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.


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...