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
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.
patrolling their base camp at Bien
Hoa in 1965