AD Hope, Inscription for a War

Linger not, stranger; shed no tear;

Go back to those who sent us here.

 

We are the young they drafted out

To wars their folly brought about.

 

Go tell those old men, safe in bed,

We took their orders and are dead.

 

Peter Yule’s book, The Long Shadow: Australia’s Vietnam Veterans Since The War was published late last year.[1]  This detailed examination of the medical and psychological consequences of the war, which was commissioned by the Australian War Memorial, received enthusiastic reviews.  One such review was by Effie Karageorgos for this website in which she stated that this work ‘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.’[2]  I shall use Yule’s book in conjunction with two earlier works – Paul Ham’s, Vietnam: The Australian War and Mark Dapin’s, Australia’s Vietnam: Myth vs History – to consider the changing public perceptions of the Vietnam veteran in this country.[3]  From my own experience of writing a history of Australia and the Korean War, I am well aware that generalisations about large groups have to be treated with circumspection and buttressed with evidence.[4]  Over sixty thousand Australians served in Vietnam between 1962 and 1973 with 47, 226 having disabilities accepted for compensation – very large numbers to treat simplistically.[5]

The Long Shadow will please any archivally oriented historian as its bibliography is extensive and the primary sources are explored thoroughly.  The photographs are as good as they get and are a major contribution to the work as a whole.  I find Yule’s critiques of previous historians to be generally judicious.  He is at his best in analysing how a dogmatic and ill-equipped Barry Smith totally botched up the Agent Orange issue in his section of the medical volume of the official history of the Vietnam War and produced one of the worst contributions to our sanctioned military historiography.[6]  Yule also corrects eminent historians such as Peter Edwards and the late Jeffrey Grey for summary statements about veterans’ alleged obsession with Agent Orange to the detriment of other issues, arguing ‘that without the Agent Orange campaign, Vietnam veterans would have remained marginalised and neglected.’[7]  Most importantly, Yule examines a massive amount of medical and epidemiological evidence in assessing how the injuries inflicted by Vietnam resemble, or, more significantly, differ from, previous conflicts.  He is sensitive to the plight of partners and families of affected former soldiers.

What are some of the images of the Vietnam veteran over the fifty years since Australia withdrew from the war?  We have:

  • soldiers who returned to an indifferent Australia, which neither welcomed them nor properly nor understood how they were physically or mentally affected by the conflict;
  • a variant of the preceding – veterans who, in many instances, returned to verbal and physical abuse such as being spat upon by anti-war militants;
  • ageing men, possibly with ponytails, and with an interest in motorcycles, who suffered severe drug and/or alcohol disorders, brought about by unresolved psychological issues leading to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD);
  • the sober-sided colleagues – ex-soldiers- I encountered in my time in the Commonwealth Public Service between 1979 and 1988;
  • the former career soldiers I interviewed or surveyed, and in some cases befriended, as part of my research into the Australian experience of the Korean War – these had been junior officers in the earlier conflict, later serving in Vietnam, and some were concerned by the ‘popularity’ of the image of the damaged veteran.

An important factor in how Vietnam veterans perceive themselves, and have been perceived by others, is their reception when they returned home.  This issue has several aspects.  I am going to examine two of these, the alleged assaults on the homecoming soldier and the apparent absence of welcome home parades, complete with young women running into the street to kiss the vets.[8]

Paul Ham’s extremely popular book on this country’s Vietnam appeared in 2007.  I do not have space here to discuss its intemperate and shallow descriptions of the anti-war movement nor its contribution to Australia’s ceaseless culture wars.  Pity.  Ham sees the Vietnam veteran as a victim of a ‘politicians’ war’, a broad concept which he does not explore thoroughly but which places the soldier as a tool of devious Canberra.  But what is he saying?  Are not most wars connected in some way to politics and politicians?  I know the aphorism is quoted too much but it is hard to go past Clausewitz here: ‘War is the continuation of politics by other means’.

