Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Setting the Record Straight

Embarking - Feb 1970

Regular readers will perhaps remember this post about the ANZAC Day Commemoration Committee website.

You'll recall that I took exception to the statement that "every National Serviceman who served in Vietnam was effectively a volunteer".

This did not accord with my memory, and the "every" reference was frankly bullshit.

More fascinating was the reason for promoting this myth. My belief is that it is was a convenient rationalisation in an attempt to make our dodgy commitment in Vietnam somehow line up with the ANZAC myth.

Now I'm a pig-headed old curmudgeon, so I decided I'd have another go at asking the Committee to correct the record on the website. 

I emailed, as I had before, but this time followed the email up with a phone call.  I used this strategy  when I was a school principal dealing with bureaucracy. It almost always worked.

The person who answered the phone was, I think, a receptionist, but she obviously passed my concerns on to those in the committee who have the power to amend the website.

Yesterday, this email arrived -   

Dear Mr ******

Further to my correspondence of 26 July, I wish to advise that the statement on our website concerning the “generally voluntary” nature of the service by National Servicemen in Vietnam has been removed. After further consultation and research I concluded that the evidence presented by Mark Dapin in his book on Vietnam appears to be the most definitive presented on the subject and that the statements presented on our website appear to be erroneous – certainly in the experience of most Nashos.

Again, I apologise for any unintended offence or umbrage our website may have caused you or others. I appreciate you communicating your concern.


Colonel David Smith AM (Retd)
Hon President
ADCC (Qld)

This was gratifying. I'm glad that the primary website used by schools to develop teaching units about ANZAC Day is now promoting fact rather than myth.

The original email I sent reads thus -

Subject: Myths about Vietnam - please acknowledge

Dear Sir

I draw your attention to this statement on your website – https://anzacday.org.au/tackling-some-myths-and-misunderstandings-of-the-vietnam-war

After their initial training all recruits were allocated to a Corps (branch of the Army, eg Infantry, Artillery) for specialised training, and were then sent to particular units. If the unit was scheduled to be sent to Vietnam, the soldiers were generally given the chance to avoid transfer elsewhere. The Army's rationale was that in combat every man had to be able to rely totally on his mates, and any reluctant soldiers would endanger the whole group.

This statement is untrue, and should be removed from your website. I discovered it when, as a Vietnam Veteran, I was preparing an address to students at my old school, Downlands College (Toowoomba). My address was dedicated to Francis Topp, a friend I knew from my time at the school who was killed in the battle of Long Tan. I was seeking an accurate account of Australia’s history in Vietnam. 

I served as a conscript, in 7th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment in its second tour of duty in South Vietnam in 1970.  I have no memory of being given a choice. There has been a myth circulated. It goes like this – prior to embarkation, a unit parade of National Servicemen would be called and those who did not want to serve in Vietnam would be asked to take one pace forward. If they did so, they would be marched out to join a unit not warned for Vietnam service.

The Nashos I served with, although they had heard this account, vowed that it had never happened to them. I have searched infantry battalion records held on-line at the AWM. Every parade, including those held prior to embarkation, was recorded for every infantry unit - https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/RCDIG1029063/

Nowhere is there a record of such a parade. I gave up after looking through the parade records of four of the nine battalions in existence at the time. It was an entirely fruitless search.

This is hardly surprising. If these parades had been held, the Commanding Officer of the unit in question would have been in breach of the National Service Act - https://www.legislation.gov.au/Details/C1965A00052

Perhaps there were “unofficial” parades mounted by some units – but to say that the soldiers were “generally” given the chance to avoid service in Vietnam is at least misleading, and at most a lie.

“Generally” means “mostly”, or perhaps, “more often than not”, or perhaps that it was common practice. This contention is simply not supported by the available historical evidence. It certainly doesn’t sit with my experience, or that of the many Nashos I have discussed the issue with down through the years. It is also debunked in Mark Dapin’s Vietnam, The Nashos War – https://penguin.com.au/books/the-nashos-war-australias-national-servicemen-and-vietnam-97806700

It has no place on a website used by schools to educate young Australians about our proud military history. As a school principal for many years before retirement, I understand the difference between indoctrination and education.

