William Nagle, The Odd Angry Shot (Angus & Robertson 1975, 1979)
Before I looked up IMDB, I would have said The Odd Angry Shot (1979), directed by Tom Jeffries and featuring a number of well-known comic actors, was the only feature film dealing with Australia’s involvement in the US–Vietnam War. I was wrong, but it’s certainly the only such film that most people remember, whether they’ve seen it or not (I haven’t). This is the book it was based on. The cover of the film tie-in edition that I’ve just read features a group of military men laughing intensely, and the words: ‘Cry a little, laugh a lot / Aussies being Aussies in The Odd Angry Shot.’ That is, you’re invited to expect something like Leslie Thomas’s Virgin Soldiers: larrikin japes among young men living together, with a seasoning of casual sexism, racism and homophobia, and an occasional reminder that there’s a war going on somewhere nearby.
Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. There are indeed plenty of larrikin japes: our group of SAS soldiers make a wanking machine for the padre who has annoyed them, and the padre surprises them by being a good sport; they bet on a battle to the death between their pet spider and the pet scorpion of nearby US soldiers, and lose the bet gracelessly; they vie for the favours of a woman they assume to be a bar girl but who turns out to be a school teacher and definitely not available. The barracks banter is lively and rings true, and there’s more than enough humour about bodily functions to fill the genre’s requirements.
But readers who expect The Virgin Soldiers with an Australian accent or a celebration of the larrikin Anzac spirit will be disappointed. The book takes the genre and busts it open. The homophobia may stay casual, but the sexism reaches peaks of visceral misogyny, the racism leads to more than one act of hideous brutality against non-combatants, and the combat episodes are graphically, horrifically rendered. The humour is the manifestation of a group ethos that the young men see , correctly, as a kind of stoicism, but at least to this reader communicates a ruthless ban on any show of emotion apart from rage, and almost any conversation apart from chiyacking.
The book is about the group. It’s not The Red Badge of Courage or Regeneration, where we are invited to imagine the effects of soldiering on an individual mind. These young men resent the people back home who demonstrate against the war. They occasionally recognise that the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers they are fighting are as much pawns in the broader politics as they are themselves, but they don’t have the luxury of questioning those politics. If they can’t make a joke they down a can or four of beer. There’s a telling moment towards the end, when one of the young men asks, ‘Do you suppose we’re doing any good by being here?’ His mate answers:
Not much … because when we get home we’ll be an embarrassment to our wonderful nation. The only bastards who’ll want to know about us are the silly buggers in this man’s army. Let’s face it, we’ve got no one else.
The question is asked, but can’t be answered. The best the mate can do is respond to a different question: ‘Will people appreciate what we’ve done here?’ The narrator does finally break free of the enforced lack of reflection a couple of pages from the end:
We are stuck here, refusing to admit defeat, an army of frustrated pawns, tired, wet and sold out. Yet we still believe in our task; still, after all this, we are bound together all over the world, friend and enemy alike, the soldier, the green-clad, second-class citizen of the earth …
We will arrive at any dictated hour to join in our pastime – to hunt and dispose of each other in the ultimate test of the mind, the reward of which is life for another day, another week. You have angered us, all of us, your praetorians from the red tabs downwards are angry.
… We, the survivors, will come home, will move amongst you, will wait, will be revenged.
That is so unlike any other writing in the book it might have been inserted by a canny editor if it weren’t for its awkwardness. I read it as the author struggling against the code of silence he has shown us in the rest of the book.
The Odd Angry Shot shared the 1975 Australian National Book Council Award for Australian literature. Although it remains steadfastly on the side of its soldier characters, it doesn’t sit easily with the current rhetoric about heroes and veneration of those who sacrificed all, as in this, which I saw in Balmain as I was finishing the book. I suspect William Nagle would have sided with the pigeons against the notice poster.
[In case you can’t read the notice, it says: ‘This is a war / memorial / to honour our fallen / diggers / not a lunch seat / or a child’s playground / Please treat it / with the respect it / deserves / Lest we forget’]