Lest we forget…
Exit Wounds: One Australian’s War on Terror by John Cantwell is his story of serving in three wars, two of which are seemingly American conflicts. Cantwell joined the army in 1974 as a private and rose through the ranks to become Deputy Chief of the Army. He served for thirty-eight years and fought in both Gulf Wars and Afghanistan. Cantwell was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 2012.
Over the last twelve years Americans have been aware of combat and death in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most forgot we started losing lives in the Gulf in 1987 when the US involved itself, indirectly, in the Iran-Iraq War. What many Americans don’t remember is we seldom stand alone, and it is usually more than our NATO allies standing with us. Australia was there. They were there too when many of out allies were not, in Vietnam. For such a loyal ally, it is a shame that most in the United States do not recognize Australia’s service.
Cantwell, as a liaison officer, witnesses the war from a distance. Watching the artillery, rocket and tank fire was impressive and like many watching there was a certain bravery from being out of range. One thing that would haunt, then Major, Cantwell was the American plan to bulldoze over the enemy’s trenches burying defending Iraqi’s alive. However, US army Colonel Magee wasn’t phased “A bullet or a bulldozed blade, it doesn’t matter. We’re saving American lives and that’s all that matters.” The aftermath of both the bombardment and the bulldozing would go on to haunt Cantwell. More important than his stories of the war are the effects of the wars on him. His wife, Jane, writes two chapters in the book on the PTSD affecting Cantwell. Cantwell does his best to hide his nightmares and carry on, like a soldier.
After the First Gulf War, Cantwell returns to serve in Baghdad in the Second Gulf War. Although not directly involved in the fighting, he witnesses the violence of Sunni on Shite violence, the building body count, and the Iraqi government’s apathy to anything but money. In Afghanistan, Cantwell needed to deal with the deaths of soldiers under his command. He is very candid with the toll the wars took on him psychologically, even his stay in a psychiatric hospital. He is not the only one who suffered. In 2011, 6,500 American veterans took their own lives. The suicide rate was twenty-five times higher than the battlefield casualty rate. The high tech, impersonal warfare may remove soldiers from physical dangers but it does not seem to remove men’s minds from the horrors of warfare.
Cantwell did a great service to his country and mine as well. Sadly his and his countrymen’s efforts are not well known in in the United States. I have seen several books on Australia’s war efforts and they peaked my interest, however, this is the first book out of Australia I have been able to read because of copyright laws and geographical restrictions. There are two important things that need to be taken from this memoir. First, that the horrors of war are real and live in soldier’s (and all those involved) minds long after the war ends and hiding those memories is not the best way to deal with them. Secondly, Australia has a long and proud history of standing willingly next to the United States in armed conflicts. Exit Wounds is a well written and very informative memoir. Also as a Marine, I would like to say “Thank you, sir.”