Debts We Owe
In NSW’s western coalfields,
A town nestles, known as Greta;
A local ‘boy’, returning home,
Spirit cradled by old Saint Peter.
“CORPORAL ROBERT JACKSON ... DEAD!”
Local rag’s headlines spread the news;
Funeral held in a small stone church,
Townsfolk filled all vacant pews.
And down at the nearby R.S.L.,
Board members had concluded:
“Vietnam ’twas not a real war!”
Yet in that, they were deluded.
‘Dinosaurs’ ruled that his burial,
Couldn’t be within their section;
Family forced to choose a ‘common’ plot,
Firmly stood this cruel direction.
Empty minds of such petty bigots,
A secret shame, a few folks know;
A time has come to redeem ourselves,
And clear up those debts we owe.
* * *
In this infantry rifle company,
Two young mates still full of dreams,
Joined and signed up, both together,
One still just within his teens.
A firefight, an M.60 spat,
Dreadful mix-up in the end;
His staring mate would haunt him now,
A mistake he’d never mend.
For many months he disappeared,
Into ‘grog’ and ‘medication’;
Nerves so ‘shot’, no answer there,
Intoxication and sedation.
That first year home, attempting twice,
Special pills would end his pain;
Though saved both times, he tried once more,
Viewing his life as all in vain.
Peace at last, with a length of rope,
Burden of guilt, too much a load;
Though not his fault, he felt his death,
Would remove that debt he owed.
* * *
So many times, to young ‘boys’ ’twas told,
About war and all its glories;
Images shown on silver screens,
Or in romantic printed stories.
‘Hollywood heroes’ in fantasy,
Most would have us all believe,
A clean neat hole, a spot or stain,
Death is silent! ... Oh how naïve!
In our distant world from reality,
One cannot see or feel,
Spurting blood, aroma, shattered bones,
Pain from ripping lead or steel.
Giant craters stuffed with padding,
Piercing screams that won’t abate;
A greying face, a body shaking,
Morphine injected by a mate.
Tourniquet tied to a mangled stump,
A vain attempt to stem the flow;
Yet, from this image some turn away,
Still deny the debts we owe!
* * *
Strapped in firmly, on a stretcher,
Shell-dressing used as ‘stopper’;
Platoon ‘sig’ on his radio set,
Frantically calling in a 'chopper'.
Yet once again, ’tis far too late,
Shock too much to be absorbed;
One more ‘boy’ wrapped up in plastic,
Going home, loaded dead aboard.
Body placed then in a casket,
A label fixed: ‘NOT TO BE VIEWED!’
And cover-lid would hide forever,
As it’s fitted down tight and screwed.
Those present, alone would know,
Distant eyes, unsmiling, certain signs;
Only they saw those ghastly wounds,
From high-speed bullets, burns or mines.
Some flag wavers and especially those,
Who turned their backs and didn’t go;
Can’t face what happened to those who did,
And pay off those debts they owe!
Robert Jackson : from 'The Australian' newspaper From 'The Sydney Morning Herald'
Debts We Owe
The characters in this poem are real. The RSL at Greta no longer exists, although the old brick building still stands forlorn in the main street of the village (2005). The old board members are long since dead. In the park opposite stands the war memorial which has engraved upon it: ‘For all those who served their country in time of war’. Vietnam is not mentioned and Robert Jackson’s name still does not appear on it (2005). One mile away is the local cemetery. In the public section, Jackson’s grave lies high on the ridge overlooking the WW2 ‘special’ plots which are in an exclusive enclosure about 500 metres below, down the slope.
The second tragic anecdote in this poem concerns an event that had occurred 3 years prior to Jackson’s death. Of course, war generates many such events, most of which the public remains unaware. It’s the soldiers who were witness to them (and their families) who are left to deal with the aftermath.
“Have you forgotten yet?
Look down and swear,
By the slain of the War ...
That you will never forget!”
- Siegfried Sassoon (On the Western Front, 1917)