Biff Ward, The third chopstick: Tracks through the Vietnam War (#BookReview)

Biff Ward’s The third chopstick was my reading group’s October selection. It’s the second book by Ward that we’ve done, the first being her memoir, In my mother’s hands (my review), about growing up with her academic father, the historian Russel Ward, and her mentally ill mother, at a time when mental illness was shameful and to be hidden. It was a moving book that engendered an engaged and wide-ranging discussion. Biff Ward, in fact, attended that meeting.

The third chopstick is another personal book, but one that’s not so easy to classify. I would describe it as hybrid memoir-creative nonfiction. Memoir, because it’s about her experience as an anti-Vietnam war protester who later chose to meet Vietnam veterans and listen to their stories. And creative nonfiction, because, although nonfiction, it uses some of the devices of fiction to engage its readers. These include hinging her story around one particular vet, Ray, whom she describes as her “muse”, her “archetypal veteran”, her conduit, perhaps, to “the missing piece”. His story, combined with his powerful presence, gives the book its compelling, narrative drive.

The implication of what I’m saying here is that while The third chopstick is historical it is not an academic history. Although Ward did the historian thing, and conducted recorded interviews with vets, she does not attempt to present an “authoritative” analysis of protesters or of vets, but a thoughtful, personal quest. It has no footnotes, although there is a selected reading list at the end, and there’s no index. This is not to say, however, that it doesn’t add to our understanding of history, because it certainly does.

The book has a logical, and more or less chronological, structure, though there is criss-crossing of timelines where appropriate. It has three main parts – Protest, Veterans, Vietnam – which are bookended by a Prologue and Epilogue. In Protest, Ward describes her life as a protester, and introduces us to her ongoing interest in Vietnam long after the war ended. In Veterans, she introduces us to the veterans she met and interviewed, shares their stories and experiences, and reflects on these. Finally, in Vietnam, she discusses post-war Vietnam, including how Vietnamese people have processed, and live with, what happened. She has visited the country many times – as a sole tourist, on war-themed tours, and as a tour leader herself. On some of those visits, she either accompanied or met vets. Through these postwar connections, she starts to bring together her central questions concerning how we Australians got caught up in this, and what it did to us – as a nation, as individuals – though, of course, there are no simple answers.

“a scrambled snarl”

A bit over halfway through the book, while interviewing Nick, an SAS veteran of the war, Ward confronts the issue of “killing”. Nick’s story causes her to think about that and, thence, her stance as a pacifist. She realises she’d never really grappled with it. She had, she writes, a ‘”natural” antipathy to killing, a generalised kind of pacifism which yearns for peace’ but she also believed that, if needed, she would strive as hard as she could to defend “me and mine”. Her pacifism was “a scrambled snarl of thoughts and feelings”. She doesn’t explore this further, as it’s not the subject of the book, but …

… I liked this expression because what her book does is explore just what “a scrambled snarl” war is, whichever way you look at it. I particularly liked her various reflections on war. She makes the point early on that it is well known that war takes years to recover from. Vet Graham tells her that medieval knights “used to go into a monastery after being on a crusade”. He himself had, after leaving the army, been ill; he’d been in hospital and at a health farm, before spending “thirteen years, mostly alone, making music, keeping quiet”. By the time Ward met him, he was working with the Federation for Vietnam veterans.

Throughout the book, then, Ward reflects on war in general, but I’ll just share a couple that captured my attention, both resulting from her reading of Ray’s journal, where he expresses the trauma he experienced. It leads Ward to suggest “that the truth of all war is only these depthless oceans of grief”. A few pages later, she discusses “moral injury”, which “refers to an injury to the soul, to morality, to what can happen when a soldier has to do something against his own sense of what is right and wrong.” The injury done to Ray is immense.

Ward may not have intended this, but her book also functions, at least a little, as a cautionary tale, because she shows how easy it is to believe you are doing the right thing when you protest for a humane cause, and be oblivious to the potential for unintended consequences. The anti-Vietnam War protesters’ beef was with the government and its policies, but the result, as we all know now, was that the soldiers who went to Vietnam were vilified – not so much by the core protesters but by others who took their ideas on without understanding the politics. Ward shares some of the facts and myths about how it played out.

Ward also discusses those other two big fall-outs from this particular war – Agent Orange and its ongoing impact on the health of both soldiers and Vietnamese people, and PTSD, which she describes as the Vietnam vets’ gift to the world.

What makes this book a particularly good read, besides all this subject matter, is the language, which mixes journalistic-style reportage with more evocative writing. There’s too much to share, but here’s one describing her experience of transcribing Ray’s journal:

As I transferred his words from the page to pixels on my screen, they sometimes spiralled off and pranced about the room like leering pixies.

(This sometimes necessitated her needing to take a break!)

