THE ONLY WAR WE HAD (Beachhead Vietnam)

© Graham Fredriksen (1956 - 2010)

Winner, 2008, ‘ABPA Australian Championship’ hosted by North Pine bush Poets.

Ours was no wall of fire to breach,
      no grim machine gun’s roar,
no D-Day scenes upon the beach—
      our baptism to War;
just apprehensions, yes,—and pride—
      and armed and loaded, we
stepped from our landing craft beside
      the great South China Sea.
My father, two decades before,
      had, not that far away,
stepped to his Southeast Asian war
      one red, heroic day;
and plunging from his landing craft
      he swam and lunged and ran,
while hard ahead pillboxes strafed
      out death on Tarakan …
But ours was never Tarakan—
      I’ll pay you tribute, Dad—
and yours was much more righteous than
      the only war we had.

Ours was no far Gallipoli:
      the stories Grandpa told
recalled no “friendly” beachhead; he
      recalled a tenuous hold
on life and land and always the
      most precious hold on gains—
across the Turks’ peninsula,
      on western Europe’s plains;
you fought and held each sacred yard
      (the trenches witness bore)
and marked the frontlines plain and hard
      upon the Maps of War;
you dug in, held, then forward moved,
      and always knew your foe …
but, Grandpa, Vietnam just proved
      war always isn’t so.
And your “war to end ALL wars” sits
      no statement ironclad;
the folly of it all—but it’s
      the only war we had.

I picture Grandpa peering through
      his “loop” on Sari Bair,
as Turkish lines came into view—
      the enemy was there;
he knew their faces, their designs,
      the foe was obvious,
but in our war the Indochines
      looked all the same to us:
the ally from the South; the “gook”
      the North had sent to fight;
the in-between who daily took
      our side and in the night
came back to kill us; bar-girls whom
      we bought in Vung Tau bars—
who’d offer more than we’d presume
      with Russian S.L.R.s.
Retired now to a “safer pos”
      I, disillusioned, add:
ours was no set-piece war—but was
      the only war we had.

A war consumed with “body counts”—
      attrition, never land;
place names that we could not pronounce,
      we’d conquer, then we’d hand
them back again: land burned and bombed
      and drenched with brave, brave blood
of boys who’d fought and martyrdom’d
      t heir youth for transient mud.
The lines were always misty, blurred—
      where there were lines at all—
our “baby-killing” war; absurd,
      we’d answered to a call
to tear apart a people who
      (we’d not then have believed)
inferred no threat to me or you
      but just a threat perceived.
Our time had come “to war” … because … ;
      the logic’s spare and sad—
ours was no holy war, but was
      the only war we had.

A generation raised on tales
      of courage under fire,
where every road to Manhood trails
      through bullets and barbwire;
a base ideal to grow up with:
      the patriotic chore,
perpetuated in the myth
      of passage rites through War.
To Tarakan, my father’s beach;
      Grandpa’s Gallipoli;
for Country and for Empire, each
      stood hard with Liberty.
And thus the notions “communist”,
      “collapsing domino”,
had urged the next-in-line enlist:
      Malaya; Borneo;
then Vietnam—the noble cause—
      Australia’s Iliad;
our “rising to the steel” that was
      the only war we had.

Yes, clad in camouflage fatigues
      we disembarked; the drum
the past beats over briny leagues
      had bade we young men come,
to . . . slant-eyed girls in silken skirts
      and children peddling “coke”,
where Truth is casualtied and flirts
      with blood and battle smoke.
And home we stole in dark of night
      (they say, in “shameful” ranks);
no welcome home parade that might
      salute a nation’s thanks.
And old men at the R.S.L.
      say: “Just a skirmish, son.
You wouldn’t know a real war; hell,
      you never even won!”
Good soldiers? well … not hypocrites—
      the politics was bad;
it’s not much of a war—but it’s
      the only war we had.

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