Heal­ing war’s first ca­su­alty

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

ACU­RI­OUS thing has hap­pened to our mem­ory of Aus­tralia’s Viet­nam War. The bat­tles — with the ex­cep­tion of D Com­pany 6RAR’s des­per­ate stand at Long Tan — largely have been for­got­ten. In place of an un­der­stand­ing of the troops’ war­time bur­dens has grown an apologetic con­sid­er­a­tion for their treat­ment when they came home and were sup­pos­edly doused in spit and blood, and met at air­ports by demon­stra­tors wav­ing plac­ards ac­cus­ing them of rap­ing women and killing ba­bies.

Most of these sto­ries first came to light in the 1980s. With the ex­cep­tion of a 21-year-old fe­male typ­ist’s smear­ing red paint and kerosene over the lead­ers of 1RAR’s home­com­ing march through Syd­ney in 1966 (which was also at­tended by 300,000 well-wish­ers) there seem to be no con­tem­po­rary ac­counts of phys­i­cal as­saults on serv­ing soldiers. Yet many Aus­tralians si­mul­ta­ne­ously be­lieve the vet­er­ans had no wel­comehome pa­rades and that those pa­rades were jeered and the marchers at­tacked.

The depth of our ig­no­rance and mis­un­der­stand­ing is par­tic­u­larly puz­zling bear­ing in mind the metic­u­lous work that has gone into pro­duc­ing the Of­fi­cial His­tory of Aus­tralia’s In­volve­ment in South­east Asian Con­flicts, 1948-75, whose nine vol­umes com­prise a mi­nor na­tional trea­sure. The Of­fi­cial His­tory is foren­sic, com­pre­hen­sive, largely even-handed (some vol­umes more than oth­ers) and well writ­ten. Peter Ed­wards is the gen­eral edi­tor of the se­ries, and Aus­tralia in the Viet­nam War is a brief dis­til­la­tion — and mi­nor up­date — of its find­ings.

As is to be ex­pected, Ed­wards’s work is a par­a­digm of clar­ity, in­formed by a depth of learn­ing and a com­mit­ment to the truth, only very oc­ca­sion­ally ham­pered by what may be flights of wish­ful think­ing. For ex­am­ple, did “Viet­namese of all po­lit­i­cal opin­ions” re­ally, as Ed­wards as­serts, greet the 1966 es­tab­lish­ment of the Aus­tralian Task Force base at Nui Dat with ex­pres­sions of “grat­i­tude that the Aus­tralians had not been as­so­ci­ated with the in­evitable so­cial ef­fects of lo­cat­ing a force of for­eign soldiers close to the town”?

The idea that even the Viet Cong ap­pre­ci­ated this act comes from a lightly sourced piece of post­war hearsay, and points to one fail­ing of the Of­fi­cial His­tory: its con­vic­tion that ev­ery­body, even the en­emy, liked the Aus­tralians.

And the en­emy were many. Be­cause, as Ed­wards states, when the task­force ar­rived in Phuoc Toy prov­ince, the Saigon govern­ment could count on the whole­hearted sup­port of only the towns­peo­ple of Ba Ria and about 8000 Catholic refugees from the North. Most lo­cal people were di­vided be­tween tens of thou­sands of sup­port­ers of the Viet Cong and “those who were sul­lenly neu­tral” — a fact that, taken on its own, points to the ul­ti­mate im­plau­si­bil­ity of Aus­tralia’s mis­sion in Viet­nam.

Ed­wards is at his best de­liv­er­ing mag­nif­i­cently un­der­stated judg­ments, such as that the ex­ter­nal af­fairs re­spon­si­bil­ity for Antarc­tica al­lo­cated by prime min­is­ter Robert Men­zies to his once-re­moved heir John Gor­ton was “out­side the depart­ment’s cen­tral con­cerns”.

