The general narrative about our involvement in Vietnam is one of shame, opposition and bloodshed based on an accepted lie. Not all of that is strictly true.
One of the most interesting things for a historian like me is finding out how big the difference often is between the past and the stories we tell about it.
In Australia, if I would have to pick one narrative that has turned out to be most susceptible to fabulation, it has to be ANZAC. That starts, of course, with the name: when we tip our lids to the “heroes” on April 25 each year, we remember more than just the Gallipoli landing. Over time, this national occasion has turned into a collective reverence of all Australian soldiers, although they haven’t been ANZACs for a long, long time. There are some interesting falsehoods we tell ourselves about the original WWI soldiers, and things we fail to include, as well, like the fact that at Gallipoli Australians were foreign invaders, for example, and that quite a few of them were very proud of their identity as white Australians, too. We also implore each other to worship and venerate them, as happened when they arrived back home, we say. Unfortunately, that doesn’t match reality either. After the AIF soldiers returned, the Victorian ALP, for instance, vowed to ban “material extolling wars, battles, or heroes of past wars” from state school papers or books. It wanted no memorials to the war, nor to any war for that matter, and even advocated for the “removal of literature celebrating war heroes from state schools”. It was peace education the party wanted, not chest beating, and interestingly, nobody accused it of betraying the country because of that. Compare that to what happens when people are critical of our military “history” now. Not that long ago, an SBS journalist lost his job over it. And journalist and engineer Yassmin Abdel-Magied was even hounded out of Australia for daring to include the conflicts in Syria and Palestine into the ANZAC story.
The central part of that narrative, whether that is backed up with facts or not, is that “our” soldiers were not only heroes, but victims. They suffered. In the trenches, they were cold and hungry and dirty and tired and under constant attack. And they were there, our innocent working-class battlers, to fix the mistakes made by the British toffs, who sacrificed them just to “move their drinks cabinet nine inches closer to Berlin”, as Baldrick in Blackadder once famously said. This description of Australian soldiers has survived almost every war we were ever involved in. After WWII the Americans replaced the British in the description of our “handlers”, but for the rest, everything stayed the same.
And the more a war disappeared in the rearview mirror, the more what really happened morphed into myth. And so we now believe that women didn’t serve as doctors in WWI and that Japan was out to conquer Australia in WWII and eat our babies off the end of their bayonets, to give two widely different examples. An even bigger problem in our telling of Australian history is our part in the war in Vietnam. And that is interesting, because you would think that the fact that this was famously the first television war would have made it much more complicated to fabricate stories about it. But that would ignore how myth-making works. And, more importantly, why countries do it.
Luckily, journalist and author Mark Dapin has just published a book that tracks how this process operates. It is a fascinating description of how Australia has turned the facts of Vietnam into the “history” of Vietnam. But more importantly, it tells us about how we construct our identity, and what we want it to be. There are, he writes, six myths about Vietnam. The first one has to do with the conscripts that were sent to the war, or the Nashos, as they were called, after the National Service Act that got them there. The way we remember them is as volunteers, courageous boys (“only 19”) who gave their lives for their country without question. Although their birth date was drawn from a barrel and they had no say in the matter at all, there is still the idea that they could choose if they wanted to go to Vietnam or not. I think this is mostly because Australians don’t like being forced into anything by their own politicians. Following the British or the Americans is one thing, but we prefer to think of ourselves as independent thinkers, critical minds who are proud to say “no”. To give credence to that idea we point to the two conscription referenda during WWI, both lost by a government eager to send men into harm’s way, but heroically defeated by the populous. What we forget to add, is that there were only a couple of votes in it. And when Menzies brought in the National Service Act in 1964 and Holt used it to forcibly send boys to Vietnam, hardly anybody objected. But that portrayal of ourselves, as people who do what we are told, simply doesn’t fit our identity. And so we ignore it and replace it by something that isn’t true, but sounds much better.
It is easier to justify the behaviour—the drinking, the familial abuse, the aggression—if you can blame somebody else: they made me do it, it is not my responsibility, I am a victim (again).
