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Ask an American about what Australia did in the Vietnam War, and the likely result will be a confused stare, maybe a joke about killer kangaroos. And it’s not just Americans who’re clueless on the subject, says writer Patricia Mackintosh. “Very few people, regardless of where they come from, know Australia was in Vietnam,” she says.
Scores of Australians fought in Vietnam alongside American units; more than 8,000 soldiers from Down Under were “in country” by the end of 1967. At the war’s end, 496 Aussies were dead or missing, and if the Australian presence was far smaller than that of the United States, the Australian experience in Vietnam has proved every bit as persistently traumatic.
That point reverberates throughout Mackintosh’s novel, The Devil’s Madness. A “buddy book” of sorts, it follows four friends from the western suburbs of Sydney as they grow up together. They attend Catholic school, enduring the abuse of sadistic clergy, and move on to college, where they’re drawn into the warsome as soldiers, some as protestors. The themes will be familiar to anyone versed in the American canon of Vietnam books and films: the utter horror of battle, the powerful bonds of friendship. Yet the novel remains uniquely Australian, not least because of Mackintosh’s meticulous descriptions and attention to detail.
“You must have your research absolutely spot-on,” says the Sydney native; “credibility” is a word she uses repeatedly when describing her work. She’s convinced that fiction must be the product of facta tenet she teaches her creative-writing students at the World Bank. (Most of those enrolled in the bank’s continuing-education program are family members of employees; Mackintosh’s husband, Ian Mackintosh, is the institution’s financial-management adviser for South Asia.) In her classes, Mackintosh uses her experiences researching The Devil’s Madness to teach a lesson in thoroughness.
Elements of the novel, from a description of the friends’ secret water hole to the brutality of the clergy in the Sydney schools, are drawn from Mackintosh’s own history. The pervasive fear inspired by Mackintosh’s Catholic education was particularly strong: “I grew up actually terrified that if I opened my mouth, I’d get belted,” she says.
Add to that her personal connections to the Vietnam War: friends who fought, a friend who died, a friend who returned so traumatized that he slept with a broom handle for 15 years. Mackintosh was just as conscious of those who chose to avoid conscriptiona group that hasn’t exactly been celebrated in Australia. “I couldn’t find anything in literature that gave the view of the conscientious objectors,” she says.
Mackintosh went beyond her personal experience to build her novel, of course. She spent weeks in the archives of the Australian War Memorial and in the National Library of Australia, reading official documents, including battle accounts and personal diaries, and she conducted interviews with both soldiers and conscientious objectors. The culmination of her research was a journey to Vietnam, to the site of the Battle of Long Tan, where 18 Australian soldiers died. It provided Mackintosh with a wealth of sensory data. The smell, for instance: “[I]f you can imagine, [it] was like a cross between bad fish and citrus,” she says.
But the episode Mackintosh remembers most vividly from her quest for absolute authenticity was the day she hung a tire swing over her back porch, trying to rediscover what it feels like to be a kid swinging high above a water hole in a secret corner of childhood territory.
“I had to know what it felt like,” said Mackintosh, “I had done it as a kid, but you forget.”
And how did it feel?
“I was absolutely petrified.” Mike DeBonis