Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door. —Saul Bellow
This week’s instalment is a little less sassy and a bit more sober in subject matter. It’s a quick round-up of three military memoirs I’ve recently read. As Bellow’s quote suggests, a memoir is more than just a record of certain events in your life. Memoirs help create meaning out of the past in service of the present. They are a selection of memories, strung together to tell a story. Every memoirist dances between candour and concealment. The very act of writing a memoir, in some cases, is a therapeutic catharsis.
So with that in my mind, the first book for today can be described as devastatingly honest. Exit Wounds (2013) a no-holds-barred look into the life of Australian Army officer, Major General (rtd) John Cantwell. Cantwell lays out how he dealt with his demons (or, at times, not) from his time in Gulf War 1 and how trauma took its toll after gruelling deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Read it for a senior officer’s perspective on war and PTSD, especially one who grew up before mental wellbeing formed a greater part of our public conversation. My winter morning companion, I couldn’t put it down. If you prefer listening to things, check out Life On The Line’s two-part interview with Cantwell here (part 1) and here (part 2).
Next up is Survivor: life in the SAS (2021) by Mark Wales, which chronicles his dream to join Australia’s special forces, multiple deployments and struggles in dealing with moral drift. Written in no-bullshit language, it’s another exceptionally candid story of highs and lows. Read it for special forces officer’s view on how he navigated life after the SAS and how, after finding the courage to try new and daring things, he found light at the end of the tunnel. Wales’ comeback at Wharton was some much-needed inspo for the week. Life On The Line also nabbed him for a two-part interview here (part 1) and here (part 2).
The last one is a wild card, so bear with me: it’s an important memoir written by the man who literally opened and closed the gate on Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor* and a review essay of his book. While many accounts about the Indonesian military’s time in East Timor speak of the human rights violations (and rightly so), Lieutenant General (rtd) Kiki Syahnakri’s memoir Timor Timur: the untold story (2013) is an Indonesian perspective that not just defends the TNI’s actions in the province but criticises them as well. Yes it’s in Indonesian, so I strongly suggest reading Bob Lowry’s 11-page review essay on Kiki’s book (PDF), published in the Australian Army Journal. Having served as Army Attaché in Jakarta, Lowry is a fount of knowledge on the TNI (the man wrote a book on them) so he adds considerable depth to Kiki’s reflections and much-needed context to how Indonesia experienced that era. A must-read for Australian strategic and military thinkers (and super helpful to my thesis).
*As background, Kiki was posted as a junior officer on the border between East and West Timor in 1975, opening the border to Timorese fleeing to the west. Some 24 years later, as Commander-in-Chief of Martial Law in East Timor, he handed over authority for the province to then-Major General (rtd) Peter Cosgrove who headed up INTERFET after a referendum in August 1999 rejected Indonesian rule.
Fitting in with this week’s theme (one to ponder), the music is brought to you by Avenged Sevenfold, suggested by El Diablo. Image courtesy of Department of Defence. See you next week! —NS