Most famously, Ham describes several incidents where Vietnam veterans recall being verbally insulted and/or physically abused upon their arrival in Australia.[9]  Some soldiers claim they were spat on – the assailant frequently a woman, an unforgiving harpy, lacking any sympathy with the veterans they are attacking and ignoring how the soldiers are merely pawns in this politicians’ war. [10]  One lurid account, drawn from a wider description of a mass attack on returning soldiers at Mascot Airport – which no media organisation ever reported – has a woman gob on a soldier’s left cheek, this soldier afterwards remarking to a friend, ‘Do you believe this, that bitch spat on me . . . They are fucking traitors to our country’.[11]  The Vietnam veteran, with the defiling mucus upon his clothes or face, is a victim of his country’s leaders and a society which wants to forget the damn war ever happened in the first place.

Ham’s account of the public abuse of veterans was seriously challenged by Mark Dapin’s 2019 publication, Australia’s Vietnam: Myth vs History.  Tom Richardson in his review of this important work wrote:

It is not that these events never happened; it is that they were less common, or happened in different contexts, than is remembered today.  There were very few clashes between veterans and protestors reported during the war, but when they happen . . . they were extremely well documented.[12]

Dapin’s account of why such claims are widespread is problematic and less capable of definitive proof but such is the nature of psychological processes and explanations.  His argument is complex but stresses that veterans who had themselves inflicted major violence while in Vietnam, and who then flew back to a divided society, turned themselves into victims rather than protagonists.  Hence the assaults that seldom happened.  It is important to note that this point of view had been advanced in this country, at least in part, as early as 1994 by Ann Curthoys. [13]  There is also the ground-breaking work of American sociologist, Jerry Lembcke from 1998 on the myth-making associated with the Vietnam War.  He argued that the number of spitting incidents was gloriously exaggerated in the United States and drew widely from the media, including mainstream cinema.[14]  Ham does not even deign to include Lembcke in his bibliography.  But the American’s work is worth revisiting for it places front and centre the argument that the incidence of PTSD amongst Vietnam veterans was exaggerated and thus strengthened the image of the US veteran as damaged goods, unstable, unsound.

Dapin also painstakingly catalogued the numerous welcome home parades that were provided to many Vietnam veterans to show that contrary to much popular opinion, QANTAS did not dump the soldiers on the tarmac in the middle of the night to hide them from the public – it was because the national carrier needed the planes during the day to service their regular flights.  But as our anti-vaxxers know – never let evidence get in the way of a good myth.  The lack of ONE big set of welcome home ceremonies was partly due to the gradated return of service personnel once their tour of duty was completed.  In passing, I should note that some soldiers who served in the Korean War also claimed that ‘a march through city streets . . . did not occur or occurred only rarely’.  Evidence, including that from newsreels, indicates otherwise.[15]  A few Korean veterans amongst those with whom I communicated even went as far as to say that they had been abused, physically or verbally – if these events occurred, they were rare at best and perhaps indicate a conflation with what may or may not have happened after Vietnam. [16]

Ham either ignored Dapin’s work or said flatly that he accepted his informants’ statements at face value.[17]  He seems to have preferred his out of shape argument from 2007 that as ‘no single anti-war protestor has admitted that he or she attacked the soldiers’ then they are guilty as charged, their word worth nothing compared to that of his interviewees and ‘their silence condemns them: none has publicly recanted; none has apologised’.[18]  The dichotomy continues – the Vietnam veteran offended, aggrieved, misunderstood, silenced for decades while those against the war are complacent liars and idealogues, even in their old age.

Yule concurs with Dapin in stating that the extent of aggressive contacts between Vietnam veterans and militant members of the public has been exaggerated.  Yule though devotes little of his extensive book to this issue.  He is more concerned to carefully assess the extent to which the health of returned service personnel was affected by a range of possible factors ranging from Agent Orange, other herbicides, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, alcohol abuse, cigarette consumption etc.  As noted above, I consider his research and argument in this area to be, if not definitive, then certainly the best we have so far.