Here’s an appropriate point to explain the title, because it came from Ray, as she explains in Chapter 2. While in a restaurant, he places two chopsticks in parallel lines, about two centimetres apart, across a bowl, and names the space between the two as “normal life … where people get born and grow up …” etc. Then, he takes another chopstick (“the third chopstick”), places it parallel to the others, the same distance apart, and says

The veteran lives here, alongside but separate, see? He can see this life, he pointed back to the first space. He can see what other people are doing, but he can’t join in. He doesn’t know the rules anymore. It might look like like garbage to him. It’s got no connection to what’s happening inside him, see?

The secret, Ray continues, is for the veteran to be able to handle both “his own stuff” and join in. There’s a little more to it but that’s the gist.

    Lest you be thinking so, The third chopstick is not just relevant to those who lived through the Vietnam War era. As I read this book, I couldn’t help thinking about a war that is happening right now. Near the end, Ward writes:

    So even today, for the People of the Bag*, the mountains and the rivers, the land and the water and their interconnectedness are concepts integral to the way Vietnamese conceive of themselves. And, I chucke to myself, those men in Washington and Canberra thought they could somehow beat them, that the People of the Bag would eventually give up? Really?

    Given its origins in a leftie anti-Vietnam war protester who went on to engage openly and genuinely with soldiers involved in that very war, The third chopstick is quite an astonishing book. For anyone interested in the complex experience of war, it makes excellent reading. All eleven who attended my reading group agreed.

    * The Vietnamese, from their Creation Myth

    Biff Ward
    The third chopstick: Tracks through the Vietnam War
    Penrith: IndieMosh, 2022
    ISBN: 9781922812025

    29 thoughts on “Biff Ward, The third chopstick: Tracks through the Vietnam War (#BookReview)

    1. Looks like a great book, Sue. The line about Vietnam giving the world PTSD reminded me of my time working at the Dept of Veterans’ Affairs in 1980-82. It has never left me that the percentage of Vietnam veterans claiming benefits for anxiety states (and worse) was much much higher than for veterans of other conflicts.

    2. The usual excellent and thoughtful review of a book I will never read – war is like secret men’s business .. like fathering 17 children and not thinking for one minute of the effects that will trickle-down through so many lives.

      • Thanks Lisa … yes I’ve met her but we didn’t talk about Vietnam then as I recollect. However, she has been researching this book since the 1990s, I think. She does address a few times though the book this issue of her interest – her feminist friends for example couldn’t understand it. Her interest was partly inspired a feeling of connection with Vietnamese people that she had experienced during a protest march, but there are many reasons – too many to go into here. In the end I think she has come to love Vietnam and visits there often, the way people do fall in love with a place not their own?

        • Yes, that makes sense. And Vietnam is a fascinating place.
          (Though I have just had to send a cross letter to its Prime Minister about the detention of a journalist, locked up for nine years for criticism of the government. Their human rights record is #understatement not great. )

    3. I don’t know about Australia, but in the US I think that there was less vilification of returning veterans than one might think. The parts of the US where the loudest voices, as measured on TV or print, may have had some of that, but not most. There were Vietnam veterans elected to important political offices within ten years of the end of the American engagement. I wonder whether there weren’t more words printed in repentance of the vilification than as part of the vilification to begin with. (And as usual with these things, the repentance may have been more for the acts of the writer’s generation than the acts of the writer himself.)

      PTSD got a name, but it was a new name for what had been called “shell-shock” fifty years before. When I was young, I heard of veterans of WW II who would wake up screaming, thirty years after that war.

      • Thanks George – yes she explores some of the vilification and does find that while some really did occur, some stories about bad treatment turned out to be myths. However, it was true that some (many?) Vietnam Vets did not feel comfortable for some years admitting that they were, did not take part in annual Anzac (memorial day) marches etc. As with most things, the truth is more complicated than the stories we’ve all heard?

        And yes. you are right of course about PTSD. I think her point was that it was after the Vietnam vets’ experience that it got a DSM classification which put it on the path to firmer recognition and thus treatment of sufferers?

        • I find that the DSM as such was not published until 1952, hardly in time for Korea–though Wikipedia traces its lineage back through some of the US Army’s work in WW II. My impression is that PTSD under whatever name was thoroughly recognized by early on in WW II, if not before. Whether modern day psychiatry is better at treating it, I don’t know.

          • Nope, I don’t know either … but formal recognition of it might at least help some people understand that it is real and serious? And that has to help at least a bit.

    4. I was a protestor and draft resister during the Vietnam War years and I think that ‘vets’ were wrong to go. That they were participating in propping up a right wing dictatorship against the will of the majority of the Vietnamese people.

      I grew up among young returned soldiers from WWII and they were chastened by the experience but it was clearly necessary to fight off the Japanese and I don’t think any of them needed 13 years in a monastery to deal with their guilt.

      • I hoped you would respond Bill. While they may have been wrong to go, there were many factors at play that resulted in their going, weren’t there – including fear of not obeying, of breaking the law, and lack of political knowledge, awareness, or interest. One vet in the book was told to go by his boss because it would be the making of him, and so on. Some in the book realised as soon as they landed in Vietnam that they shouldn’t be there. The fact of fighting in such a war was damaging. A point she makes is that they were boys – and not all young people have their thoughts together. For all these reasons, I don’t think we can blame the vets. I think, though, that all you draft resisters were brave!