The reason for this variation from the reality and the insertion of it in a resource intended for school use is, I believe, caught up in the Anzac myth. The notion of noble sacrifice doesn’t sit well with conscription, so conscripts become “volunteers”. It adds a layer of sweetening to help the harsh medicine go down.

Until we embrace the reality of our history, warts and all, our nation will not develop beyond its adolescence. That reality saw Australian conscripts killed in Vietnam. I saw a couple of them die.

To deny that truth dishonours those men. It assumes that there was a distinction in the field between Nashos and volunteers, and that the service of Nashos was somehow less honourable because they did not volunteer.

Why else would the myth seek to convert us to volunteers?

When it come to the Anzac myth, it’s time we grew up and confronted the reality of war in all its ugliness. Truth and remembrance go hand in hand.

I am therefore respectfully asking you to edit your website and amend it to reflect the facts of history. Simply remove that offending statement.

To do otherwise would be to disrespect my service, and those Nashos I served with. We were not volunteers, but we were good soldiers. We made the most of what life presented us, and did our duty.

Respect us with the facts.

Yours in remembrance.


Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Simply Shameful

The recent report of the Queensland coroner into the death of Hamid Khazaei has resurrected the debate about our asylum seeker policy and practices.

It’s pretty clear that his death was avoidable, and the outcome of decisions where politics trumped sensible medical recommendations. Perhaps it’s time for the people who made those decisions to be brought to account. I won’t hold my breath….

What has also become clear, is that despite the constant repetition of the myth that we “stopped the boats”, the truth lies somewhere else. The boats have not stopped. They have continued to leave Indonesia. 

Generally, we don’t hear about it, because information about “on-water” operations is censored, but the following facts are relevant –

33 boats and 771 people have been turned back since September 2013 under Operation Sovereign Borders. The last boat turned around was in June 2018, but the number of people it contained is not reported.

The fact of the matter is that banging asylum seekers up in offshore gulags hasn’t stopped desperate people from getting on boats. They don’t get to Australian waters, apparently, and we don’t really know what happens to them.

There are exceptions - most recently some Vietnamese, who are treated very differently now from the way they were resettled in the late 70s and early 80s.

The boys in blue on our patrol boats are doing a good job (again, apparently – we don’t know for sure), but they can stop arrivals, not departures.

Offshore detention was supposed to do that (stop departures). It hasn’t.

In the meantime, over a thousand people are detained in what can only be described as concentration camps, and we are in breach of many of the international agreements that we have signed. They are there, we are told, to send a message to those seeking asylum by boat. By imprisoning them indefinitely, we are told that no more people, no matter how desperate, will take to boats.

Except the message hasn't got through, so why are they still there?

The “policy” if you want to call it that, is simply a political wedge. The collateral in that wedge is about 1300 human beings, some of whom have been imprisoned for more than five years, and all of whom have no idea of their future.

As an ex-conscript, I know what it feels like to be political collateral, and what is being perpetrated on those asylum seekers is simply shameful. 

It’s time they were moved to the Australian mainland.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018


Palacio de Valle in Cienfuegos
I've been home from Cuba for a couple of days, long enough for impressions to solidify.

It's a country unlike any other I've ever visited. I was expecting similarities between Vietnam and Cuba, given that they are both societies dealing with the withdrawal of support from Soviet Russia when the wall fell.

Indeed there are similarities, but the differences are more consequential than the similarities.

Music is everywhere
Both are nominally Communist states, but the way they operate is very different.

In Vietnam, I saw entrepreneurship. I didn't see that in Cuba. In Vietnam I saw energetic competition. I saw none of that in Cuba. Both exhibit strong nationalistic values, but the Cubans are more laid back about it than the Vietnamese.

The differences consolidate for me the belief that the mantle of Marxism rests more gently on Vietnam than it does on Cuba, and that independence was the critical issue for Vietnam, but for Cuba, the issue was revolution.

