During the long drive home from four days in Canberra, I've had time, gentle reader, to reflect.
I found what I'd been looking for in the AWM research centre on the first day, so had time to spend visiting the Vietnam display, and the rest of the memorial. It is a sobering experience.
Chatting with one of the very helpful staff, a bloke about my vintage with some service up his sleeve, we agreed on many things, including the wasted sacrifice of so many young Australians in that bitter and most divisive conflict.
This got me thinking, on the two day drive, about that residual bitterness, and what can be done now, fifty years down the track, to heal it.
We can look at conflict, resolution, and truth and reconciliation, for a way forward. Along with reconciliation comes acknowledgement of the truth. There are a few undisputed truths about our commitment of troops to Vietnam in the mid sixties.
They include the following.
The rationale for enlarging the size of the Australian army at the time grew more from fear of nationalistic Indonesian expansionism than it did from the threat of Communism, expressed through the Domino theory. Once the Indonesian threat had evaporated it was a relatively straightforward step to transfer the perception of a threat from the north to the Indochinese theatre. Vietnam was the first and only conflict in our military history when Australians were conscripted to fight in peacetime on foreign soil in an undeclared war, and when there was no direct existential threat to the Australian mainland.
The military deployment was successfully pursued as a political strategy first by Menzies, and subsequently by successive Coalition Prime Ministers from Holt to McMahon. Gorton's heart was never in it, perhaps as a consequence of his own wartime experience, and he was the leader who announced the beginning of our withdrawal. By the time McMahon was on the scene, the Australian people were well and truly divided. Support for our commitment was lukewarm, and opposition, as expressed most clearly by the Moratorium marches, was strengthening.
The withdrawal began, after Gorton's announcement, on same the day (22nd April 1970) when my sub-unit had its most noteworthy contact with a bunker system, resulting in one KIA and two WIA. One soldier had already died from heat exhaustion one day prior to this incident.
Thus began the process, first of selling this withdrawal as a noble strategy to the Australian electorate, and then ignoring the whole Vietnam episode as unfortunate history after the election of the Labor government in 1972, and the fall of Saigon in 1975.
The casualties of this whitewashing of history, in which both sides of politics were complicit, were those who had served, some willingly, and some otherwise, during the period of the Australian commitment. Vietnam veterans were relegated to the back pages of history as political collateral. This relegation has for years, been the source of bitterness, and will remain so, without meaningful intervention, until the last of these veterans are gone.
This is despite the Welcome Home march in 1987, and the acceptance by the broader ex-service community of Vietnam veterans as worthy of the ANZAC legend. It is worth remembering that the Welcome Home march was an outcome of a determination of the veterans themselves to be acknowledged, and not an initiative that came from our political leadership.
There remains a need for our political leaders who made the decision to involve us in that conflict and its sad aftermath to reconcile with the diminishing cohort of veterans of that conflict.
Two sources of bitterness remain. The first relates to those who believed, at the time, in the cause, and were abused when they returned. The second group constitutes men, mostly conscripts, who went along with call up, as that was the law of the land at the time, but were also abused on RTA by those who opposed the war.
The New Zealanders, as they often do, have offered us a precedent. Their Crown apology was offered in May 2008, and it is worth remembering that all Kiwis who served in Vietnam were volunteers. John Howard offered a form of apology in 2006, but it scarcely raised a ripple in national media, and was restricted to concerns about treatment of veterans after the war. The opposition at the time had a letter from Graham Edwards read into Hansard, which was a fitting gesture, but neither side of politics has ever issued a full blown and unequivocal apology.
Such an apology needs to have two strands to meaningfully address two grievances.
The first refers to the treatment of returning soldiers by those who opposed the commitment, and should be made by the leader of the Labor party, whether in opposition or government, as Labor's opposition to deployment was misinterpreted by many of its supporters as rejection of the soldiers involved, irrespective of whether they were volunteers or conscripts.
The second apology should be made by the leader of the Coalition parties responsible for the decision to deploy, and should be directed towards all veterans, whether volunteers or conscripts, as both suffered the consequences, and continue to do so.
For these and their families, it is not too late.