Thursday, 8 January 2015

'The War Within,' by Don Tate.

Note: this review contains spoilers - though not, I think, anything that will make the read any the less worthwhile.

I have sometimes thought that young men think of nothing but fightin’, drinkin’ and rootin’. One things I gathered from Don Tate’s autobiography is that I was more right than I could ever have believed. It is unusual to find an autobiography that shows all the worst aspects of a person, rather than the best aspects, but this one does.

He was raised rough, the eldest of a large family and his father a criminal, though rather a stupid one as he regularly spent time in prison. And his father encouraged fighting, hitting his sons so that they become accustomed to being knocked down and then getting up again.  Learning how to use your fists seemed natural in that environment. A chipped tooth or a bloodied lip or nose was part of the ritual, a quick way to learn how to defend yourself. ‘Keep your guard up,’ our father would say, giving me a clout on the chin, then when I did defend myself, he’d put one into my breadbasket and knock the wind out of me. That brought the second part of the lesson: ‘Keep your elbows together when you’re defending.’

It is the story of Don Tate’s life – he gets knocked down and he gets up again.

But as he writes it, Don Tate is not an admirable character. Women are for sex, and men are for fighting, usually with little reason.

Indeed, by the time he is in the army, he appears to be  a perfectly despicable man, violent and unpredictable, with little regard for any civilised values - this view is from his own story in his own words.  There was an incident in which he and a mate threw a ‘Chink’ off a train, didn’t know whether he was dead, injured, or unharmed, but their only thought was that they should ‘create an alibi’ so they would run less risk of being charged with a possible murder.  And  about that mate – Doug Peterson.  Tate saw him as  a good mate.  He admired him.  I’d seen him beat the living daylights out of a woman once in a back alley outside a club in George Street, and when I’d gone to intervene, he’d threatened to bash me as well.’  And later: Peterson was talking:  ‘Ah, me and a mate of mine from Rottnest picked up this abo whore,’ he said, ‘and we took her about twenty bloody miles out of Perth for a good rootin’. We bought her a bottle of gin, and she reckoned we could have whatever we wanted in return. But the bloody bitch drank the whole bottle by the time we got there, and was pissed as a fart and raving like a lunatic, and started jackin’ up about it all. Big bird she was too, a real fuckin’ heifer. Anyway, we gave her a bit of hurry-up and she came across for both of us eventually, and we roughed her up a bit for the fun of it afterwards because she was a slut.’

As I said, despicable.
Tate at Kapooka training camp.

And yet, there are hints that there was always another side to his character, which he barely mentions. Early on, there was something about writing competitions and doing well at English.  It was so buried in other things that it was easy to miss. And while in Vietnam,  ‘He’d put me out as an early-warning sentry in a bamboo thicket while the rest of the blokes were digging their shell-scrapes for the night, and I’d taken the opportunity to whip out a notebook. I was working on a poem to my mother when he crept up behind me.’  A poem for his mother? It doesn’t fit with the tough, uncaring, semi-criminal he depicts himself as.  He also took photographs, including film, another example of a creative streak.  

Does Tate have a deep self-hatred that he prefers to show the worst aspects of himself?  I think he may be judging himself as worse than he is.  But what do I know?  It is so very far from my life experience.

The Vietnam War, and Tate was heavily involved in action from the very first patrol. He sees battles, he sees injustice, he sees incompetence, and he sees the wrong men getting the medals. It is ugly. And the 'R & R'  breaks could also be ugly. He and a mate went into a rough neighbourhood,  'ficky fick'  is offered, and they are happy to take advantage. But the woman his mate was using started to bleed - a miscarriage.  ‘I didn’t know the ins and outs of what he’d done. But what I saw in that bowl, that night, swimming in the pool of blood, wasn’t just a dead baby, but a measure of their lives when it was all added up. The sum total of all of them, the people of that war-torn country, with us and the Americans going berserk in it. Their lives were just a bloody mess.’

Tate was very badly wounded, and his war ended - at least that particular war. He spent around two years in hospital including twelve months in a full body plaster. For a formerly active man, it's a wonder he was able to remain sane. He has a real resilience. In spite of everything, he battles on.

It was when he was in hospital that he met Carole, the woman who was to be his wife. Carole sounds a wonderful woman, understanding and forgiving. And there was a lot to forgive at times, as he still liked fighting and he still liked women. 

Even when handicapped by a permanently ruined hip,  Tate still thinks it’s a good thing to have a fight – ‘manly’ or something.  A large part of this attitude was his stupid father, no doubt. Tate's father was not much of a man;  it didn't stop his oldest son loving and admiring him. A comment from his father that very much pleased him - ‘Jesus, you can blue these days. I didn’t think you could go that well. Good onya!’

The years passed, jobs, children, fights, infidelities, but also in this time, Donald Tate went back to school, and eventually qualified as an English teacher. And again he makes little of this at the same time as he details those things he is not proud of.  Or is he proud of them?  Most people hide away their more stupid actions, but Tate displays them defiantly - like 'Judge me if you dare.' 

Tate was always a battler. He battled other men, he battled circumstances, and he battled the histories -  his unit had been wiped from history. It was largely because of Don Tate that it was corrected. 

