Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Dan Keighran’s book contains one of those stories that we treasure, one we keep coming back to when we think that life is tough. It is the story of a little boy who slept in the dirt but grew to be a man of principle to whom service to others was never a duty but a measure of responsible living. Dan Keighran had a grandfather who led him to think, to live as he could with his father’s violence, and to find his own way in the world. Dan’s life was directed by his grandfather’s mantra, first told to him on a fishing excursion: “You need to find out who you are as a person, Danny, what you represent, what you stand for” (20).
Dan remembered that advice, often unconscious of the fact that it lay in his makeup and would direct his actions. He chose to reject his father’s way of living: “I was learning some lessons about life even though Dad wasn’t teaching me anything. My father is drunk in most of the memories I have of him when I was growing up…he often treated her [Dan’s mother] like shit” (51). His grandfather’s sense of decency was there to remind him of what he stood for: having wounded a wallaby, thus causing it pain, he thought nothing of tracking it and putting it out of the misery he had caused (56).
A supreme test of the principle of living according to what he represented was his instant recognition that his mother was in danger from a massive bull and that he had to effect a rescue.
Without thinking, I wheeled Benny-B around and drove my heels hard and sharp into the pony’s flanks. He took off like a mortar round out of a tube, challenging his malicious energy into a gallop that matched the bull’s mission (66).
Having the confidence to back himself became part of Dan’s character although by the time of his initial training at Kapooka he was still unaware of it. “I had grown up with nothing, and I had never been spoiled or indulged. Grandad had taught me to be neat and orderly, even among the chaos of my home life (119). Kapooka issued no mental challenge.
That advice, recognised or not, forms the impetus for Dan’s actions when carrying out the manoeuvres that won him the Victoria Cross for Australia and in his actions among all the ruckus that followed the announcement. His loss of his wife could not deter him from his responsibilities and must have hurt him as her name does not appear in the Acknowledgments section.
Courage Under Fire is an information-giving book. It provides insights into both army affairs and other people’s customs. I know more now about a Bushmaster than I’d ever known. I know that Afghanis put toilet paper in their ears to muffle sound, and that bag snatching in a mine is an excellent job to stay away from. But most of all I’ve witnessed a man grow out of trying circumstances to become an inspiration. Winning a VC is one mighty achievement; gaining an MBA from a major university when mastering English writing skills has always been unachievable is another. Which was the greatest?
A fine book.
By Daniel Keighran VC (with Tony Park)
$44.99; 384 pp