I Was Only Nineteen

Written by Craig Smith (illus.) John Schumann
Review by Jane Burke

This picture book tells its moving story in simple verses and beautiful water-colour illustrations. The text is composed of the words of a song that became a hit and topped the record charts in Australia in 1983. Based on the recollections of one veteran, the song and the story record the recruitment, training and war experiences of a platoon of Australian soldiers sent to fight in Vietnam in the 1960s.

Despite being an honest depiction of war, its images are sensitive rather than graphic, and the youth and confusion of the soldiers is its constant refrain – ‘God help me, I was only nineteen’. The illustrations are in soft washes of green and gold, browns and black, managing to suggest both the tropical jungles of Vietnam and the military greens of the men’s tents and uniforms. Occasional flares of colour insert drama: ‘an Asian orange sunset through the scrub’; a wash of tender cherry-pink amongst the foliage as a wounded man is evacuated. There is a lovely study of a grey troop-ship steaming over a blue-grey ocean towards a lowering, blue-grey horizon – an image of loneliness. Throughout, the paraphernalia of war, helicopters and guns, are depicted as smudgy and indistinct, whereas the frank, round faces of the troops remain unchanged, almost the faces of children themselves.

The author states, in a note, that the song was written to combat the oblivion to which the veterans felt they had been assigned, ‘forgotten soldiers from a forgotten war’ in the words of another song. A bright seven-year-old to whom I offered the book loved it, and her father, also an ex-soldier, was moved, and quick to note that it would make an invaluable aide to classroom discussions of war and history with the 7-11 age group. Highly recommended.