This book has been a long time coming.
It provides vindication for surviving Vietnam veterans, although a bit late for the 500 who didn't come back, and those who have died since.
It was commissioned by the Australian War Memorial under Brendan Nelson's sponsorship and offers a riposte to the Evatt Commission and its findings.
That Commission, which pitted volunteer Vietnam veterans against highly paid silks, came to a set of conclusions that treated veterans as disposable political collateral. That set of conclusions has been well and truly eviscerated by Yule's comprehensive and patient research.
The health outcomes for Vietnam veterans post-conflict are stark.
Of the 60,000 troops who went to Vietnam, 74.7% are classified by the Department of Veterans Affairs as suffering from some form of service-related health impact. These include physical disability, health problems related to chemical exposure and varying degrees of psychological trauma. The 3,129 who were severely injured suffer the resulting long-term effects. Many more were subject to less severe but still debilitating injuries such as hearing loss, which affects around a third of all Vietnam Veterans today.
What made Vietnam different was that it was the first conflict that saw the widespread use of herbicides such as the defoliant Agent Orange. Exposure has been linked to cancers, fertility issues, and birth defects. An extensive 2005 study by the Department of Veteran Affairs found that male Vietnam veterans have an increased cancer rate overall, including significantly higher rates of Hodgkin’s disease – explicitly linked to herbicides – as well as prostate and various other cancers.
A connection has also been established between service in Vietnam and higher rates of skin and lung cancer which can be put down to higher rates of sun exposure and smoking.
The long-term impacts of non-combat chemicals such as DDT, now banned in Australia due to their potentially carcinogenic properties; and the use of Dapsone as an anti-malarial drug, which has been linked to circulatory and digestive disorders are still not completely understood.
Also not yet well understood are the intergenerational impacts of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but it seems that the consequences of this conflict may be felt by generations to come.
The Evatt Commission plagiarised huge slices of the evidence of chemical companies and used them on the floor of the Commission. Veteran witnesses at the time believed they were deliberately intimidated and completely disadvantaged by the legal representation.
Dr. Yule interviewed many veterans, and their voices can be heard through the pages of his book. His approach is compassionate, fearless, and meticulous. The extensive bibliography, notes, and indices are evidence of the work he put into his research and the deep understanding of veterans he developed in the course of this project.
It was gratifying to note the half dozen citations from my memoir. There's plenty out there, and Peter Yule has obviously read them all.
He contextualises the war in Vietnam across conflicts going back as far as the Romans, the Medieval wars, the Napoleonic era, and the American Civil War. He describes the impact of industrialised warfare on soldiers during the First World War, and the beginnings of the understandings of the effects of psychological trauma.
He outlines the institutionalisation of repatriation in Australia after the first World War and traces the development of policy and practice in the area. He compares and contrasts the Australian experience of war in Vietnam with other conflicts, and points out how factors such as exhaustion, sleep deprivation, and the lack of a front line were particularly impactful. The lack of a front line meant that there was no safe place, even for those behind the wire. For those outside the wire, there was simply no respite from deadly threat. Survival depended on hypervigilance. When living with this hypervigilance across a ten-week operation, it became an ingrained habit that persisted even when the threat was no longer a reality.
His description of the ten-plus years of relative silence post the Australian withdrawal in 1972, and the fall of Saigon in 1975 lead the reader into a very comprehensive treatment of the Agent Orange controversy and ultimately the Evatt Commission. Yule is especially critical of F.B. Smith's official history. Smith seems to have made up his mind that the veterans were simply in pursuit of financial benefit, and wrote his account with that notion as the only consideration. The fact that recent research, including a number of morbidity studies, have largely vindicated the claims of the veterans has exposed Smith's bias.
We are grateful to the War Memorial Council and to Dr. Brendan Nelson for this opportunity to correct this long-standing blight on the reputation of Phil Thompson and his team of campaigning Vietnam veterans and to correct the long-standing misinformation on the veterans’ case before the Agent Orange Royal Commission.
The title of the last chapter of Yule's book is War Without Purpose, War Without End.
He closes the book with a quote from veteran Graham Chandler -
I've nothing to hide. I'm proud of what I did. I'm proud of the mates I was with.
Most veterans would echo this, and it is this truth-telling about the war and its aftermath that is so important.
Peter Yule has eloquently exposed the truth of the experience of Vietnam veterans during the last fifty years, and hopefully, this truth will be the last step to the final reconciliation of these men with the community that sent them to war, but initially rejected them when they came home.
Included in this review is the youtube video of the book's launch, which had to be conducted remotely because of the pandemic.
Buy the book, or search it out in the library, especially if you're a friend or family of a Vietnam veteran. It's a great read, and it may help you understand him better.