It is almost unthinkable now that Australia would pick young men out of civilian life by birthday ballot and send them off to fight and die in a distant war. In the Vietnam War, 212 such conscripts were killed, along with 309 other soldiers.
These days Canberra, even under a Liberal–National government, weighs up more carefully the costs and benefits of sending troops to support our United States allies. Combat is left to the small, secretive special forces where possible. There were no casualties in Iraq, aside from one accidental death. When Australian forces were finally dragged into Afghanistan, 41 soldiers were killed; the prime minister and governor-general attended the funerals.
Not surprisingly, many Vietnam veterans feel their sacrifices were insufficiently appreciated. A stereotype has formed of the Vietnam vet: crippled by undiagnosed trauma and Agent Orange, twitching at the beat of helicopter rotors, nursing guns at imagined enemies, ready to explode.
Australia’s Vietnam opens with a trip to the Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club near Brisbane. It recalls the type of picaresque exploration of blokedom for which Mark Dapin is well known: he says, for example, “I left shortly after dusk, at the end of the wet T-shirt contest but before the stripper they called ‘the Vegetable Lady’ mounted the stage with her groceries.”
At the motorcycle club that day, Dapin conducted many interviews and heard many stories. The veterans saw many atrocities. They were flown back to Australia in the dead of night. Female protesters called them rapists and baby-killers and spat on them. Students threw red paint and blood at men in uniform.
Dapin initially took these accounts at face value. Yet he is a serious historian and journalist, and went on to pursue the stories for his doctorate. This book derives from that rigorous research, though happily it is enlivened throughout with personal anecdotes and vivid descriptions along with stimulating and challenging analysis. One by one, he demolishes the myths that have grown up around Australia’s Vietnam.
One such myth is that there were no welcome-home parades. In fact, returning battalions marched through Sydney, Townsville, Brisbane, Adelaide and other places, greeted by cheering crowds and office workers tossing confetti made from ripped-up phone books. Anti-war protesters tended to get assailed with walking sticks and umbrellas, and on one occasion in Adelaide, off-duty soldiers beat them up.
Only one attack on a parade is recorded: a certain Nadine Jensen ran up outside Sydney Town Hall in June 1966 and smeared a colonel and a private with red paint. “The idea that returning soldiers in Australia had blood – or, indeed, anything – thrown over them dates back to this single incident,” writes Dapin. Likewise the myth that anti-war viragos were waiting at airports to spit on returning soldiers: in the veterans’ minds, the warm welcome they received has been replaced by insults that were not made.
Dapin points out that Australia in the Vietnam War years was a deeply conservative nation. A large part of the Australian public didn’t even blame the American soldiers who committed the My Lai massacre: 59 per cent of respondents in a 1971 survey said the soldiers should not be punished, and 30 per cent said they would have followed orders to kill civilians.
Other myths fly out the historical window. The ballot wasn’t rigged to put slouch hats on rock star Normie Rowe and cricketer Doug Walters. Gough Whitlam didn’t pull the troops out of Vietnam; Billy McMahon did. The Australian Army didn’t hide any atrocities in Vietnam: civilian deaths in one clash and one case of a prisoner being water-tortured were well reported at the time.
Did conscription add to the eventual unpopularity of the war? Dapin doubts it. In fact, he suggests conscription may have helped maintain national cohesion in Australia and mitigate criticism of the troops because they weren’t there by choice.
Individual stories shift over time. The soldier blown up by a Viet Cong mine who inspired Redgum’s “I Was Only 19” once recalled students bringing him food in hospital. Thirty years later, he said they had pelted him with food. Bob Katter, now a member of parliament, joined the army reserve at 19 to avoid being conscripted into overseas battle at 20. In his recent accounts, however, he recalls his Queensland University Regiment being put on “full war footing”. “It seems that in the years since the 1960s,” writes Dapin, “Katter Jnr had genuinely come to believe he had volunteered for Vietnam – on the mytho-archetypal grounds that it was the type of thing men like him would do.”
Dapin’s conclusion is that these myths have arisen from the narratives of the US’s Vietnam veterans. “Time and time again,” he writes, “it is their experience that Australian veterans seem to have borrowed.”
Yet the vets’ feelings are real, even if not all the stories are. Dapin ventures what might be the true tragic element of their experience: that they came back to a different Australia. He suggests the myth of “the unkempt spitting female protester is a proxy for feminism itself”. The Vietnam-era national servicemen “symbolised a certain kind of tough, disciplined, militarised masculinity that fell out of favour in the 1970s”, Dapin says. “One of the hardest transformations to accept – for men who had just lived through the most intense experience of their lives in the virtually all-male environment of the Australian Army – was the changing role and status of women.”
Dapin might have extended this study to the Afghan vets, who were all regulars, products of a more feminist age, and better educated and trained – yet showed similar patterns of trauma. Even so, this highly readable book deserves to replace a whole shelf of popular histories about Australia’s Vietnam, though Dapin may no longer be so welcome in veterans’ motorbike clubs.
NewSouth, 272pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 27, 2019 as "Mark Dapin, Australia’s Vietnam". Subscribe here.