The Ghost of Geeveston

IN late May, tributes flowed – in newspaper parlance – for Tasmanian truck driver Mick O’Neill who died on the front line of the Russo-US/Ukrainian War. The Australian media – as in thrall to official propaganda about Ukraine as they were about covid – hailed the 47-year-old as a true-blue hero and humanitarian. This was surprisingly twee. In 2022, newspapers in this country are not given to captioning pictures like this as “Aussie Larrikin.” For decades now, Australians venturing abroad as ‘soldiers’ in foreign conflicts have been sternly condemned and subject to prosecution. Accepting his bereaved and, as it happens, misinformed family’s account of why O’Neill became a novice troop in middle age – despite having three children, no military résumé and no knowledge of Ukraine – journalists reported he was killed “while trying to evacuate women and children” as a volunteer driver. This, of course, was fake news. For media and government, however, the updated tale of Simpson and his diesel donkey was a handy plot device to get them off the hook for their mindless jingoism by proxy. A quarter of a century older than warrior prime, O’Neill was spurred on by neo-con nonsense about a “democracy” under siege for no reason.

I was therefore interested to read a more considered and sourced feature on O’Neill’s ‘service’ with Ukraine’s ‘Foreign Legion Against Russia’ in The Australian on Friday. While its author Nicholas Jensen plays his part in making the first draft of history stick – describing O’Neill as “larrikin” and “truckie-turned-legionnaire” – he does mention in passing (albeit incuriously) several new details that hollow out the myth. As if to establish extraordinary devotion, Sky News reported in May that O’Neill “usually spent up to half of the year in the Philippines with his two youngest kids.” Jensen, however, says he was driving trucks in the outback to pay off “several debts he incurred following a brief stint living in the Philippines.” Just usually? Brief stint? Debts? The mother of those children – now bereft of support, presumably – might be able to tell us more but she hasn’t been mentioned in any reports. Needless to say, she won’t be getting a widow’s pension. Traditionally, perforce, war heroes were wrenched from their families and children. They didn’t leave them in the Philippines after selling all their possessions and buying a ticket to Germany.

On arrival in Germany, O’Neill was not merely prevented from continuing on to Ukraine but was – according to his own testimony – detained by authorities and banned from entering Europe. Why? Jensen doesn’t say. Could it be that he had little money and “war tourist” written all over him? As ‘luck’ would have it, a suspiciously generous “Ukraine guy” in detention suggested he fly to the UK and enter the besieged nation from there. He even bought him the ticket. O’Neill had no intention of being an ambulanceman. Arrangements had been made to join up with the Foreign Legion and receive “close quarter training for deployment” at the Yavoriv military base. An “Australian fighter” described this outfit to Jensen: “We had murderers, rapists, drug addicts and all sorts of different types of people turning up. There was a lot of strange shit that went on.” It would only get worse. A Russian bombardment of their base in March was of such otherworldly ferocity that even survivors with extensive combat experience quit the country.

O’Neill stayed. Over the next several weeks, his battalion moved to a southern base near Rivne and was then mobilised to the absolute front line near Kharkiv, less than 5000 metres from Russia. On his first combat deployment, he was hit by mortar shrapnel during a heavy firefight near the village of Ternova on 24 May. The injuries he sustained were catastrophic. Respect to the resolute brave is usually due and I see no reason not to afford a goodly measure to the Tasmanian, but provisionally. There are shadows here – like those darkening the longer Ukraine disaster – and they should not be ignored. O’Neill’s sister said he was always “looking for a cause” but 47 year-old fathers already have one. It seems suicidal for a man to sell up and travel to a war-torn country that in January he probably couldn’t find on a map. Was Mick O’Neill a crisis era everyman dispirited by the ennui of existence without mission? Or was he a narcissist who ducked behind the wall of sound lionising Ukraine and its President to act out a Rambo fantasy? I still don’t know enough to be sure but I can say this confidently: nothing ‘reported’ about this war should be believed.

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12 Responses to The Ghost of Geeveston

  1. Petros says:

    Palaver? Spelling? Perhaps this chap thought he could redeem himself. Come back a hero. Certainly seems like odd behaviour.

  2. C.L. says:

    Palaver:
    profuse and idle talk; chatter.
    to cajole or persuade.

    Come back a hero.

    Reads like he didn’t want to come back.

  3. Riversutra says:

    Geeveston, oh Geeveston
    I still hear your sea waves crashing
    While I watch the cannons flashing
    I clean my gun
    and dream of Geeveston.

  4. cuckoo says:

    And gentlemen in Geeveston now a-bed
    Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
    And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
    That fought with us upon Saint Volodymyr’s day.

  5. Lee says:

    That’s funny; as soon as I saw the headline “Geeveston” I immediately thought of Galveston and the Glenn Campbell song.
    One of his best IMO.

  6. Jannie says:

    Its not fair to speculate on his sojourning to the Philippines and the nature of his relationship with his mother, as much as I would like to.

    But a 47 year old man with two young children has very clear responsibilities, and the first is that he works to put food on the table. If he must go away to make money, so be it, that has always been the sad lot of working men. But putting himself in harms way is irresponsible. His “wife” would have been the first to tell him that.

  7. C.L. says:

    More importantly, though, going abroad to kill people in another country’s war when you have never professed arms is, prima facie, disturbing behaviour – not Digger-like and admirable, as the Australian media insisted.

  8. Jannie says:

    Yes, CL, that does make it worse. He is not just taking unacceptable risks, he wants to kill.

  9. rosie says:

    Seems to me early on, every single mercenary in Syria was also killed delivering humanitarian aid.
    I am now conditioned to disbelief.

  10. C.L. says:

    ‘Driver’ in a foreign war seems to = ‘receptionist’ in a brothel.

  11. JC says:

    More importantly, though, going abroad to kill people in another country’s war when you have never professed arms is, prima facie, disturbing behaviour – not Digger-like and admirable, as the Australian media insisted.

    You kidding, he was a larrikin in Ukraine.

  12. Entropy says:

    Indeed JC. The headline even said so.

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