You could say it was a painter who kick-started Air Commodore John Oddie’s journey to writing Flight Command: From the farm to the frontline. Specifically, Archibald Prize-winning portrait artist Ben Quilty, sent in 2011 as ‘official war artist’ (a legit profession since World War I) to paint the men and women serving in Afghanistan.
John was one of Ben’s subjects, sitting three times for him and finding the experience surprisingly raw and emotional. In 2012, Ben and a newly-retired John featured in an ABC episode of Australian Story that had documented Ben’s journey to Afghanistan. Both spoke frankly of their experiences – not unusual for a painter, but refreshingly honest for a commander in the air force.
For John, the reaction to his opening up highlighted the major lack of emotional insights available from leaders in this area. And he sought to change that.
“I realised that as a senior officer, we were always well guarded in what we said and so our underlying feelings and emotions were rarely visible to society,” John recalls. “A key duty of the military commander is to provide confidence to those they lead… an unfortunate result can be an apparent loss of empathy.”
Sharing his story
Following his appearance on Australian Story, John was approached by publisher Allen & Unwin to write a book about his combat experiences. But John had another idea to share – wanting to further tap into that more emotional, visceral story – potentially one that more people could relate to. The publisher teamed him up with ghostwriter Mark Abernethy to assist with the nuts and bolts of creating a book that was well structured, and John got to work.
Mark read John’s draft chapters, interviewed him, read his diaries, looked at the pictures, and even lived in his family home before writing the first draft. “This was important for me as I had an independent view of how the story might be said,” says John. “We jumped around a bit but always retained the higher order structure so the book would be as balanced as possible when taken in whole.”
John and Mark commenced the detailed interviews and writing in October 2013 and delivered the final hard copy proof on 1 May 2014. “The speed of this activity was largely driven by our project schedule and underpinned by Mark’s capacity to write down the first draft at a speed and with certainty of structure and design that well exceeded my capacity. We had to be productive to meet the agreed and contracted schedule.”
After many drafts and edits, John had a story that struck the right balance. Just don’t call it a memoir.
“I prefer the book not to be seen as a memoir or autobiography as both of these terms in my mind are exceptionally introverted,” says John. “My experiences in the book are merely the tools with which I hope to build a bigger idea, perhaps a better social contract between community, Government and military service.”
John feels he is still dealing with the released pressure of damaged emotions, a side effect of retirement. But rather than hide from these moments, he has embraced them – finding them “intensely cathartic”.
Since the release of Flight Command, John has appeared on numerous occasions to open artist Ben’s exhibitions. “These moments are always different and always special for me, albeit speaking publicly on such emotional matters remains a heavy burden,” admits John.
He has also found a niche through building innovative medical retrieval systems designed to assist those who fall injured or ill in tough places. John also remains a military reservist, continuing to oversee the safety of “Australia’s world class military aviation systems and the wonderful people who deliver it”.
As for advice to writers hoping to share their own story some day, John has some practical tips, such as ensuring you have some real artifacts like diaries or photos – as these make writing infinitely simpler and more accurate. He’d also recommend finding someone to help you tell it, but also to stay true to your own voice and know what you want to say.
But his main advice is loftier.
“Live your life beyond the barbed wire fence you set or others set for you. Always do the thing that seems unachievable. Go beyond the limits that others will impose on you. Build something worthy which is centred in the service to others.”
For John, Flight Command was as much about looking forward as it was about looking back. “I think memoirs, while they are set in the past, they must be a foundation for the future… to enable the best of history to be repeated and enhanced.”
John Oddie is the author of Flight Command, published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $32.99, out now.