Portland Jones, Seeing the Elephant. Witchcliffe, Western Australia: Margaret River Press 2016. RRP: $24.00, 296pp. ISBN: 9780994316745
As Australia commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan in August 2016, one tends to mark our nation’s involvement in the Vietnam War with Prime Minister Robert Menzies’ announcement to provide troops for service in Vietnam on April 29, 1965, or the subsequent arrival of the Royal Australian Regiment’s First Battalion in June. But history shows that from as early as July 1962, a group of approximately 30 men from the Australian Army had already been working in Vietnam to provide training and assistance to South Vietnamese forces.
Known as the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV), these men were experts in the tactics of jungle warfare as a result of their previous experience from the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960). Working with their American counterparts, including the U.S. Special Forces (USSF) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), these handpicked Australian military personnel and non-commissioned officers (NCOs) provided instruction in counter-revolutionary warfare and jungle operations, including signals and engineering. Specific emphasis was placed on patrolling and contact drills, in which soldiers were trained to react automatically in battle in order to gain an advantage over their enemy that relied on command.
These background details are important in one’s attempt to understand Frank Stevens, the protagonist in Portland Jones’ Seeing the Elephant. Frank’s story is perhaps inspired by that of Captain Barry Petersen, whose work with raising an anti-communist Montagnard force in the Central Highlands between 1963 and 1965 was so successful that the South Vietnamese Government became suspicious of their motives. After all, these indigenous people have a long history of conflicts with the Vietnamese majority over issues such as land ownership, language and cultural preservation, access to education and resources, and political representation.
Worse, in mid-1964, the restriction on the AATTV advisors taking part in combat operations was lifted. A few of them became involved in the controversial Phoenix Program run by the CIA, which was designed to target the Viet Cong infrastructure through infiltration, arrest and assassination. In Seeing the Elephant, Frank is ordered by the Yanks to take on these “specialist jobs”. His dismay and disgust is expressed in a letter home:
If you kill someone in combat it’s different, it’s killing him before he kills you or one of your mates. Your blood is up and you know that every move could be your last. But sniping is something totally different. It’s cold-blooded. I don’t know, Granddad, but to be truthful it feels a lot like murder. And while I understand that the blokes I took out were not likely to be padres, saints or choir boys, they weren’t shooting at me. Who and what I shot was controlled by the army. Which means that I have to trust them. Therein lies the problem. (118)
With his grandfather’s stories of the light horse and the Great War – Damascus, Syria, Jordan and Egypt – and his father’s about New Guinea, Frank has always wanted to be a solider. However, being in Vietnam changes his view about the country and himself. The more he loves and cares for the locals, the more he wonders what he has become, whether he can ever be a normal person back in Australia again. “The first time you kill a person knowingly, well that’s something you’ll never forget… Because you know, without a doubt, that the world will never, ever be the same place again. You’ve seen the elephant and it’s big, so big it can block out the sun forever.” (90-91)
In delicate and graceful prose that is so beautiful it almost reads like poetry, Jones describes Frank’s desperate attempt to position himself in an increasingly unhinged world. Memories and feelings are his salvation: “I think of [them] as a reminder – it lets me know what used to be important, what used to hurt, what used to make me smile. One day I’ll need that to remind me who I was before all of this, so I can be that person again.” (68) As his memories and feelings slowly connect with those of Minh, his Vietnamese translator, two lonely souls merge to form a friendship that is bordering love.
In Seeing the Elephant, Frank documents his experience in Vietnam in a series of letters to his grandfather, which are later gifted to Minh after his arrival in Australia. As Minh, in his old age, recollects Frank’s thoughts and emotions along with those of his own, we are offered a rare and refreshing account of the Vietnam War from the Vietnamese perspective. Full of everlasting yearning and silent sorrow, Minh’s vivid recollection of his homeland and countrymen deeply traumatised by war is like a slap across the faces of those who believe in violence as a way to achieve order and security. Through Minh’s innocent brown eyes we also see Frank as part of what Mary Gilmore referred to as the “old blood” in her renowned ‘No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest’ (1940). A sense of nostalgia stirs here, for Frank is portrayed as a perfect Aussie bloke ‘born of the soil and the whirlwind’, a man of honour and dignity with a fierce respect for the values of life.
As contemporary authors and critics continue to argue for the achievements of Australia’s female writers and the recognition they deserve, Jones offers a brilliant example on how women can create wonderful stories of not only friendship between men but their complex, conflicted emotions about such traditionally male-dominated activities as war. Indeed, in Seeing the Elephant, a clever combination of stories, memories and personal letters inspires readers to explore the multifaceted idea of ‘being a man’. As Jones finely yet ever so gently reminds us in her debut novel, it all comes down to the nature and significance of human life, to sympathy that is the foundation of all cross-cultural communications and appreciation, whether it is between nations, communities or individuals.
Based in Melbourne, Christine Sun is a bilingual writer, translator, editor, independent scholar and publisher of Chinese digital and print books. A recent recipient of the 2016 Hot Desk Fellowship at the Wheeler Centre of Books, Writing and Ideas, her writings have appeared in the Overland Journal, Limina Journal, and the Good Weekend and Victorian Writer magazines.