Healing war’s first casualty
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