But when Yule was interviewed by the Canberra Times about The Long Shadow he set before us an image of the soldier coming back to an Australia which let them suffer in silence.  He told the Canberra journalist that ‘unlike Veterans from WW1 and WW2, Vietnam veterans did not have a victorious return to adoring civilians in Australia, with veterans baring [sic] the brunt of the backlash against Australia’s decision to go to war.’[19]  Did the veterans bear such a backlash and what does it mean anyway?  How could their return have been victorious?  We lost.  And besides these questions we see a subset being created, one with special characteristics, all of their own.  Within the larger class of veterans, there are those who went to Vietnam and they ‘went through hell and most of them have been severely damaged’.[20]  As Tom Richardson wrote in a generally favourable review of The Long Shadow: ‘Given how frequently the book discusses the problem of drawing broad medical conclusions from limited sample sizes, Yule’s confidence in summarising the views of “most” of Australia’s 20,000+ Vietnam veterans based on 120 interviews is somewhat jarring’. [21]

For Yule, Vietnam veterans have been damaged by what happened while on active service and then further damaged, or not healed, by social factors in the Australia to which they returned.  These social factors include the backlash noted previously, the hostility of the RSL to soldiers who had not been in a ‘real’ war, and, more broadly, the revolution in Australian mores which Yule believes occurred during the period of the conflict.

Australian society changed radically between 1965 and 1972.  In 1965, Australia was a strait-laced, highly censored, ‘short-back-and-sides’ society.  A woman’s place was in the home, hemlines were modest, and a conservative government had been in power since 1949.  By 1972, community values on such things as sex and drugs had changed greatly, censorship was well on the way to disappearing and most men under 40 had longer hair and sideburns.  Women achieved equal pay for equal work in 1969, mini-skirts were everywhere, hippies were chanting ‘All you need is love’ and a resurgent Labor Party appeared certain to win the next election.  Abolition of conscription and withdrawal from Vietnam were prominent among the ALP’s promises.[22]

Demonstrators at a Vietnam moratorium, Melbourne, 1970. Australian War Memorial P00671.003

This description is a collection of clichés spiced with error.  The soldiers sent to Vietnam did not find themselves in some Einsteinian horror, where relativity played up badly and they arrived in Australia a hundred years after they left.  For many there was dislocation from mainstream Australian life, but they were not time travellers and was this sense of displacement permanent?  Further, one should not exaggerate the pace and breadth of social change in Australia in the 1960s.  It was there, yes, but so was a long-term conservative government, conservative rule in most states, traditional gender roles and occupational profiles, and continued criminalisation of homosexuality, abortion and sex work.  The mini-skirt was not a harbinger of reform; it was a fashion, to be largely displaced by the maxi-skirt at the end of the 1960s.  Many of the Liberal party cabinet in Victoria were sporting sideburns by the early 70s but this did not make them Lenin or Bukharin.  Hippies, whatever that means, were not everywhere.  And women most certainly did not achieve equal pay in 1969 – that was only a first step in an arduous process which some would argue has not yet been finalised.

Once again, we see the image of the hapless veteran who ‘endured’, to use Yule’s term, but otherwise seems to lack agency or the ability to adapt to changed circumstances.  This is NOT to belittle or deny the effects of their war service, nor to defend tardy and unwilling government recognition of health problems amongst the soldiers.  It is, though, a critique of the us/them division beloved of authors when talking of the many issues faced by these men. 

An article by Barry Healy in Green Left in August 2019 praising Dapin’s work commenced with this flat statement:

August 18 is Vietnam Veterans’ Day in Australia.  Every year we can rely on right-wing commentators to trot out the now-familiar stories of Vietnam vets being abused when they returned to Australia.[23]

Does this right-wing festival actually occur or is this another exaggeration, something in which the Vietnam War is prolific?  I suspect that in the public mind Vietnam veterans are being supplanted by those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and the many issues those contentious conflicts have provoked, especially recently.  Each war is specific and fixed within its own context but one thing all wars share is that they are the validation and mass organisation of lethal violence for political purposes.  Those who are involved willingly or unwillingly are there to be damaged or destroyed. Vietnam was a controversial war while it was being fought. It is no less controversial when its history and memory are contested.


