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
The third chopstick: Tracks through the Vietnam War
Penrith: IndieMosh, 2022