This is a complex, virtuoso analysis of an Australian life written by an unabashed and unrepentant author – an acidic dissection of the role that genes and environment have in developing a person’s character, as well as a sauntering chronicle of social analysis.
In turn, we follow the life of the author as he comes to terms with being a disaffected youth, a patriotic but naive infantryman in the Vietnam War, and an alienated, disabled veteran struggling with male status anxiety-apparently inexhaustible in its capacity to cause suffering. Along the way, Tate examines the dark crevices of the male psyche as he battles inner demons and the unconditional love of his beautiful Christian wife, Carole.
Above all, this memoir is a celebration of the human condition and of a man with a can-do, cavalier attitude to life and his desire to rise above mediocrity. An outstanding contribution to Australia’s rich heritage of memoir.
A review of Don Tate’s The War Within by Ian McPhedran (News Ltd)
Don Tate is a Vietnam veteran who overcame incredible odds to create a memoir that can best be desribed as A Fortunate Life on steroids. As with A.B. Facey’s moving autobiographical tale of his time as a soldier at Gallipoli, his return to civilian life and his triumphs over adversity, Tate’s classic Australian story deals with tyhe human condition up clse and in the raw.
The grandfather and former soldier serves up a brutally honest insight into a life less fortunate, the story of an abused boy who grows into a brutal man, but whose brains finally triumph over the brawn and balls required to survive the jungle that was his early life on the outskirts of Brisbane.
The strength of this memoir is not only Tate’s amazing recall and easygoing style, but also his honesty. His father was a tough but useless layabout and a constant disappointment to his long-suffering and loyal wife, and the string of children born into a life of poverty and misadventure.
The sexual abuse suffered by young Don at the hands of a Catholic nun is a new twist on an age-old theme and an early introduction to the wiles of the opposite sex that would plague him for decades.
The childhood adventures, beautifully evoked by his descriptive prose, pale when the young mug lair becomes volunteer Private Don Tate, fighting for his life in a new jungle- Vietnam.
His description of life as a grunt, of the misadventures of young Australian men in a strange land and of their eventual fight for survival on the battlefield and in hospital, leaves nothing to the imagination and scales new heights in war writing. There is nothing glorious here. Tate takes the reader on a dark and shocking journey from the blood and gore of jungle battlefields to recreation leave whorehouses and post-war mental asylums where no subject is taboo.
Along the way he reveals atrocities, official dishonesty and denial, and he straightens the record on some of the most disgusting official behaviour of the war.
He became known as the man fighting to get recognition for his platoon- the 2nd D&E Platoon (Defence and Employment).
It was a fight he eventually won: the platoon will now be written into the official history as an ‘ad hoc’ platoon. (See Mike Kelly MP’s Statement, ALP…29th May 2008)
Tate’s writing will shock many, but this book will not be easily forgotten. It is required reading and deserves a place alongside the classics of Australian memoir.
– Ian McPhedran[hr]
Book Review by Peter Pierce (Sydney Morning Herald)
VETERAN SEEKS PEACE IN HIS TIME
The opening sentence of Don Tate’s memoir of childhood, youth, service in Vietnam, and its aftermath, The War Within, should put us on guard: “Trust me, I’m no philosopher.” His disclaimer is followed by others- about his intelligence, for instance- all in the voice of a homespun, plain-speaking Aussie male. But this is only one of the registers among which this book disconcertingly shifts. There are coarse, physical disparagements of women intended to shock (“it’s better to hook a toadfish than nothing”) and aggressive and confrontational defences of a masculine view of the world (“there are unwritten laws about women; only men know them”). Besides these, though, are moments of sharp analytical comment, others of melancholic reflection. At the least, this book is evidence of a cunning and perhaps disingenuous intelligence.
Many of its narrative elements are familiar but Tate shapes them artfully. In his fiftieth year, he confesses, “the darkness that followed me home from Vietnam had engulfed me completely.” However, his mental and physical torments due to the war are not the whole story. Tate grew up in Ellen Grove, a working-class suburb of Brisbane, the eldest of eight children. He describes Ellen Grove as “a ‘wanderland’ for lost or restless souls. Men like my father” who he describes as a violent petty criminal. In this suburb the boy found “a moral and ethical vacuum….where anything seemed to go”. His was a family history of violence.
An ever-forgiving mother told him that he must excuse his father because he just found life too hard. Tate can summon intermittent compassion: “fending for yourself from such an early age takes all the crying out of you”. There is little sympathy for the nuns entrusted to his education. Tate alleges that he was sexually abused- as a child asked to give oral sex to the lead nun, Sister Mary. “Don’t think I’m being flippant. It wasn’t any picnic down there.” We may not be sure whether the story was made up, an ugly fantasy, or if speaking of it this way undervalues its seriousness. Tate never sems a less reliable narrator than when writing about sex.
However, the second part of the book, “The business of war”, is narrated with vivid authority. Many elements of the story are of a conventional rite of passage in war- enlistment (under age and with his father’s recalcitrant permission), training, sorting one’s mates, arrival in Saigon, first kills on one’s own and the enemy’s side, R&R in Vung Tau, the wound that will send him home and of which he will too long be prisoner. He reckons that as soon as he reached Vietnam, “from that moment, and for the rest of my life as it turned out, I was at war”. Yet, this is more the occasion for self-laceration than self-pity.
Tate is determined to set one particular record straight and he does so convincingly. This concerns not a lost patrol but the 2nd D&E Platoon (Defence and Employment) a rapid reaction unit to which he was deployed near the end of his tour. Without officers, but led by a resourceful de facto platoon commander, Cpl Jim Riddle, these 40 troops took on an enemy regiment. Why did the army write them out of the record? For once the usual answer of army cover-up seems to have credence. Tate’s book ends wih the belief that restitution is finally about to be achieved.
The last part of The War Within, “The measure of a man”, is a rehabilitation story. Here was a returned soldier, “yet to come to terms with the experience of war”, and a young man “trying to recaim what youth he could before the sun set on it forever”.
This section relates how he became a teacher, stayed married despite his infideities, converted to Christianity, finally reconciled himself to the community of veterans from which he had felt cast out. Parallel with this account of the reconstruction of his self is the litany of brutal episodes that continue to damage Tate’s life- bashings, stabbing, brawling.
The book at once disarms, repels, gives hope, as its narrator summons inner demons beyond anything that the war in Vietnam had made.
(‘The War Within’ is available from the Australian War Memorial; iUniverse; Amazon; and Barnes and Noble.)