Bringing war’s demons into the light

Tom Richardson 

“I was a classic post-traumatic stress disorder sufferer. I kept it a secret. So many nightmares, flashbacks, hyper-awareness, jumping at every noise – I fell off an emotional cliff,” Major General (retired) John Cantwell told the audience at a talk on the Human Cost of War for the Sydney Writers’ Festival at Kogarah Library.

Major Cantwell, the former head of all Australian armed forces in Afghanistan, has written Exit Wounds, One Australian’s War on Terror. The book covers his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan and subsequent battle with post-traumatic stress.

Trauma, anxiety and worry are traditionally taboo topics for army personnel. The Major has broken the mould, dropped the macho persona and owned up to his mental suffering. He hopes that others will follow his lead.

“The real challenge is to get the veterans to speak up, because they’re disinclined to do that,” he said. “We build these alpha-males and alpha-females up, because that’s how you win wars, you want people that are tough because that’s how you win a fight. But to then get them to admit to nightmares is very hard.”

Major Cantwell’s book aims to bring the topic of post-traumatic stress into the open: “To make it something that is not shameful, something that is normal and a natural response to terrible events.”

He wrote freely of his military and personal experiences: loss, pain, relationships, memories and war are all covered. His talk is direct, and bought home the harsh reality of his past career. “A naked, dead Australian on a slab, ruined body. To put my hand on that cold body and say ‘Good-bye and I’m sorry’, it just broke my heart and I didn’t recover.”

He remains a proud soldier though, speaking from the heart about Australian actions in Afghanistan and what they meant to the soldiers there.

“The guys killed were killed doing what they loved, they were proud of themselves, proud of their mates, proud of their mission, determined to get it right and do the best they could. If they were killed in the process that’s not in vain because their life has inspired other people.”

Major John Cantwell: a proud soldier at heart

Major John Cantwell: a proud soldier at heart

Another speaker, long-time ABC foreign correspondent Mark Corcoran, considered the question of courage; physical, moral, and like Major Cantwell’s, the courage to speak out.

“I wonder if we’d had a commanding officer at the Nek, in Gallipoli in 1915, who had said, ‘No we’re not going to go ahead?’ I presume his career would have been over?” he asked rhetorically.

Vietnam veterans and even survivors of the Burma railways in World War II have all given Cantwell the same message on reading his book: “I wish someone had spoken up when we were struggling, when we were suffering, but at least someone is now.”