Monday, 23 April 2018

A Poor Fit

Destroyed bridge - Song Rai - March 1970

Wednesday is ANZAC Day.

As usual, I'll be marching. I march to remember and honor the men I served with in Vietnam.

There is for me, a very poor match between my service in Vietnam, and the ANZAC story. With the wonderful hindsight that history provides, we understand now the political deception and sad futility that was characteristic of that conflict..

To state that - to put it out there - does not dishonour the diggers. They did their duty, and we owe them.

We also owe my father who fought in the RAAF in the New Guinea campaign, and my great uncle Clarrie, who served in France in WW1, and every other digger who enlisted or was conscripted.

It seems that there's a set of public statements about ANZAC Day that are acceptable, and anything not PC or departing from that creates outrage. Just ask Yassmin Abdel-Magied.

I'll take that risk, gentle reader. I'll make some non-PC comments, and to hell with the outrage.

After I returned from Vietnam, it was fifteen years before I marched on ANZAC Day. The first time was in 1985 only because I felt I owed a gesture of respect and thanks to the local RSL, who had donated $500 to my school. I was the principal of a Special School at the time.

I'm still not sure how they knew I had fought in Vietnam, as I had worked hard to keep it quiet. Being identified as a Vietnam veteran before the Welcome Home march in 1987 was not necessarily a good thing. 

Looking back, apart from avoiding the persisting public rejection and disregard of Vietnam veterans which pretty much began to evaporate in 1987, I hadn't marched because I felt my experience in Vietnam had very little to do with ANZAC Day. I still feel the same, but marching these days gives me the opportunity to share something with fellow ex-servicemen and women. Long Tan day (August 16th) has greater significance for me than ANZAC Day.

What we share on these days is difficult to put into words, but it revolves around mateship, compassion and pride. We were fighting for each other. The bond that develops around this shared experience is uniquely strong.

When you look at the ANZAC myth, and compare it with the reality that was Vietnam, I reckon my early misgivings were justified.

In the first place, I was a conscript. The ANZAC myth doesn't fit well with conscription.

I was a soldier not because I was sacrificing everything for Queen and Country, but because it was a better option than being jailed - hardly a noble motivation. If I had resisted my call-up, I would have fronted a magistrate and probably spent the next couple of years in Boggo Road. As a beginning teacher at the time, that would not have been a good career move. Teaching was incompatible with a criminal record.

Reality - poster - WW2
Rhetoric - poster - Vietnam

Our country was at peace at the time of my service. Unlike during WW2, there was no existential threat. There was no Imperial force at our doorstep. Darwin hadn't been bombed.

The relatively recent experience of WW2 was, however, cynically exploited by the politicians of the time. They needed those DLP preferences to hold on to power. Echoes of the "Yellow Peril" rhetoric used under threat of Japanese invasion were carefully resurrected during the Vietnam era. After all, the Vietnamese and Japanese were Asian. For the fearful and pig ignorant - that was enough.

Fighting in peacetime when there is no existential threat is not a good fit with the ANZAC myth.

Like it or not, I was part of an army of occupation. We were "invited" to participate only after the corrupt South Vietnamese government was pressured by our government at the time to do so. The ANZAC myth promotes the notion that we were fighting for freedom. The Australian people were sold that narrative in reference to Vietnam. 

I question that. I doubt very much that most Vietnamese at the time welcomed us. Given their history of resisting in sequence, the Japanese, the French and the Americans, welcoming Uc Da Lois would have been an historical aberration. All the Vietnamese wanted, after forty years of conflict, was peace.

Diggers in Vietnam maintained the ANZAC tradition in terms of how they conducted themselves. The same can't be said of our political leadership at the time - reference the poster displayed on the right above.

The ANZAC myth is rich with references to throwing out occupying armies, especially during the Pacific campaign. Along with most of SE Asia,  the Japanese occupied Vietnam for a while. Ironically, twenty years later, so did we. I wonder how that sits with the ANZAC story?

And of course, Vietnam became a lost cause. Mind you, so was Gallipoli, but at least the young men who fought so well during Churchill's excellent adventure, were volunteers. It's worth noting with the celebration of the centenary, the mythological attention seems to be morphing away from Gallipoli and towards the Western front. The myth is obviously malleable.

Not only is the myth malleable; it is also corruptible. A few years ago, I was asked to deliver an ANZAC Day address at my old high school. I researched the task thoroughly. After all, as a teacher, I wanted to deliver something engaging, but most importantly, historically accurate.

To my amazement, when I visited the ANZAC Day commemoration website, I discovered that I had actually volunteered to fight in Vietnam. This did not sit well with my recollection, nor, as it happens, with the National Service Act.

I phoned the Commemoration Committee number as advertised on their website, and was told that my memory was wrong, and that every Nasho who served in Vietnam was given the chance to escape service in Vietnam in what were called "opt-out" parades. 

I found that revelation amazing, as I was never present at an "opt-out" parade. When I asked the men from my rifle section if they had participated in such a parade, their memories concurred with mine. Perhaps my unit (7 RAR) was exceptional?

I then went to the AWM website and checked the record. If you have enough time and motivation, every CO's parade is recorded and you can check the detail. No "opt-out" parades were recorded for my unit in the six months prior to embarkation, so I began to check other Infantry units.

After many hours, and much frustrating searching, I found no reference to such parades and gave up.

Subsequently, Mark Dapin's work which has debunked so many romantic generalisations has clarified the range of experiences of Nashos. What he has written has pretty much confirmed my recollection, but there are diehards who continue to maintain the opt-out myth. The Commemoration Committee has not corrected the record.

The campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan sit better with ANZAC than Vietnam, as do the various peacekeeping actions, mainly because ADF members were volunteers. Iraq is a stretch. The invasion of Iraq was justified by a lie after all, but that does not diminish the sacrifice of the diggers. 

In summary, our involvement in Vietnam has four characteristics at odds with the ANZAC myth. 

We were part of an army of occupation.

It was peacetime.

Many of us were conscripts.

Vietnam was foreign soil.

Admittedly, some of the other conflicts had elements of these characteristics, but all of them?

Vietnam was a sad anomaly.

It's worth acknowledging that the Chocos who fought so well on the Kokoda track were also conscripts, but they were fighting in Australian mandated territory. Vietnam was not that. 

By the time I was there, victory was a lost cause, a reality that the US administration knew and understood, even as they continued to send conscripts to fight and die. You could be charitable and believe that our government at the time was not aware of the import of the Pentagon papers, but a call-up that avoided political blowback by taking a small proportion of young men was far from charitable.

None of these four exceptional factors characterising the Vietnam conflict sit well with the myth of noble self-sacrifice, or with the Australian experience of other wars.  

So I will continue to march, but but I will do so as as a mark of respect towards my fellow ex-servicemen and women. I will remember those who did not survive, and march with those who did.

I will march with a mix of sorrow and anger, and with the fervent hope that there will be no more Vietnams.


Hugh White - Without America

Hugh White is always provocative, and doesn't pull any punches when it comes to criticising current defence policy. In 1995, he was appo...