Johnny Shoebridge has returned home to Australia after serving in Vietnam. He was conscripted to fight and watched his best mates, Lex and Barry, die in battle. Johnny never imagined himself a soldier or that his government would send him to a foreign country to kill people he knew nothing about. He did unspeakable things in the name of duty, but now that he’s home, few people recognise the sacrifice he’s made for his country, and it’s not only the memory of his friends that haunts him. He also dreams of an enemy soldier he met in battle. Johnny calls him Khan. And as Johnny looks back on his time in Vietnam, he begins to imagine how the war looked through Khan’s eyes and how he might also be struggling to build a new life for himself now that the war is over.
Dreaming the Enemy is a story of compassion and healing that follows a young man’s struggle to return to normal life after experiencing the trauma of war.
It’s also not the kind of book I’d typically pick up. However, Metzenthen’s premise had me intrigued. I loved the idea of a soldier putting himself in his enemy’s shoes and trying to understand his point of view. I think it’s something we could all stand to do more often.
Johnny had first glimpsed that skinny, quick Main Force enemy fighter in a battle in the Suoi Chau Pha valley. He hadn’t had time to kill the guy as the young bastard in black sprinted between rice paddies while American Cobra gunships tore the village apart. But he’d had too much time to ever forget him. So Johnny gave him a name and a life because they’d crossed paths more than once in the war, and now it seemed they would cross paths always.
Initially, I found the shifts between Johnny’s ‘present’ self, his recollections of the war and his imaginings of Khan’s present life and war experiences a little confusing, but once I got my head around the setup, it was easy enough to follow. At first, I was also unsure how I felt about an Australian soldier making up the Vietnamese soldier’s story for him: why didn’t Metzenthen make Khan a ‘real’ character and let him speak for himself? But in the end, having Johnny imagine Khan creates a direct connection and opens a dialogue between the two characters that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. More than that, it’s part of Johnny’s healing process: learning to see ‘Charlie’ not as ‘the enemy’ but as young people with jobs and families and dreams, just like him. Indeed, he feels closer to Khan than most of his fellow Australians.
Australia’s involvement in Vietnam isn’t often depicted in fiction and film. I remember learning about it in school, but even still, most of what I (and I suspect many of my generation and younger) know about Vietnam comes from American films, and from watching many of those you could be forgiven for thinking Australia wasn’t even there. In fact, according to the Australian War Memorial, almost 60,000 Australian troops fought in Vietnam. We lost 521 Australians as a result of the war, and more than 3,000 were injured. As in the US, we had conscription. We also had a strong anti-war movement and returned soldiers were often greeted with hostility. To read a fictional narrative about how the war looked through an Australian soldier’s eyes made me feel more connected to those soldiers and what they experienced: if I’d been born a generation earlier, the young men in Metzenthen’s story might have been my friends.
More than humanising the soldiers on both sides of the war, Metzenthen’s story looks at the very difficult process soldiers both past and present face when returning to civilian life. PTSD is an inconvenient truth at odds with the heroic narratives we often craft around war. In Australia, the ANZAC spirit is a substantial part of our cultural identity. At the Dawn Service on ANZAC Day, we speak about the Diggers’ bravery, mateship and the extraordinary sacrifice they made and continue to make for our country. But the returned soldier who’s traumatised by war and can’t move beyond their experience doesn’t gel with the image of the brave young larrikin fighting beside his mates under the Australian flag. As a nation, we’re also not great at talking about our feelings. (Like a true Aussie, you’ll notice I say ‘not great’ when I mean ‘bad’.) For men, in particular, discussing and displaying non-aggressive emotion is too often stigmatised as ‘weak’ and ’emasculating’. So PTSD is something that a lot of young men, like Johnny, find difficult to own. Dreaming the Enemy sends a powerful message to young readers that it’s both important and brave for trauma survivors to seek help. It’s also a reminder that not all battles take place on the front lines and that war doesn’t end when the fighting stops.
Dreaming the Enemy is an important story for all the reasons I’ve outlined above, but for me, some of that was tarnished by Metzenthen’s depiction of women. There are four (minor) recurring female characters in the story: Johnny’s pre-war girlfriend, Jilly; Carly, a beautiful but troubled girl Johnny meets upon returning home and who helps Johnny get back on track; Lien a pretty girl Khan likes in his village; and Phuong a plain but brave girl who, like Khan, served as a soldier and has been missing since the end of the war. The depiction of these women irked me for a couple of reasons. First, Metzenthen keeps coming back to whether or not the women are physically attractive. It’s their defining attribute. Indeed, the only thing we learn about Lien is that she’s beautiful, as Khan’s friend Son says:
Lien is a captive to her looks. If she doesn’t give herself to someone soon, she’ll have nothing left to give. Those breasts are like flowers in a vase, Khan. They will wilt. But they are in full bloom now.
Because snagging a man is where it’s at, ladies. Metzenthen makes a particular point of showing how noble Khan is for pursuing ‘plain’ Phuong instead of trying to win over ‘beautiful’ Lien.
…Khan shook his head, imagining. What could be more delightful than that girl? Nothing, nobody, surely?
You’re forgetting someone, Johnny suggested. Aren’t ya, mate? What about the other one? Phuong, the plain one. The special one. The fighter. The courageous one. Concentrate on her, champ, because this chick, Lien will just bring you pain. What you need now is someone who thinks like you, knows what you know, has seen and done what you have seen and done—and might still be able to talk about it.
Somebody give the boys a trophy for recognising that looks aren’t everything. Nevermind what Lien might want or the fact that it’s clearly not Khan.
Second, when Johnny and Khan imagine their relationships with these women, they primarily think about what support the women can offer them. The boys give little consideration to what the women might want or who they are beyond their relationship. I found this to be particularly the case with Johnny and Carly. She helps him find a place to stay, sorts out temporary work for him and tells him who to speak to at the CES (Commonwealth Employment Service). She’s also there as a friend and someone who’s willing to listen. Then, soon as Johnny gets his head together, he ups stumps and leaves to find his girlfriend—wham, bam, thank you, mam—even though it’s clear that Carly is also having a hard time and could use a friend herself.
Finally, Jilly and Phuong are positioned as ‘prizes’ the soldiers will receive for surviving the war and navigating the transition back into civilian life. After taking some time to sort himself out, Johnny embarks on the long journey to Melbourne to find Jilly, while he imagines Khan travelling from village to village searching for Phuong. These ‘quests’ support the age-old message: the hero gets the girl. She is a reward for his labours; something he’s entitled to. As a woman, this makes for uncomfortable reading, especially given Dreaming the Enemy is a story aimed at teenagers: is this the message we want to send to the next generation? Gah! It’s so frustrating because the book is so strong on so many other fronts!!!
Okay, rant over. Overall, I’m not sure I enjoyed Dreaming the Enemy. As YA goes, it’s a harrowing read and Johnny is a real slang-slinging bloke’s bloke. I didn’t like him, but I felt for him, and by extension for our soldiers in general. I respected Metzenthen for crafting a story that explores some of the less glamorous realities of war and, in doing so, challenging and complicating the narratives we construct around war.
Thank you to Allen & Unwin for providing a copy of Dreaming the Enemy in exchange for an honest review.
Thanks also to Grammarly for picking up 17 critical issues in my draft of this review. If, like me, you have trouble with typos, do give Grammarly a go!
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