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A deeply personal fast paced and insightful account of Cantwell's life in the Australian Army. He commanded at the very highest levels and fought on the front line in both Gulf Wars and as recently as 2010 where he was the General in charge of Australian forces in Afghanistan.


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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.”
( )
  evil_cyclist | Mar 16, 2020 |
Major General John Cantwell (retired) has written a sobering account of his career with the Australian Army in the first person, with the editing and guidance of Greg Bearup with the result being the hard hitting and incredibly honest memoir Exit Wounds.

Initially joining the Australian Army as a private, John Cantwell changed over to Officer and went to the First Gulf War in 1990 - 1991 where he survived friendly fire on the front line, navigating through a mine field and poor communication between allied forces. He also witnessed the horrific impact of war and Coalition Forces fitting bulldozer blades to the front of their tanks and burying Iraqi soldiers alive in their trenches.

After the Gulf War, John began to suffer the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but not knowing what it was, he told himself he was being soft, and to get past it. This didn't work and eventually John's boss - a Vietnam Veteran - noticed John's distress, and he agreed to see a psychiatrist. Unfortunately the psychiatrist was dismissive, and told John to stop dwelling on disturbing memories and to get on with work and family matters.

John returned to Iraq in the second Gulf War in 2006 as a Brigadier in an attempt to do some good for the people, believing it would help him heal. Met with political incompetence and indifference, daily violence and retaliation, it was a daily struggle to make a difference and keep the people safe. John was exposed to endless violence and death and his body took a beating too, with countless near misses. He returned home at the end of his posting after 265 days with a broken shoulder and pneumonia and untold damage to his heart and mind.

In January 2010, John (now a General) took over as Australian National Commander in Afghanistan, where tragically ten men were killed during his command, and which he took personal responsibility for. In response to the unforgivable mix-up of Jacob Kovco's remains, John Cantwell took it upon himself to personally identify and farewell each soldier killed under his command. His account of a few of these intimate moments brought me to tears, and I believe it will bring the family and friends of these soldiers great comfort to know their loved ones were looked after with so much genuine and heartfelt care.

These sobering moments in Exit Wounds were balanced out with chapters from John's long time wife Jane and several funny moments; the story of the scorpion in particular comes to mind. I re-read it several times, laughing aloud and enjoying the scenario greatly.

Exit Wounds is a unique memoir from one of Australia's senior Army Officers, once considered for the top role of Chief of the Army, and lifts the lid on PTSD in the ADF for all time. More than that, John explains how a soldier accumulates psychological trauma and doesn't spare the detail although this reader can't help but feel there are plenty more horrors lurking in his memory.

Exit Wounds is also a testament to Australia's Defence history and involvement in three overseas conflicts and I believe is a tribute to all the fallen soldiers. My eyes were opened in so many ways, and for that I can thoroughly recommend Exit Wounds by John Cantwell. ( )
1 vote Carpe_Librum | Mar 4, 2013 |
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A deeply personal fast paced and insightful account of Cantwell's life in the Australian Army. He commanded at the very highest levels and fought on the front line in both Gulf Wars and as recently as 2010 where he was the General in charge of Australian forces in Afghanistan.

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