The grad­ual pub­li­ca­tion of a care­ful, re­strained Of­fi­cial His­tory has been ac­com­pa­nied by a some­times par­a­sitic rise of hy­per­bolic un­of­fi­cial his­to­ries and ghosted mem­oirs, of­ten in- clud­ing strong el­e­ments of what might have been called “trench mythol­ogy” in ear­lier wars. Depend­ing on the pol­i­tics of the au­thors, they ei­ther prop­a­gate the idea that the na­tional ser­vice scheme was broadly hated, the con­scrip­tion bal­lot cor­rupt and the de­fence poli­cies of the 1960s non­sen­si­cal; or else en­dorse a se­ries of par­tially in­vented events such as a post-of­fice strike aimed specif­i­cally at the troops, the dis­cov­ery of med­i­cal sup­plies from Monash Univer­sity on the bod­ies of dead Viet Cong, and an Aus­tralian with­drawal forced on the army by street-fight­ing Aus­tralian stu­dents abet­ted by a treach­er­ous lib­eral me­dia. Some of the more in­choate works man­age to in­cor­po­rate all these themes si­mul­ta­ne­ously.

In Aus­tralia and the Viet­nam War, Ed­wards qui­etly lays waste to many of the myths. He shows that the “domino the­ory”, eas­ily mocked, was a sim­ple, log­i­cal for­mu­la­tion held by com­mu­nists and anti-com­mu­nists that main­tained that a suc­cess­ful revo­lu­tion would breed im­i­ta­tors on its borders. How­ever, he also il­lus­trates how the the­ory’s (al­ways doubt­ful) rel­e­vance to Aus­tralia dis­ap­peared with the mas­sacre of hun­dreds of thou­sands of real and al­leged In­done­sian com­mu­nists and their sup­port­ers in 1966. The In­done­sian domino had top­pled side­ways, like a bar­ri­cade built from the bones of a half-mil­lion mur­der vic­tims, and there was no longer even a dis­tant pos­si­bil­ity that com­mu­nism would march south to Aus­tralia.

But the con­cept of for­ward de­fence — that Aus­tralia should meet its per­ceived en­e­mies far from her own borders — was not ab­surd given the diplo­matic re­al­ity of the times. The de­bate over whether Ho Chi Minh was a na­tion­al­ist or a com­mu­nist was mean­ing­less since he was clearly both. The Aus­tralian anti-war move­ment played lit­tle part in end­ing Aus­tralia’s war. Na­tional ser­vice, while strongly re­sisted by a mi­nor­ity, re­mained pop­u­lar with many oth­ers. As Ed­wards points out, in 1970-71, when Aus­tralia’s com­mit­ment to Viet­nam had be­come a po­lit­i­cal li­a­bil­ity, about 750 other­wise in­el­i­gi­ble men vol­un­teered for na­tional ser­vice, while only 62 con­scripted cit­i­zens failed to re­port.

As for the tales of whole­sale re­jec­tion and at­tacks on the vet­er­ans, so beloved by jour­nal­ists and folk his­to­ri­ans, which have been al­lowed to cloud our un­der­stand­ing of what re­ally hap­pened, at home and in Viet­nam, Ed­wards con­cludes “many of these sto­ries may have been ex­ag­ger­ated or im­ported from the Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence … Of the 16 bat­tal­ions who served one-year tours, 15 re­ceived wel­come-home marches, with the last be­ing as wel­com­ing as the first.”

Aus­tralia and the Viet­nam War is an ex­tremely valu­able short book that makes ac­ces­si­ble most of the con­clu­sions of the hefty, slightly for­bid­ding Of­fi­cial His­tory. Al­most half of its pages are de­voted to the po­lit­i­cal, mil­i­tary and diplo­matic back­ground to Aus­tralia’s in­creas­ing com­mit­ment of troops to Viet­nam, with­out which sub­se­quent events can’t be fully un­der­stood. But, de­spite its cover pho­to­graph of armed in­fantry on a jun­gle pa­trol, Aus­tralia and the Viet­nam War doesn’t claim to ad­dress the daily ex­pe­ri­ences of or­di­nary soldiers in the task­force.

Aus­tralian troops home from fight­ing in the Viet­nam War march in Syd­ney in 1971

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