High 'Brass' fly-in for inspection. (Courtesy AWM)
As explained in the introduction to the poem ‘Brass’, (and perhaps worth reiterating here), there was and still is a 3-tiered rank structure within the Australian Army: 4% Commissioned Officers (who wore their insignia upon their shoulders); 24% Non-Commissioned Officers (who wore their insignia upon their sleeves); 72% Other Ranks (who had no insignia). This hierarchical system was based upon that of the British type which had its origins in Medieval times (and even earlier during Greco-Roman times). Then royal armies relied upon the aristocratic dukes, earls, barons and knights to recruit locally dependent ‘clients’ and lead them into battle. In those days it was automatic that wealth/power entitled one to a leadership role, even though many of the aristocracy may have been quite incompetent and untrained for the task. The tradition of officers being entitled to a servant was carried on over the centuries and still exists in the Australian Army today. Such a servant or valet is of course not titled as such but goes under the euphemism of ‘batman’ or even ‘orderly’.
Australian officers of the Vietnam War Era were graduates of special military schools such as Duntroon in Canberra, Officer Cadet School in Portsea in Victoria or the hastily organised Officer Training School at Scheyville west of Sydney for a select group of National Servicemen. A degree of elitism (amongst some members of the Officer Corps) had developed resulting in the fact that senior officer rank (ie above that of major) was very difficult to attain and rare if one had not had Duntroon credentials.
All this is a background to understanding why there existed amongst other ranks in the army, a degree of resentment towards officers generally. The perceived elitism (snobbery perhaps?), enforced supplication through saluting and the privilege issues all ‘cut against the grain’ of the average Australian Digger who had had embedded into his psyche (from his harsh colonial and Gallipoli heritage) a more egalitarian attitude towards his fellow man.
As with all fields and all levels of employment there are the competent/incompetent, respected/disrespected and popular/unpopular individuals. So it was within the Australian Army at all levels. Nevertheless, as a generalisation, the majority of Australian officers were fine leaders and had full respect from the men under them, in spite of the egalitarian issues which irked many of the lower-ranked soldiers. This high-quality assessment by the Diggers was especially true for platoon commanders (lieutenants) with whom the bonds were closer. Above that rank the chasm between Digger and officer widened significantly.
It will be noted by readers that several of the poems in this collection have been light-hearted looks at characters (real or imagined) from all levels of the ranks. This poem is intended as a hum0rous satire, suggesting how the average soldier might have perceived a select few amongst the higher levels of the Officer Corps, especially amongst those who remained permanently in ‘safe’ positions, or were conspicuously pompous and obnoxious.
“The arrogance of [some] army officers was amazing ... as was the distance between them and the men…and the sheer rudeness of many towards those under them. I also noted in my diary: ‘If people treated me like most officers treat their men, I’d leave. But of course the soldiers couldn’t leave.”
- Jane Ross in her Ph.D research article in Memories of Vietnam, 1991.
“Power is an illusion and part of that illusion is that power exists only so long as
others believe you have it. Once they stop believing, it rapidly disappears!”
- from The Arrogance of Power by Anthony Summers, 2000.
“Oliver North returned home with the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.
He had learned the old military truism: ‘A good war is the best path to the top’!”
- Peter Meyer in Defiant Patriot, 1987.
Born by chance ‘upper class’,
And simply termed ‘brass’,
I could play out my fantasies;
‘Spit and polish’ my game,
‘Sir’, ’twas my name,
Eagerly searching a war overseas.
And a batman for me,
Trained valet you see,
A remnant of Imperial thinking;
Land Rover my own,
In camp like at home,
Driven to sessions of war-games and drinking.
Whilst the ‘boys in my band’,
Could all understand,
Privileges for each ‘silver spoon’;
And like the I.O. and X.O.,
Task Force Commander and Co.,
I was a warrior, trained at Duntroon.
So I’d work out a plan,
(Don’t mention Long Tan!),
Empowered as one of the bosses;
Yet, whilst I stayed in ‘lines’,
And let ‘grunts’ walk the mines,
Denied one of those Military Crosses.
‘Arty’ always on call,
And that wasn’t all,
Phantoms and gunships, whatever I wanted;
Bomb the crap out of Cong,
’Cause in war nothing’s wrong,
Yet the odd ghost, leaves me now haunted.
Lower ranks had to learn,
They’d been fodder to burn,
Each required to dance to my tune;
“Petty charges you see,
Brought respect due to me!”
An educated warrior from Duntroon.
Some warriors do lead,
Whilst we wallahs indeed,
Simply functioned at base giving orders;
A few with ‘crowns’ and some ‘pips’,
9 mil on our hips,
Knew that ‘gaol’ ’twas safe as its warders.
Now Saigon hid a few,
As in Task Force HQ,
Colleagues basked on the beach at Vung Tau;
Whilst time marches on,
Some memories now gone,
Past roles embellished, distorted somehow.
For us special leave,
And well deserved, we believe,
A classy villa or hotel to suit;
So: “Here’s to the Queen!”
A parade was our scene,
Duntroon warriors need their salute.
Dressed-up in starched greens,
I rode Sioux ‘chopper’ machines,
And now proudly polish, my old D.S.O.
Paint pictures of truth,
Like a boy in his youth,
Yet can’t keep it from all those who know.
And last April I led,
To honour our dead,
Fifty years haven’t changed that old story;
Rear ranks for each ‘grunt’,
For a change, we ‘brass’ out in front,
I’m still hunting for fame and false glory.
Some left with their guilt,
Yet I stayed on and so built,
A career lasting all of these years;
And since black is not white,
Greyed memoirs we write, We Duntroon warriors are now Brigadiers.