[1] Peter Yule, The Long Shadow: Australia’s Vietnam Veterans Since The War, New South Publishing in association with the Australian War Memorial, Sydney, 2020.

[2] Australian Policy and History, 4 December 2020, https://aph.org.au/2020/12/peter-yule-the-long-shadow-australias-vietnam-veterans-since-the-war-sydney-newsouth-in-association-with-the-australian-war-memorial-2020/

[3] Paul Ham, Vietnam: The Australian War, HarperCollins, Sydney, 2007.  Mark Dapin, Australia’s Vietnam: Myth vs History, NewSouth Publishing, Sydney, 2019.

[4] Richard Trembath, A Different Sort of War: Australians in Korea 1950-53, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2005.

[5] Yule, The Long Shadow, p. 564.

[6] Yule, The Long Shadow, pp. 358-373.

[7] Yule, The Long Shadow, p. 563.

[8] Ham, Vietnam: The Australian War, p. 563.  ‘No young women ran up to kiss them.’  Ham evidently believes this to be essential for a true welcome back to Oz.

[9] Ham, Vietnam; The Australian War, Part Seven, ‘Homecoming’, deals with the wider question of the return to Australia including welcome home parades or the lack of them, civilian indifference and in chapter 42, ‘Baby-killers’ with the spitting etc.  See pp. 499-573.

[10] ‘Only a Pawn in their Game’ was released by Bob Dylan in 1964 and refers directly to poor whites and the assassination of civil rights activist, Medgar Evers, but from a young age I remember it being applied by my anti-war elders to our soldiers in Vietnam, especially conscripts.

[11] Ham, Vietnam: The Australian War, p. 562.

[12] Tom Richardson, ‘Australia’s Vietnam: What really happened when the soldiers returned’, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 May 2019, https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/australia-s-vietnam-what-really-happened-when-the-soldiers-returned-20190516-p51o2u.html

[13] Ann Curthoys, ‘ “Vietnam”: Public Memory of an Anti-War Movement’ in Kate Darian-Smith and Paula Hamilton (eds), Memory and History in Twentieth Century Australia, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1994.

[14] Jerry Lembcke, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam, New York University Press, New York, 1998.

[15] Trembath, A Different Sort of War, pp. 168-170.

[16] Trembath, A Different Sort of War, p. 174.

[17] Tom Greenwell, ‘The myth of the abusive protestors’, Inside Story, 24 April 2020, https://insidestory.or.au/the-enduring-myth-of-the-abusive-protestors/

[18] Ham, Vietnam: The Australian War, p. 571.

[19] Julia Kanapathippillai, ‘New book The Long Shadow by Dr Peter Yule highlights the medical legacy of the Vietnam War’, Canberra Times, 28 October 2020, https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6987816/new-book-shines-a-light-on-the-medical-legacy-of-the-Vietnam-war/

[20] Yule quoted in same Canberra Times interview.

[21] Tom Richardson, ‘Fit for heroes?  What happened when the Vietnam vets returned home’, Sydney Morning Herald, https://www.smh.com.au/culture/books/fit-for-heroes-what-happened-when-the-vietnam-vets-returned-home-20210121-p56vtk.html.

[22] Yule, The Long Shadow, pp.141-142.

[23] Barry Healy, ‘The mistreatment of Vietnam vets: myth and history’, Green Left, Issue 1233, 10 August 2019, https//www.greenleft.org.au/content/mistreatment-vietnam-vets-myth-and-history

 

Array
Richard Trembath
Richard Trembath

Dr. Richard Trembath has taught history at Victorian universities for many years.  He is the author of several books, mostly in conjunction with colleagues.  These include All Care and Responsibility: A History of Nursing in Victoria with Donna Hellier; A Different Sort of War: Australians in Korea 1950-53Divine Discontent – The Brotherhood of St Laurence: A History (with Colin Holden);Witnesses to War: The History of Australian Conflict Reporting (with Fay Anderson).  His most recent book is Defending Country: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Military Service Since 1945 (with Noah Riseman) which was published in April 2016. Richard’s current research interests are the history of military veterans’ organisations and the social history of contemporary medicine.