The Kiwi poet and ex-soldier who wrote the US Army's leadership manual

by Clare de Lore / 01 November, 2017
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Chris Mullane. Photo/Rebekah Robinson

As a war veteran and former senior army officer, Chris Mullane knows about the hardships of battle and the pressures of leadership.

Mullane has written about both. His poem Poppies and Pohutukawa, reflecting on young Kiwis’ battlefield sacrifices, has been adapted by the New Zealand Army as an anthemic song. And now the words of the poem are engraved on the new World War I memorial in Belgium that marks the loss of 846 New Zealand lives in the Battle of Passchendaele on October 12, 1917. The memorial and garden, near Passchendaele, were officially opened on the centenary of this black day and the poet was present.

Mullane, who served in Vietnam, has been a leader in the campaign for official recognition of the long-term damage caused to soldiers by Agent Orange and other defoliant chemicals.

He was raised by a mother “ahead of her time”, he says. His sisters did outdoor work and all the siblings learnt sewing, mending and cooking. The family’s Onehunga state house had a large section with fruit trees and each kid had a garden plot. “It was very regimented,” he says. “Joining the army was a breeze.

When you went to Vietnam, were you prepared for what you saw and what you had to do?

I did four years’ training in Australia and a year more in New Zealand. Our company was well prepared. We had been to Malaysia, trained with live ammo, had skills such as medical support and knew how to direct artillery fire.

That sounds like good technical training, but facing the enemy must be a different story.

You become more focused and your training comes into its own. Mentally, it is difficult to prepare people fully for going into combat, but it’s not impossible.

With Grandma and Grandad Mullane, 1951.

Most people who came back from the two world wars didn’t talk about their experiences. Do you and other Vietnam veterans share with each other and your families?

As we get older, we’ve talked more about it. It affects people, but you talk among those who understand your experience. People talk easily about things that happened that might not have been funny at the time, but are humorous in hindsight. You don’t tend to share the intimate stuff.

Did you lose mates in Vietnam?

We lost only one of our company on operations. Unfortunately, when we came back, there were people who took their own lives, and others who struggled and had difficulties fitting back in and didn’t feel part of society any more. There are still some who feel that.

What motivated you to get involved in the Agent Orange campaign?

I made a deathbed promise to my best friend, Alastair Ross, who was a Vietnam veteran. He suffered seriously from toxic poisoning and had many operations. A few minutes before he died, he grabbed my shirt, pulled himself up and said, “You have got to do something about this.” You don’t ignore a friend’s deathbed request, so I got directly involved. I had my own business in film production, then corporate troubleshooting and change management.

What key lesson did you learn at that time?

I learnt that the answers to corporate and organisational problems are in the organisation. Leaders and managers need to take the risk of asking the people who work in the organisation what they think is best. You get some rubbish, but you get good stuff, too. The answers are in the heads of those who work there, but the culture might make them scared to speak up.

Invested with the MBE by Governor-General Sir David Beattie, 1982.

You wrote a leadership manual for the US Army. How did that come about?

The Americans don’t usually like putting foreigners in charge of anything. In 1975, having just pulled out of Vietnam, they started spending a lot of money investigating why they had failed. The army was beating itself up and spent money on expertise from around the world. The recurring answer was a failure of leadership. They put me in the leadership department and after three or four months, they put me in charge of it. I don’t quite know why – I was just following what I thought was common sense. We had to review the whole leadership process from the lowest-level ranks right through to the generals.

You were awarded an honour by the US Army for that work. What does the Legion of Merit award (given to foreigners) mean to you?

It was a complete surprise. I think they thought I had done something for them. It was a real honour for me and my family, who had worked hard, and also a bit of a [confirmation that] New Zealand produces people who can contribute to a much larger nation.

What do you think about the Trump Administration’s conflicting and often aggressive foreign-policy messages?

It is quite perplexing when you look at the lack of cohesion among the top team, the President and his principal advisers. Look at the number of people who have been fired and you start to think, “My God, these people are the most powerful nation on Earth and they are running the show.”

The lyrics in your poem Poppies and Pohutukawa include “forever safe, forever free”. Given the heightened tensions between North Korea and the US, do you feel as sure about that as you were when you wrote it?

Two petulant leaders are each trying to show that one is more important than the other. I am amazed at some of the US responses that don’t fit with … trying to find a diplomatic solution. You also have this North Korean guy [supreme leader Kim Jong-un] who probably doesn’t give a fig about democracy. But anyone who has been involved in a war would say we had better try all the other solutions first.

Chris Mullane’s poem on the new Passchendaele memorial. Photo/Eric Compernolle

Chris Mullane’s poem on the new Passchendaele memorial. Photo/Eric Compernolle

What advice would you give Donald Trump?

First, listen to your advisers, military and otherwise, because at that level it is very politically influenced. I read a wonderful book a few months ago called The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, by Thomas E Ricks. It starts with World War II with the American Army entering late into the war and works through to the present day, with Vietnam in the middle. In the post-Vietnam period, all the people I was working for in training and doctrine command get a mention. The main weakness, it seemed to me after reading that book, is the lack of a coherent approach between the civilian side of government and the military. Even when there was some cohesion, there would be some maverick in a place of influence, as we have now with President Trump.

When it’s the President, that’s a big problem, isn’t it?

It’s deeply concerning, and if there is some sort of armed conflict, [New Zealand] won’t be able to escape it. We will be affected negatively, but, as in the past, there will be positives. During the Korean War, wool prices did very well, but I don’t see buoying up the economy as a reason for war. Every other avenue has to be pursued first. As the old saying goes, “Freedom is not free.”

The memorial garden.

What else are you reading?

The pile of books by my bed includes Bernard Freyberg, VC: Soldier of Two Nations, by his son, Paul Freyberg. I like a lot of Max Cryer’s stuff, as I’m a great fan of the origins of words. We keep one of his books in the dunny, because they are short bits you can read while you’re there. It’s called Curious English Words and Phrases: The Truth Behind the Expressions We Use.

On a more serious note, I recently read Good Sons, a novel by Greg Hall, who happens to be a fellow director of the Passchendaele Society. It is based on three young men in the fifth form and then sixth form, but then war breaks out. Eventually, the three sign up. What makes it very real is that he has included excerpts from newspapers of the time that set the scene for what is happening to these three young men. We raised funds to send 10 New Zealand school students to Belgium for the unveiling. They are the same age as these boys. I made sure they all had a copy of this book to read on the plane, to give them some context from the perspective of people their own age.

What did you take to read on the long flights to Belgium, and then on holiday to Ireland?

One of the small books I took is called How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill. I know it sounds like a joke, but it’s a serious study of how, when things went backwards during the Dark Ages, Ireland became a repository. The monks sat down and started writing, translating stuff that became lost in mainland Europe, destroyed by the philistines. I also took Learn Irish Gaelic, by Sue Cony. The third book for my travels was Dogs Never Lie About Love [by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson]. I’m a great fan of dogs. They are much maligned and a lot more intelligent than we give them credit for. We rescue dogs that have had a bad start in life, and [our two dogs] pay you back a thousandfold in terms of the love they give.

This article was first published in the October 21, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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