This poem is literally the same age as I am, having been first published in The Bulletin in 1943. David Campbell, like my father, was in the RAAF. Both men were in Papua/New Guinea in that year, though my father was comparatively safe on the ground in Port Moresby.
Men in Green
There were fifteen men in green,
Each with a tommy-gun
Who leapt into my plane at dawn;
We rose to meet the sun.
Our course lay to the east. We climbed
Into the break of day
Until the jungle far beneath
Like a giant fossil lay.
We climbed towards the distant range
Where two white paws of cloud
Clutched at the shoulders of the pass;
The green men laughed aloud.
They did not fear the ape-like cloud
That climbed the mountain crest
And rode the currents of the air
And his the pass in mist.
They did not fear the summer’s sun
In whose hot centre lie
A hundred hissing cannon shells
For the unwatchful eye.
And when at Dobadura we
Set down, each turned to raise
His thumb towards the open sky;
In mockery and praise.
But fifteen men in jungle green
Rose from the kunai grass
To come aboard, and my green men
In silence watched them pass;
It seemed they looked upon themselves
In Time’s prophetic glass.
There were some leaned on a stick
And some on stretchers lay,
But few walked on their own two feet
In the early green of day.
They had not feared the ape-like cloud
That climbed the mountain crest;
They had not feared the summer’s sun
With bullets for their breast.
Their eyes were bright, their looks were dull,
Their skin had turned to clay.
Nature had met them in the night
And stalked them in the day.
And I think still of men in green
On the Soputa track,
With fifteen spitting tommy-guns
To keep the jungle back.
War graves of Australian troops at Soputa Cemetery in Papua New Guinea 1943
The key to this very formally structured and stately poem is in the six-line stanza in the centre. This is not a poem to enthuse about war, but neither does it in any way detract from the heroism — even the innocence — of those caught up in it.
In his APRIL (Australian Poetry Resources Internet Library) article poet Philip Mead notes David Campbell’s stance years later on the Vietnam War, and cites a later poem, ‘My Lai’.
…Campbell said in an interview that ‘one of the reasons I started a change of direction was the Vietnam War. We were suddenly pulled out of a rather insular way of life and had large moral issues to look at. I found myself very much against the Australian involvement there and it made me very much more aware of the general violence in the world’
I can’t help feeling he would have been disturbed — as I am — by the current growth of jingoism here in Australia, as painfully (to me) represented in the song that accompanies the following video, which I include nonetheless for the images it shows.
But that song is quite dreadful. Give me the true songs of war of that period any day: “Blue Birds Over The White Cliffs of Dover” or “Wish Me Luck as You Wave Me Goodbye” — even “Waltzing Matilda” (of course). No disrespect at all on my part for the people whose lives are the subject of “Men in Green”, no disrespect for those serving in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere today. But please, spare us the uber-patriotism. It just isn’t us, you know. There was a time when our patriotism, like respect, was a quiet and unassuming virtue — except for Cricket and such of course. I do wish this was more universally appreciated.