And still he battles. There are people who deny what has been officially acknowledged, and people who call him a fraud - he calls them 'gutless bastards.' But he has had official acknowledgement that all he has claimed is fact. That is quite enough for me; I would not dream of calling this man a fraud.

He battles himself as well. He has lived a life with a sort of aggression that is foreign to most of us. After he made an attempt at suicide, he found himself with a therapist. After many, many sessions, the therapist points out a few things for him - ‘You survived a harsh upbringing, and helped raise your brothers and sisters in a difficult time. You risked your life and fought for your country. Only a small percentage of men ever get to do that. I know you saved some schoolgirls from something terrible one time too, and never got any recognition or reward for it. I know you were bashed on other  occasions, while you were a teacher, which you haven’t even told me about. I’ve done some research of my own on you, Don Tate. I know more about you than you think. Yet, despite all that, you kept at it. You gained a university degree. You’ve received community honours, even a medal, I understand. I heard you played representative sport at one time, despite your leg problems. And you’ve stayed married to your wife Carole all this time when many, many veterans haven’t. And you’ve raised a family you can be rightly proud of. What more can you ask of yourself?’

Any man or woman who sees war action is scarred by it.  Tate says that the images would last a lifetime - ‘the impact of that bullet smashing through the bones of my hip joint; of straining to run through that mud into the storm of machine-gun fire; of the bodies at Thua Tich, sprawled in the dust, broken and bloodied, and again, on the way into Xuyen Moc, shredded; of the shattered leg of ‘Doc’ Dann; of the hatred and despair in the eyes of the mother of that dead fetus, and the stink of it, and the blood, drip, drip, dripping; and of those first dead bodies on my very first patrol an eternity ago, torn asunder, the eyes open, yet unseeing; and the weight of a dead mate, carried out on my shoulder on bamboo poles.’

Tate has had a great deal of ill luck in his life, he has lived with pain ever since that bullet ripped apart his hip joint, but in one thing, he was very lucky - his wife.

'My greatest treasure had been the wife and children I’d been blessed with, and to a large extent I’d failed to fully appreciate them. While each of my children had grown into a fine adult with a professional career, with not a single black mark against them, mostly they’d forged their own way. I’d been too concerned with figuring out my own path, making excuses, looking for answers. Sure, I took pride in them, and in their successes, but it was all their own doing, nothing to do with me. In that alone, I realised, the cycle had been broken. The sins of the father had been appeased.'

It has been a privilege to read this book. It has opened  my eyes to a life and a character so far removed from my own experience. There are not many books that make a change to a reader's world view. This one does.

The sad reality of a war.

Some of Tate's film -

ADDED 2nd  APRIL, 2015:

Another review- as a comparison:

Has there ever been a memoir in Australian literature like Don Tate’s “The War Within” (Murdoch Books)? It is a complex, virtuoso analysis of his world- an utterly compelling and profoundly unsettling mosaic.
On the one hand, it is an acidic dissection of the role environment and family have in developing a person’s character, and on the other, it is a sauntering chronicle of social analysis and injustice. Either way, it is told brilliantly. At times, one is almost left breathless.
Let me say, Tate spares neither himself, nor the reader in this tome. He is unabashed, and unrepentant. His is the voice of a generation past, delivered with scant regard for political or sexual correctness. There are astonishing sequences- from sexual and physical abuse; sexual awakening and deviation; teenage delinquency; violence; the clamour of jungle warfare and gut-wrenching descriptions of the aftermath; war atrocities; the corruptions of history (and the human cost); love- pure and simple, and lust; and the simple joys and tragedies of life. And underpinning it all, the pervasive fear that there is a spiritual force manipulating it all.
At its simplest, “The War Within” is about the evolution of a man’s mind and character, and of those events and characters that influence those processes. Thus, we grow with him as he struggles to make sense of the most intriguing series of apparently, unrelated events ─ a life, criss-crossed with drama, trauma, and controversy.
We first meet Don Tate at age ten ─ a shy, yet capricious ingénue living in the dystopian Brisbane suburb of Ellen Grove, and then grow up and old with him in turn, as he comes to terms with being a disaffected youth; a patriotic, but naïve infantryman fighting in the Vietnam War; an alienated, disabled, returned serviceman battling to readjust to a new world; and a man struggling with male status anxiety - a condition apparently inexhaustible in its capacity to cause suffering. Along the way, Tate examines the dark crevices of the male psyche as the morally bankrupt adult is forced to confront and battle both his inner demons and the dazzling decency of his long-suffering Christian wife, Carole. Ironically, although she enters late in the narrative, it is his wife- physically and spiritually beautiful, whose goodness under fire provides the most striking counterpoint to the author’s roguishness. It is her unconditional love that provides the social and psychological safety net that keeps the author sane in the face of incredible adversity.
Part of this memoir’s richness lies in the fact that although there is a simmering anger beneath the text, Tate can find hope and colour in the worst of the greyness in his life. Yet, above all, this memoir is a celebration of the human condition, of a man with a can-do, cavalier attitude to life and his desire to rise above mediocrity.
“The War Within” deserves to stand apart as an outstanding contribution to this country’s rich heritage of memoir. As at least one other viewer has commented ─ a must read for every Australian.