Don Watson

The Passion of Private White

Scribner, 2022

336 pages, 24 plates

I found reading this book both a humbling and a deeply moving experience. It is first and foremost a biography of the Australian anthropologist Neville White, but it is also an ethnography of two very different communities—the Yolngu people who live in the region of Donydji in Central Arnhem Land and a group, a “tribe,” of Vietnam veterans. The genius of the book is that it centers on the personal ethnography of Neville as the fulcrum between the two worlds—the Vietnam vets and the people of Donydji, conveying both his perspective and his passion. Don Watson was given access to Neville’s notebooks and accompanied him into the field with the vets. I have known Neville for many years, and I have worked with the Yolngu people for nearly as many years as he has. Watson’s account rings true to my experience. Of the Vietnam War and its effect on the young Australians who took part I know very little; it is not an experience that I share with Neville. In 1967 when he was on patrol as an Australian conscript in Vietnam, I was an undergraduate student marching through the streets of Central London, shouting with the crowd ‘Hey Hey LBJ – how many kids did you kill today’.

Continue reading