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Bridget Goodwin, Keen as mustard: Britain's horrific chemical warfare experiments in Australia.

Bridget Goodwin, Keen as mustard: Britain's horrific chemical warfare experiments in Australia, University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, 1998, pp. xviii, 361, photographs, appendices, end notes, bibliography, index.

Bridget Goodwin has followed up her successful film Keen as mustard with a book of the same title. Like the film, it is a powerful work which dramatically reveals the nature, extent, and purpose of the secret chemical warfare experiments which scientists conducted on Australian soldiers during the Second World War. Australian volunteers served as guinea pigs in chemical weapons trials, principally involving mustard gas, during which they received terrible burns and, in many cases, suffered permanent disabilities and an increased risk of life-threatening diseases. The rewards for their service were slight, however. Goodwin extends her story to include the callously indifferent treatment the survivors received from a series of post-war governments which preferred to deny the men medical care or disability pensions in order to avoid the embarrassing admission of Australia's involvement in chemical warfare.

In fact, Goodwin sympathies lie too close to the victims of the experiments, and her judgement of the scientists' lack of concern for them is overly harsh. Certainly the men were-ill informed and even misled as to the nature of the tests for which they volunteered, but the increased potency of mustard gas in tropical environments came as a surprise, and this finding was an important scientific, medical and military discovery. The expansion of the war in the Pacific to include mustard gas was a real possibility, and tests which would provide the army with information on how to use the weapon in the attack and how to treat its victims were, therefore, urgently required.

Keen as mustard, as the sub-title suggests, also prefers to blame the trials on Britain and, to a lesser extent, the United States, and tries to portray the Australians as hapless victims of foreign experimenters. The scientists in charge of the trials were non-Australians, but they undertook the tests with the knowledge and approval of Australia's political and military leaders. Australia might have been a very junior partner in the alliance, but it still had responsibility for the welfare of its soldiers. If a criticism is deserved it should be directed at the Australian army for not supervising the project adequately and for not ensuring the protection of its own troops.

Goodwin is on much surer ground when she examines the post-war treatment of the chemical test volunteers. Although not fully understood at the time, it is now known that mustard gas can have a systemic effect upon its victims, thus increasing the likelihood of their developing respiratory, epidermal and other conditions years later. Sworn to secrecy and denied access to their records, the volunteers found it extremely difficult to establish the legitimacy of their claims for disability pensions. For some, favourable awards would come too late.

The book also includes an important chapter on the female personnel who served in a technical or medical capacity during the tests. These women shared the same risks as the male scientists and were essential elements of the team, and it is just that their accomplishments should also be documented.

There are a few points which, given stronger editing, could have resulted in an even better book. The first two sections are too long and should have been combined into a single brief introductory chapter. Goodwin's summary of the nature of chemical warfare and the state of the literature in her lengthy introduction lacks depth and skilled interpretation, and it does not relate sufficiently to the work's objectives to warrant inclusion. Her expose on the tradition of scientific self-experimentation (chapter 1) could have been condensed to a brief outline. The reader must therefore wait until page 81 before the real story begins.

Keen as mustard is a well written, highly readable account of an episode in Australian history, and its deplorable aftermath, which had been forgotten for far too long. Its publication is welcome, and it is to be hoped that its message of government indifference and irresponsibility will reach the widest possible audience.

Reviewed by ALBERT PALAZZO, School of History, Australian Defence Force Academy
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Author:Palazzo, Albert
Publication:Journal of the Australian War Memorial
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1999
Words:691
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