        Re the monastery, I didn’t read that as being due to guilt, but to the actual impact of war – to the trauma of the experience of war. The point was made that ALL wars are difficult to recover from.

      • My father fought against the Japanese in WWII. I don’t think he had shell shock, or remorse for fighting. Indeed, he had compassion for the run-of-the-mill Japanese soldier, who was basically starving, while the officers were well fed. I wasn’t a draft resister, but I was very happy when my marble wasn’t drawn out of the hat.

        • Thanks Neil. Mr Gums was the same as you.

          And my father likewise, though he never expressed compassion for the Japanese soldier because I don’t think he saw a lot of fighting. He saw some, and was in New Guinea when peace was declared, but he seemed to spend much of his war in the WA desert training for the middle east.

    5. Dear Sue

      Thank you so much for this wonderful review. I wish you’d been able to do the CT review! Yours is thorough and thoughtful and sensitive and, most importantly, GETS it. (I fear Michael McKernan did not – a great disappointment.)

      Given that I had to self-publish, support in print form is an absolute boon. I shall send it around for my purposes – and hopefully garner you some new readers!

      Please pass on my thanks, also, to your book group. I am most grateful that they appreciated The Third Chopstick.

      warmest regards Biff

      Biff Ward Author Buy Book


      • Thanks Biff … I’m glad I understood what you were hoping readers would. I think I saw that review and was a bit mystified.

        And yes, I will pass on your thanks. You got a few sales from them. We discussed the self-publishing which I’d noted when I checked out the new-to-me imprint. I was astonished but I understand even more now about publishers and marketing!

        Anyhow, send it to whomever you like of course!

    6. What a fascinating sounding book and a brave thing to do in the first place, to take yourself as a pacifist and talk to the soldiers who went. Does the book outline their reactions to the author coming in and doing that.

      Sometimes self-publishing is the way to go: I did it with my Iris Murdoch book in order to avoid having to do more work to make it a bigger academic tome for a publisher or – gulp – a PhD. which was waved in front of me but I rejected! Self-publishing has a bad rep but there are those of us who do it carefully, with good quality control and editors, etc., involved.

      • Yes, good question, Liz, and she does a little – including her own initial trepidation at facing them. She does get some negative reactions. She doesn’t dwell on it but just lets us know there was some. I guess the book would have been hard to believe had she not shared any!

        Re self publishing, yes I know, and I have in fact reviewed a small number of them, but it’s still my policy not to renew them so I can make that call, if that makes sense. Most of those I’ve reviewed have been writers with some cred already. There have been different reasons – some, I think, because publishers might like the book but think they can’t market it. I can understand your reason, too. I do know this my practice makes it tough for some but there’s so much I want to read that I need some rules of thumb to rein it in.

    7. Your comment about Ward’s ”natural” antipathy to killing, a generalised kind of pacifism which yearns for peace’ that would also “defend “me and mine”, basically sums up my thinking too. We had a discussion with both boys at the begining of the war in Ukraine and both were adamant that they would not be conscripted to fight in someone else’s war. They would be okay to fight off zombies in the apocalypse, but not real life people.

      Mum always talked about the old men who lived in hermit’s huts down by the river or at the bottom of the family farm in Bellingen when she was growing up. Some where older WWI vets and some were from WWII, all suffering various forms of shell-shock and completely unable to live in society anymore.

      During the 80’s we also became good friends with a family (I used to babysit their children). He was a Vietnam Vet. One daughter died of leukemia at a young age, the next daughter grew up to join the army to train as a psychologist.
      The impact of war on everyday citizens is appalling and ongoing and gets passed on to the children, one way or another. The leaders who send these young men off to fight should be made to go and fight beside them in the trenches (not just hug them from the sidelines).

      • Thanks for all this Brona … your point about the intergenerational damage too is well-made. Good on your sons. Mr Gums’ number didn’t come up in the draft but he said he knew he didn’t want to go. I have no idea what he would have done if his number had come up but as it happened conscription had gone by the time he finished uni so he would have deferred while he studied and then it would have been moot!

    8. I really enjoy books that are investigative journalism but are not afraid to include the author’s experiences of investigating or connecting to people. I really liked Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick and A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa by Alexis Okeowo. On the other hand, I read The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio in which the author fabricates some scenarios without mentioning that this is how she might imagine a certain thing happening. They always tended to be really emotional situations, too — basically, the author using loads of pathos to make us feel bad and presenting it as fact.

      • Agree with you Melanie. I’m pretty sure I have the Alexis Okeowo on my TBR. Re the Villavicencio, I don’t mind a nonfiction work including imagined scenes BUT they MUST flag it mustn’t they!

    9. Pingback: Sample Saturday – war, Florence, and an airport | booksaremyfavouriteandbest

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