Australians’ involvement in overseas conflicts has been in the news again recently, with the release of the Brereton report into alleged soldier atrocities in Afghanistan. In our latest article, Dr Effie Karageorgos reviews Peter Yule’s new book about the effect of war service on Vietnam veterans and their families. Yule shows how issues such as Agent Orange and PTSD have echoed through lives and generations. And in a conclusion that reverberates today, Yule writes: ‘‘if we cannot afford to be generous to servicemen and women who returned damaged by war, then it is utterly wrong to send then to fight in civil wars in distant lands when there is no direct threat to Australia’.
By Effie Karageorgos
The cultural figure of the Vietnam War veteran has occupied a contested space within Australian society since the 1970s. Stereotypes have frequently overtaken realities, assisted by a lack of focused historical attention to the post-war lives of those who served in Vietnam. Peter Yule’s The Long Shadow: Australia’s Vietnam Veterans Since the War, an independent study on the medical legacies of the conflict commissioned by the Australian War Memorial Council, presents an impressive reorientation of past understandings about the long-term impacts of the Vietnam War.
Yule addresses many of the deficiencies of past studies, most notably their failure to engage with the lived experience of veterans. The impressive 672-page volume engages deeply with both veterans’ published works on the conflict and oral histories, based on over 100 interviews with male and female veterans, veterans’ family members, political figures, medical specialists and veteran advocates. A challenge associated with the post-war consideration of Australia’s Vietnam veterans has been the disparity between health outcomes as reported by veterans and their advocates, and those acknowledged by political and military authorities. Official studies and reports that were commissioned in the 1980s and 1990s are shown to have been based largely on uncertain medical findings and political opinion, driven by an outdated concern about the malingering veteran. The Long Shadow presents a balanced account by engaging with veterans’ voices and avoiding the failure of past studies to consider the broad differences in individual opinion and experience.
The study follows a broadly chronological structure. It begins with the history of Australian military psychiatry, or the road to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), from the First and Second World Wars, including the Korean War and other minor conflicts. This section is followed by a concise but detailed discussion of the experiences of soldiers while in Vietnam, which could perhaps have been enriched by the inclusion of soldiers’ personal records available in the Australian War Memorial collection, many of which directly address the issues raised. The remainder of the volume is separated into a range of chapters that interweave three main areas of importance – Agent Orange and the lasting effects of chemicals used in Vietnam, psychiatric impacts of the conflict to the present day, and common physical illnesses among veterans. Added to the impressive reliance on the words of veterans to inform each section of the book are two central innovations for which this book deserves particular praise – the attention to the broader physical and emotional effects of military service on families of veterans and the comprehensive analysis of the decades-long Agent Orange dispute between veterans and political authorities.
Recent studies about the aftermaths of conflict have increasingly placed families at the forefront of veteran care, resulting in a greater understanding about the broader emotional effects of war. Yule has paid respectful attention to the centrality of wives to the success with which veterans are able to construct post-war lives, but also acknowledges the negative health implications that this position can produce. As expressed by Veronica Shanks, wife of veteran Bruce Shanks: ‘Bruce went off to war for one year; I have lived, breathed, slept and relentlessly fought that war for the whole of my married life’ (p. 476).
Yule has also paid special attention to the ways that a soldiers’ military service can affect their children, through birth defects resulting from exposure to Agent Orange and other chemicals, as well as intergenerational trauma. Awareness about the lower physical and mental health outcomes among children of veterans has resulted from a range of official and independent studies, including the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) 2014 Vietnam Veterans Family Study. The Long Shadow considers these findings in a historical context, incorporating the voices of those affected.
While Yule acknowledges the tremendous gains made by physically and psychologically wounded veterans in recent decades, he carefully uses their words, and actions of significant advocate groups, including the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia (VVAA) and Vietnam Veterans Federation (VVF), to demonstrate that although much official acknowledgement of war’s long-term medical impacts has occurred, there is still some way to go to provide justice to all veterans. Unlike past accounts, it does not position political authorities, such as the DVA, as the voice of reason in opposition to a mob of unruly veterans, instead paying careful attention to the voices and concerns of all parties, carefully exploring the tensions between them.
The most important contribution of The Long Shadow to the historiography of the Australian experience of the Vietnam War is its detailed account of the Agent Orange dispute from the 1970s until the present. Yule, aided by the specialist medical expertise of epidemiologist Dr Michael Fett, carefully considers Australian and international research about chemical exposure in Vietnam, providing notable detail of specific chemicals used and their individual short and long-term effects on soldiers’ bodies. He balances the often conflicting research that has connected Agent Orange to the increasing incidence of miscarriage and birth defects with soldiers’ personal accounts of distress upon realizing the medical impacts of their military service on family members.
Importantly, he directly rejects the results of the 1985 Evatt Royal Commission which, despite receiving thousands of submissions by veterans, largely echoed the words of political authorities and directly used passages of the Monsanto chemical company’s submission in its final report, results that were largely reproduced in the third volume of the official history, Medicine at War: Medical Aspects of Australia’s Involvement in Southeast Asia 1950-1972 (O’Keefe, with Smith, 1994). Yule clearly shows that official recognition of PTSD and other psychiatric conditions among soldiers occurred at the expense of any willingness within DVA to attribute veteran illness or disablement to Agent Orange and other chemicals, particularly in connection with cancer and birth defects in veterans’ children.
The Long Shadow: Australia’s Vietnam Veterans Since the War has decisively shown that military experience in Vietnam resulted in a unique set of physical and psychological impacts on veterans and their families, distinct from those emerging after the world wars. Yule has used these findings to draw attention to the ethics of Australian military commitment to foreign conflicts, boldly stating: ‘if we cannot afford to be generous to servicemen and women who returned damaged by war, then it is utterly wrong to send then to fight in civil wars in distant lands when there is no direct threat to Australia’ (p. 566). The respect paid to veterans’ voices in The Long Shadow confirms their power in truth-telling about the long-term consequences of past military ventures. It is hoped that now, given worsening mental health outcomes for soldiers, these truths are reflected within future systems of care for Australia’s veterans.