I am currently reading Exit Wounds, a book written by Major General John Cantwell. The book starts off where he is in a psychiatric hospital receiving treatment. He is recently retired from an illustrious career. The pinnacle of such was his commandment of all three Australian military branches in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Just prior to his retirement he had applied for the number one job in charge of all Australian forces worldwide. I shudder to think that he may have succeeded had he not decided to pull out and quit.
This is a man highly affected by the horrors of war. Isn’t everyone? After three and a half years in Vietnam, I know the debilitating affect it had on me, even though I wasn’t in combat. So I can understand and have great compassion about that. But a military commander has the lives of many thousands in his hands and he must be able to rise above the horror and devastation. Fortunately, it appears he was able to do an efficient job and climb up the ranks, meanwhile suffering nightmares, sleepless nights and sobbing outbursts. Considering his mental condition, one wonders why he didn’t quit sooner. It is appalling to read that he even harassed higher ranking officers to assist in promoting his ambitions.
I first became aware of this officer a few weeks back when he appeared on Australian National Television to speak about the launching of his book and why he wrote it. During the interview he said that all combat veterans of war are left emotionally scarred or destroyed. The many Vietnam Vets who can still be seen on the streets of the USA, their lives wasted by drugs are evidence of that. But that is NOT all combat vets. Many have gone on to lead successful and happy lives.
In one part of the General’s book he describes coming upon a scene after an air strike. An enemy truck and its occupants had been blown apart in the Saudi desert. He, a major at that time, climbed out of his lone, armored vehicle and went to inspect the torn and scattered limbs of the dead enemy soldiers as they lay in the sand. In great detail, he describes searching for the heads, explaining how heads always blow skywards, landing some distance from the torsos. He wandered about in the heat, apparently mesmerized as he picked up the heads by their greasy hair. The two young soldiers in the vehicle with him kept calling him to stop and return to the vehicle. He ignored them, continuing on to look for heads and place them meticulously atop the torsos. This struck me as very odd and macabre behavior as it obviously did, his two subordinates. Later in the book, he sadly recalled that those two young men failed to respond to his letters when, after their tour of duty was up, he wrote to them. Even that seemed like odd behavior to me. I know many military commanders but I haven’t heard of them staying in contact with their enlisted troops.
Because General Cantwell seemed so different from the commanders whom I had known during the Vietnam War, I bought his book out of curiosity. It is well written, I’m assuming with help from a ghost writer as there is a second name under authors.
The story evokes my compassion for the man but not my admiration. My admiration goes to his staunch wife. A good commander needs discipline over mind and matter. Certain things need to be put from mind but these were the very things that General Cantwell focused on.
While the man seems to have overcome his fears sufficiently to do the job, he did not always hide his re-actions. There were times when his night time screams and sobbing were apparently heard by nearby officers. And haunted into insomnia, just how good were all his decisions? It boggles my mind that this man could climb the ladder the way he did and one must wonder why he chose to stay in that career.
The book will re-enforce anyone’s horror of war. It is surprisingly honest and it seems General Cantwell was baring his soul as a protest against war. While I heartily endorse those sentiments, it is sadly, a futile cry.

Because of this man’s high profile, he was able to sell his story to a publisher. Celebrity memoirs are always sought after whereas memoirs in general, are hard to sell. That is a subject I will touch on next time.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. darlenecraviotto
    Nov 22, 2012 @ 00:37:48

    Nice review, June. Not sure I’d want to read this book, however. It sounds like it would be too graphic for my tastes. Looking forward to reading your next post on memoirs.


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