Bat­tle scars we carry into this century

When it comes to lessons for 21st-century Aus­tralia, the Viet­nam War is more rel­e­vant than the world war of 100 years ago, ar­gues

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in­con­ceiv­able that, once com­mit­ted to war, the US could lose. Men­zies had been a young man form­ing his views of the world when the US fi­nally en­tered World War I in 1917. He had been prime min­is­ter from 1939 to 1941, when Bri­tain and its do­min­ions stood vir­tu­ally alone against fas­cism. Be­fore Pearl Har­bor, the out­come of the war was in grave doubt; as soon as the Amer­i­cans were en­gaged, vic­tory was cer­tain. It is not sur­pris­ing that he should have thought that get­ting the US to fight was all that mat­tered. In the 1960s, who could imag­ine that the global su­per­power would be hum­bled by a peas­ant na­tion in South­east Asia?

In any case, the much crit­i­cised ‘‘in­sur­ance pol­icy’’ now seems to have bi­par­ti­san sup­port. Few in the 1970s and 80s would have en­vis­aged a fu­ture La­bor prime min­is­ter, when first vis­it­ing the White House, would an­nounce that Aus­tralia would do­nate mil­lions of dol­lars of tax­pay­ers’ money to insert an Aus­tralian el­e­ment into a prom­i­nent Viet­nam me­mo­rial in Wash­ing­ton, to re­mind Amer­i­cans they had a loyal ally in that most con­tro­ver­sial of con­flicts. Yet that is pre­cisely what Ju­lia Gil­lard did in 2011, and it passed al­most with­out com­ment. All Aus­tralian prime min­is­ters, it seems, are ea­ger to stand be­side the US pres­i­dent and say their two na­tions have fought to­gether in ev­ery ma­jor war of the 20th-century.

But this is not to say that Amer­ica and Aus­tralia came to be in Viet­nam for the same rea­sons. Fredrik Lo­gevall’s Em­bers of War (2013) looks closely at the way in which Wash­ing­ton turned from the anti-colo­nial­ism of Franklin D. Roo­sevelt first to sup­port France’s colo­nial war in In­dochina, then to present it­self as the prin­ci­pal op­po­nent of the Viet­namese Com­mu­nist Jewish brand of na­tion­al­ism” — and the idol­i­sa­tion of Is­rael (“each ses­sion [at the youth group] be­gan with the singing of the Is­raeli na­tional an­them”). There were times when Ep­stein and his Jewish friends were “high on Zion­ism” and he has “vivid, emo­tional mem­o­ries of an­i­mated late-night con­ver­sa­tions about the pre­cise path to a life lived to its po­ten­tial, prefer­ably in Is­rael”.

These are im­por­tant in­sights into the mi­lieu in which Zy­gier thrived. One no­table ab­sence in Pris­oner X, how­ever, is any real dis­cus­sion about how these re­al­i­ties have cre­ated gen­er­a­tions of Jews with a mind­set that backs hard­line Is­raeli na­tion­al­ism and West Bank colonies. It’s surely vi­tal to de­con­struct why many Jews across the Di­as­pora have these per­spec­tives. Ep­stein’s book could have ex­am­ined them in more de­tail be­cause Zy­gier would not have been as com­mit­ted to the Jewish state if suc­ces­sive Zion­ist lead­ers and their fol­low­ers hadn’t wanted young Jews to al­most ig­nore Pales­tini­ans.

Piec­ing to­gether Zy­gier’s life is a tough ask.

Aus­tralian soldiers

pa­trolling their base camp at Bien

Hoa in 1965

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