Che Guevara's house
Indeed, both are fiercely independent nations, but what the respective pasts they separated themselves from is different. The Vietnamese were weary of decades of invading armies, whereas Cuba was subject to a different kind of invasion - essentially economic.

Unfortunately for Cuba, the control of the state over enterprise has stifled many opportunities, especially around tourism. The Vietnamese on the other hand have exploited tourism.

There has not been the equivalent of Doi Moi in Cuba. The locals rate the pope's visit in 2015 as the most significant recent event that began to open the country to economic progress. They talk about back channel approaches to the US administration.

Many believe these alleged approaches from the Vatican set up Obama's visit in 2016.

They will tell you that for a short while after Obama's visit, there were changes, but now the status quo has returned.

Trump has his Florida base to think about.

Whatever. Cuba is a fascinating travel destination. It is safe, comparatively cheap, and the blend of architecture, music, food and history is irresistible.

Then there are the cars - but that's another story.


Tuesday, 17 July 2018

The Wall

Visiting the Vietnam Veteran’s wall in Washington DC has been on my bucket list ever since it was built.

The concept was a master stroke of simplicity.

It was built in remembrance of the 58000 plus US service personnel who lost their lives during the war. What more fitting way to honour them than to simply write their names in stone. The fact that there were so many creates the scale of the memorial.

For me, it was the scale that was impactful. It’s simply staggering, and frankly overwhelming.

Any veteran not moved by this tribute is made of stone. I encountered a three tour marine who had been stationed in Phuoc Tuy, so we had a small something in common.

He said, through tears, as we parted - “What a waste!”

I had to agree with him.

Because Vietnam was such a divisive conflict, any memorial needed to be quarantined from the division. The stark simplicity of a list of names does this so well.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

9/11 Revisited

Most of us can remember where we were and what we were doing on September 11th 2001.

I’m no exception, and recall watching the television coverage until the early hours of the morning. To visit the site of the event which shaped the beginning of the twenty first century was impactful.

The museum that has been built to commemorate the event is an amazing example of the cooperation of many agencies, and its presentation and interpretation of the 9/11 story is mind boggling.

It also serves as a memorial to the 2977 people who were killed and the more than 6000 who were injured.

It’s also a remarkable piece of engineering. The new One World Trade Centre that replaced the twin towers is a spectacular example of contemporary architecture.

I was surprised to run into an Australian working as a volunteer. His accent gave him away.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Last of the Jumbos

This dear reader, is the fifteen year old 747-400 which got us to the big Apple. Excuse the pole in the middle. It was the best I could do.  Registration is VH-OEF.

 It is difficult to photograph an aircraft when you’re sitting in it.

Our plane was one of the four (I think) 747s remaining in Qantas colours. They are being phased out in favour of 787 Dreamliners, but frankly, I was OK with the big bird. Our plane was roomy, refurbished, and comfortable. Surprisingly, it also wasn’t full, and we had empty seats in our row.

It also had state of the art in-flight entertainment which occasionally reset itself. Mostly it was great, with heaps of late run movies.

This is a bad pic of the range of entertainment options.

Qantas tucker is OK. This is lunch (Cuban beef) with mashed potato.

And this was breakfast. Long distance air travel is probably the closest human experience to that of a battery hen....

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Brisbane International Musings

This, gentle reader, is not our aircraft.

Our aircraft is a 747. This is an Airbus A330 which is parked on the Qantas flight line where our plane should be.
Our plane is westbound somewhere over the Pacific, running two plus hours late.

Let’s hope the hotel in the big Apple has 24 hour check in. We will be getting there somewhere around 3am tomorrow.
Or is that today?

The time zones do my head in.

This is a great terminal, and the Qantas staff very helpful.

The face scanner threw a  hissy fit when I rocked up. I know I’m ugly, but this was ridiculous.

 I had to front a real human being who compared my passport photo with me.

It was me.

Apparently the technology has problems with beard colour. It doesn’t like grey. If I had known that, I would have dyed it in the interests of efficiency.

Now it’s hurry up and wait. Reminds me of the army.......

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