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Friday Australian poem #12: David Campbell “Men in Green”

26 Oct

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 during World War II [picture]

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.

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29 responses to “Friday Australian poem #12: David Campbell “Men in Green”

  1. ninglun

    October 27, 2007 at 1:10 am

    REALLY FROM DAVO:

    “We tend to forget – in this “easy access” digital age – that most of the writings from those years comes from stubs of whatever, scribbled on scraps of paper.”

    This appeared, I suspect, on the wrong post. Yes, I think of those memoirs of Changi and the Burma Railway, for example.

     
  2. Kevin

    October 27, 2007 at 1:11 am

    “Most Australians also feel — quite strongly in many cases — that the present government has been just too close to the current US government, which is no more popular here than it seems to be in the USA at the moment.”

    I know. The Democratic (i.e. left-wing) Congress has an 11% approval rating. Quite embarrassing.

     
  3. Kevin

    October 27, 2007 at 1:30 am

    “Kevin: do the jokes on your own site.”

    You clearly feel strongly about this, and I will not make the request again. I hope that you don’t consider me to be similar to a racist though. I’m horribly bigoted towards Islam and its tenets, but race, creed, sex, height, color, shoe-size, number of fingers, and how someone smells mean nothing to me. Well, maybe how someone smells matters a little…

    😉 Have a great weekend Ninglun. I promise to not annoy you for at least a week! 🙂

     
  4. ninglun

    October 27, 2007 at 1:36 am

    Kevin, you have this horrible habit of turning into a decent guy, as I discovered during Malcolm’s illness. You are horribly and unnecessarily bigoted about Islam, but I can suggest the same cure that my (and Malcolm’s) friend Sirdan has undergone: he now has a Saudi Arabian flat mate. It has done wonders for Sirdan’s views on Islam, not to mention Arabs…

    Where I live I see Muslims every day of the week. I live around 200 metres from a mosque. The local takeaway serves kebabs and the woman in the shop wears a head scarf. We all survive quite well.

     
  5. Davo

    October 27, 2007 at 2:16 am

    “We tend to forget – in this “easy access” digital age – that most of the writings from those years comes from stubs of whatever, scribbled on scraps of paper.”

    Thankyou Neil .. I did “click” the “wrong” button .. buut that is probably one of the points .. there is far too much garbage recorded ..long story, and long discussion. When was the last time a “significant” novel written with quill pen – through several drafts?

     
  6. Davo

    October 27, 2007 at 2:19 am

    [drafts as in re-writes – not breezes under the door]

     
  7. Kevin

    October 27, 2007 at 4:26 am

    I don’t disparage Muslims. They’re as cool as you or me in my book. Just Islam. One group is a bunch of people praying to some guy, and the other is a murderous list of laws. That’s not the same thing.

    How might I separate Muslims from Islam in my crazy belief system, you ask? To quote my spouse, “I think you know.”

    And you do know, though you’d be loathe to admit it, I’m betting.

    Seriously though, thanks for letting me comment on your blog. I still plan to not bother you with my idiocy for at least a week, but suggesting I have a thing against Muslims can’t go unchallenged. I hate all murderous religions with a passion.

     
  8. Kevin

    October 27, 2007 at 4:27 am

    Don’t have an opinion for the individual people in those religions. They are probably very cool.

     
  9. ninglun

    October 27, 2007 at 10:25 am

    Islam: the religion. Muslim: the person. Christianity: the religion. Christian: the person. I think we all need to add a few extra descriptors in there before we start making further comments. Just an invitation to further thought, Kevin, not to further comment on this post, which I am now closing. First time I have done that in ages.

     
 
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