Trauma and war are inextricably linked. That's why nobody doubts Reg Chard, like so many of those sent to New Guinea to fight the Japanese, saw too much and has a story to tell. Now, with the assistance of journalist Daniel Lane, Chard has penned a book - The Digger of Kokoda - an account of his graphic, often horrific memories of those days. It's a vivid and interesting tale, and one in which - after 302 pages describing what he believes was his experience of war - Chard explains how he finally found meaning in his life.
Telling his story to others.
In 2011, with suicidal thoughts speeding through his mind after the death of his wife Betty, he met two women walking along the Kokoda Track Memorial Walkway near Concord Hospital in Sydney. Chard began talking and the stories tumbled out. As he says, "the events of that day gave me the purpose I needed to keep going". At 98 he still walks the path, telling children and visitors his tales of war.
Unfortunately, Chard today is not necessarily a reliable witness of 1942.
Two distinct traditions have emerged in the writing of Australian military history. One unflinching and accurate; the second heroic and imaginative. The first fulfils our need to understand what occurred and why; the other offers fabulous narratives seemingly constructed with more than an eye towards sales. Such tales fill a social need and both practices have their place.
Those latter stories, however, aren't history. They demean our comprehension of what really occurred. This is why Chard's story is important - precisely because it's being presented as an eyewitness account of reality. It affects our understanding of the past and way we perceive the present. That's why accuracy matters.
The trouble is, three distinguished historians of this period say Chard's tale just doesn't stack up.
A small example, early in the book, suggests the author's tendency to remember things that probably didn't happen. Chard vividly describes an interaction with famous, Oscar-winning film-maker Damien Parer on board ship as they travel to Moresby. Military records place Chard on the SS Taroona between the 26th and 29th of May. The trouble is Parer flew to New Guinea: either the records are incorrect or Chard's memory is faulty. Later in the book the author quotes the camera man calling out, shouting, "Hey Chard, why don't you give the nice people at home a big f---ing smile for f---s sake".
But Parer wasn't given to profanity. Such swearing presents a stark contrast to most accounts, ones which describe a devout man who knelt beside his bed at night to pray. The real point, however, is that eminent historian Peter Stanley says the meeting couldn't have occurred anyway. He points out that Parer's movie was already showing in cinemas back in Australia when Chard claims he was being filmed on the track.
There are, Stanley says, 40 other specific discrepancies (actually more, but that's irrelevant) that have led him, Professor (and official historian) David Horner, and Kokoda expert David Cameron (currently writing his third detailed work on the battle) to combine and take a public stand throwing the entire narrative into doubt. They say much of the book, particularly important detail, appears questionable. These, and other concerns over accuracy, have been subject of reporting by The Australian.
So what? Does this matter? Perhaps Chard's pseudo-verisimilitude allows a greater truth to be caught: the way chaos plays tricks on memory. The issue is his tales of what happened are being presented as both official and true. And this is where the narrative then takes a dark and sensational turn, to war crimes, rape, and a terrible massacre.
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Chard claims that he and a few mates followed a "Fuzzy Wuzzy" (sic) to a clearing where 25 "white women" had been raped and grotesquely butchered. After attacking and shooting 40 Japanese officers (not ordinary soldiers), Chard and his mates (he only uses nicknames) reported the incident only to find his Australian commanders were supposedly not interested. Chard claims that still, today, "try as I might the hideous images of what the enemy had done ... has never left my mind".
Lurid and shocking claims indeed. Chard's claiming he stumbled upon the largest massacre of European women in New Guinea; one never previously reported. Then, together with a few comrades, Chard says he killed a huge proportion of the Japanese officers in this part of New Guinea. Really? Is this truth or fiction? If just the latter, why has the book been endorsed as official and why, incredibly, is it on sale in the War Memorial?
The book carries blurbs of praise from the likes of Steve Waugh, Peter FitzSimons and even former governor-general Peter Cosgrove. Perhaps these people didn't understand what they were signing up for. Others, however, should have known better. It's been endorsed by former Memorial director Brendan Nelson and military history head Karl James although, perhaps understandably, neither wish to comment on the matter. But the real question is basic. Do Australians have a right to expect something presented as truth - the "official biography" - to be accurate.
There are enough lies in the world without adding to them.
Stanley raises the possibility this is a "creative narrative, shaped by what people feel rather than just what they experienced". Trauma survivors "absorb others' stories and incorporate them into their own memories, shaping a composite, shared narrative over many re-tellings". This is understandable, however Chard's claims go far beyond the question of faulty memory. This doesn't simply matter for the past.
After a painstaking and detailed investigation, eminent jurist Paul Brereton discovered our soldiers committed war crimes in Afghanistan. We need, as a nation, to find a way of dealing in truth rather than fiction.
Narratives like this reach deep into the very core of identity, accuracy, and what it means to be Australian. A continued failure to deal with these allegations of fabrication suggests truth is unimportant.
What happened in the past matters. It makes us who we are today.
- Nicholas Stuart is editor of ability.news and a regular columnist.