bit by bit, she stepped forward. She approached a speaker at a conference of former protesters, veterans and Vietnamese Australians. He introduced her to another man and so her involvement grew. She learned about Granville, where a federation of Vietnam veterans had its headquarters in a rundown community centre of the kind that resembled women’s refuges she had worked in.

Gradually this one-time Vietnam protester turned radical feminist turned professional mediator acquired the trust of many men who ended up allowing her to record their stories, and in the majority of cases welcomed the opportunity. Even now, I’ll be damned if I know how she did it. All I do know is that The Third Chopstick is a wonderful achievement, a book unlike any other, though I can understand why it took so long to bring to fruition. The stories the men told are painful. Not all of the connections went smoothly; one of the most important was arguably the most difficult.

Wars are hell for humans, whether they are the bombed civilians, those who are conscripted to fight or choose to enlist, or the families left behind to suffer long-lasting consequences. To acknowledge this in the face of war’s glorification and its industrial-scale infrastructure is essential. Australian governments have drafted no conscripts since Vietnam, conscription having proved too politically risky, yet they have eagerly signed up for so-called “coalitions of the willing,” and there’s a serious risk we’re heading for war on a scale much larger than those we’ve participated in so far, one with the potential for striking, literally, home.

Ironically, Ward’s deep involvement with Vietnam, the country itself and its people, has made her question whether she’s a pacifist after all. What were the odds that a small Asian country would bring the might of America and its allies to their knees? In their place, or a similar one, wouldn’t she have fought the invaders as the Vietnamese did?

That may be so for any of us. But I see it another way. These two books have convinced me, if I needed any convincing, that nothing is more important, or conducive to peace, than suspending judgements in our search for understanding. •

Life with Birds: A Suburban Lyric
By Bronwyn Rennex | Upswell | $29.99 | 204 pages

The Third Chopstick: Tracks through the Vietnam War
By Biff Ward | IndieMosh | $42.95 | 315 pages