The second myth is that the ballots were rigged, with the result that only working-class boys were sent and rich kids could stay home. It seemed to fit myths five and six, which read that there were enormous demonstrations when the Vietnam vets came home and that they were spat at and jeered. There were demonstrations, the story goes, that were headed up by students (obviously also rich kids) and women (clearly from the wrong class, too, because otherwise, they would have known to behave with some decorum). Again, this suits the story we have told about ourselves from the beginning of white Australia. It is the tale of poor people who stole bread to feed their children only to be turned into convicts who were beaten and abused by class-conscious British minders; of suffering, again, overcome by hard work and honesty and by collectively fighting the powers-that-be. An interesting sideline here, is that we hardly ever include the real misery: the pain we inflicted on the Aboriginal population. That, too, is something that doesn’t fit our idea of ourselves and is therefore dismissed. In the case of Vietnam, the fabrication goes further, into the Trumpian territory of lies and alternative facts. Dapin points to a story, for instance, about demonstrations at Sydney Airport, where Vietnam vets had to be flown in under the cover of darkness to avoid mobs of angry demonstrators, but still had to put up with being spat at and jeered. Extensive research shows that this simply didn’t happen. In fact, the opposite is the case.
In May 1970, Dapin writes, Adelaide was “shaken by the only large clash between demonstrators and servicemen recorded in Australia during all the years of the Vietnam war. Soldiers were not abused and spat on by women—they abused and beat up women instead”. One of the soldiers later wrote that they were “into the crowd of demonstrators like bandicoots through a blackberry bush…it was huge fun”.
Even fairly recently, when Dapin interviewed Vietnam vets about those times, they said they remembered coming back [to the general consensus that we were a bunch of blood idiots, bludgers, baby killers, morons…the government shit on us, the public shit on us…” And, of course, they were convinced of the truth of another myth, the one where they never got any welcome-home parades, ignored as they were by the politicians who had sent them there and the population that had been happy to sacrifice a few boys to keep Australia communist-free. Also: not true. There were 16 welcome home marches in the 1960s and early 1970s, all enthusiastically attended by tens of thousands, sometimes over 100,000 people waving flags. Nevertheless, the men in those parades remembered “no welcome, no counselling, no one to help us…we were rejected and spat on, and a motherfucker poured a bucket of paint on me. That was our welcome”.
Dapin says he believes that the soldiers don’t knowingly tell lies. He thinks that often repeated resentment, combined with American war movies, has replaced real memories with ones that give more meaning to the experience. He also turns the spotlight on himself and on other historians, not interrogating our interviewees well enough, trusting the sources, repeating falsehoods and turning them into fact. Personally, I think that there are three other things going on as well. First of all, it is easier to justify the later bad behaviour—the drinking, the familial abuse, the aggression—if you can blame somebody else: they made me do it, it is not my responsibility, I am a victim (again). One of Dapin’s interviewees said that “The Vietnam experience totally changed my life. I would’ve probably been a headmaster in South Australia. I still would’ve been happily married to my first wife. I would’ve had a cruisy life.” So: no personal responsibility. And a group to belong to, one united by the common enemy, the outsiders: “It’s being with blokes you like. Standing out. Being admired again.” And we, as Australians, don’t mind them positioning themselves as misunderstood outcasts. It is what we recognise: in this country, victimhood and war are the same thing, even if you invaded somebody else’s nation.
Dapin is a courageous man to try and amend the record. In his book, he writes that he doesn’t have a lot of faith that this will happen, though. Politicians are far too eager to use the myths to “silence peace activists” and justify a half a billion-dollar gift to the War Memorial. But more importantly: we, as Australian citizens, much prefer the story over the reality. The Australian identity is one of victimhood, of working-class battlers treated badly, but heroically rising to the challenge. It is a male story, in which women play the role of ball-and-chains or totally ridiculous, uninformed, ungrateful critics. It is a myth that is dangerous, a myth that kills. A myth, too, that is far less interesting than the messy, complicated, multi-faceted facts.
Maybe, one day, we will be ready for them.