For the first few years after the Australian withdrawal from Vietnam, very little appeared on the local literary scene which referenced the war, and what did emerge was bitter in tone. The fall of Saigon, five days after ANZAC Day in 1975 seemed to reinforce the message that the war was a debacle, best forgotten. For many Vietnam veterans this event compounded the moral injury they had suffered on returning to Australia to be met with indifference by most, and hostility by some.
This very negative view of the aftermath is probably best captured by Stuart Rintoul’s Ashes of Vietnam which was published in 1987. This is a compendium of anecdotes by Vietnam veterans collected by Rintoul as interviews, which were initially broadcast by the ABC before being compiled in his book. The stories are almost exclusively stark, and very few of them are positive. Apart from conveying the reality of the conflict from the point of view of those who fought it, they reflect the attitude of many Australians towards the soldiers who felt rejected on return. How much of this was in the eye of the beholder (in this case Rintoul) and how much was reality is open to debate.
Normie Rowe, the entertainer, was interviewed by Rintoul –
When I came back, I did one concert, realised that it was all wrong — I looked around, felt uncomfortable, like I was on a different planet. I didn't know what to do on stage. For a long time, I didn't want to think about Vietnam, because the rest of the population of Australia didn't want to think about it. I said, 'That was two years out of my life, I don't want to know about it anymore’.
After an interval, however, a literary genre began to emerge which was largely a product of the experience of the soldiers, both national servicemen and regulars. It most often took the form of memoir, although several veteran-authored newspaper articles began to appear, usually around significant events, such as ANZAC Day, or the Long Tan battle anniversary.
One such newspaper piece was written by Graeme Cornes, a conscript who served in 7th battalion RAR in 1970. Cornes, a successful AFL footballer, was something of a celebrity when called up. He went on post-Vietnam to coach the Adelaide Crows and forged a successful media career.
He writes in the context of returning to Vietnam for the first time since his service –
When I was a soldier in Vietnam, and in the 39 years since, I never once doubted that we were doing the right thing by coming here. Perhaps that is the effect of the brainwashing that is military training, but we thought we were the best soldiers in the world, protecting an oppressed, terrorised country from Communist insurgency. We were wrong on both counts……
Sure, there is some anger that our casualties were for nothing, but I don't know who to blame for that. However, I simply did not expect to be overwhelmed with guilt, or to have such vivid memories of the violence, only the milder forms of which have been recorded here.
In their developing, recovering country, the Vietnamese are a united, industrious, optimistic people. More importantly, they have one other great quality: they are forgiving. They shame me.
The themes of shame, regret, and futility are characteristic of memoirs written by other national servicemen. Brian Hennessey, who was originally a teacher and worked as a special school principal until he succumbed to the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, writes in his 1997 memoir The Sharp End –
I should let matters rest now, but I can’t. I keep trying to end this war, but it still rages. And sometimes when I’m off the air, I reconstruct traumatic events that occurred all those years ago in an effort to come to terms with their reality, searching for some special insight that might reveal itself if I go over them one more time. It’s a futile exercise, because these events stand as they are in frozen fruitless indifference.
Hennessey eventually overcame his PTSD by challenging himself to set up a successful consultancy business in China.
Guilt also emerges as a theme in a memoir by Barry Heard, Well Done Those Men -
Today I feel no bitterness, only sadness, as I move amongst my veteran friends and see their depression, poor health, isolation, and struggles. They now have opportunities to improve their lot and are well catered for by governments. But, for many, the guilt remains. They are not like the Second World War veterans I saw as a youngster on those wonderful ANZAC days. I believe, for many Vietnam Veterans, nothing will make them feel deserving enough.
Even a professional soldier who served with distinction expresses regret –
My concern is simple. Regardless of the political and ethical considerations of whether a war should have been fought by foreign troops on the soil of Vietnam (that will always be a matter of endless debate), I remember with sadness that over 500 Australians were killed in that war and many more wounded and maimed; over 50,000 Americans lost their lives.
And we left. And we lost. We mustn't do that with our men and women. Sending troops to war is without doubt the most difficult and agonising decision for any leader.
My advice to leaders is never to take the decision lightly and, having done so, never to stop until the outcome is worth the cost.
It is abundantly clear that the tone of the memoirs written by the national servicemen does not mesh well with the stereotype of the Australian digger as represented in the ANZAC myth.
The laconic confident self-assured image had given way to something very different. The national psyche had shifted a great deal between 1964 and 1972.