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Protesters not to blame for Viet vets neglect


Long Tan CrossCommemorations in 2006 to mark the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan should have helped the rehabilitation of Australia's Vietnam veterans. No one doubts the courage of these mostly young men or the trauma they have experienced since their return. No one should deny that they have been treated badly.

One indication is that only now, 36 years after Australia's withdrawal from Vietnam, and coinciding with the 42nd anniversary of Long Tan, a study is to be held into the health outcomes of service for veterans and their families.

Several official ceremonies have honoured Vietnam veterans, including a Welcome Home Parade and the dedication of a memorial in Canberra.

But so far, the nation has failed to face the reality of the veterans' treatment. Too many speeches by politicians and veterans have given the impression that the rehabilitation process was undermined by opponents of the war. During the commemorations, a prominent image was the archival television footage of a lone protestor splashed with red paint at a welcome home parade for soldiers marching through a city street in their jungle greens.

When Prime Minister Howard apologised to Vietnam veterans for their treatment, there was an implication that the whole Australian community had failed veterans, and that the unpopularity of the war had been engineered by protestors.

But those who opposed the war do not bear the responsibility for the tragic decisions affecting the veterans' lives. If protestors were less than welcoming, that is hardly surprising. They conscientiously believed that the commitment brought shame upon Australia.

And while it is no reflection on the dedicated service of individual soldiers, the fact is that in hindsight, the protestors were correct. In reality, the greatest need for regret must be among those who sent the troops to this divisive war and the governments that have begrudged them adequate rehabilitation services ever since.

The divisive nature of the welcome home process is often overlooked. There were parades with ticker tape and cheering crowds, but this fact does not suit the faux history written by militarists. Historian Mark McKenna points out in Raimond Gaita's book on Iraq, Why the War Was Wrong, that the myth about failure to welcome troops home from Vietnam aims to discourage dissent about any war for fear of offending military personnel.

Parades for soldiers returning from Vietnam were easier to organise when large units travelled home on ships. Many soldiers, for one reason or another, flew home to an airport and disappeared into the crowds. It was not the opponents of the war who made such bad decisions about repatriation.

War opponents knew the soldiers were being exploited cynically. They had sympathy for individuals caught in the ethical nightmare of learning to kill. They did not tell troops they would be regarded as heroes, or promise them special home loans, pensions and health assistance. They did not expect the troops to produce some glorious victory in Vietnam.

It was not the opponents of the war who broke their promises but the war supporters, and they have been tragically silent since creating this moral disaster. They judged the troops as failing some mythical standards set by previous generations of warriors and disregarded Vietnam veterans' claims about special disability. The very need for, and some aspects of, the course of the Agent Orange inquiries illustrate this begrudging attitude.

While Long Tan remains symbolic, 500 Australians died elsewhere in the conflict, and hundreds have died since from physical and psychological wounds. Veterans live with their memories constantly, and the real test of government and community understanding and gratitude is how they are treated every day.

The company commander at Long Tan called for appropriate recognition in terms of medals, some naval personnel are still asking for their trips to Vietnam to be acknowledged and many other veterans found their support services inadequate.

Society's rhetoric demands that we start listening and responding to these requests. As the family study progresses, claims will be considered and not postponed pending final reports. This is appropriate, because by its completion in eight years, veterans will be at least 44 years from their service. Too many will have died.

History is a great teacher, but can be effective only when we listen to it. According to media reports, people inquiring about a military career and visiting recruiting websites are invited to play computerised war games. Our treatment of Vietnam veterans has also been based largely in fantasy.

Veterans of more recent campaigns and their families will be watching the Vietnam study closely. Already, there have been suicides among the veterans of recent commitments, although, thankfully, fewer than the 17 per day allegedly reached by US returnees.

The rest of us should treat seriously the warnings from these experiences: the costs of sending military personnel abroad are extremely high. While the soldiers' tasks might seem straightforward, the responsibilities of those who deploy them are complex and seldom borne with integrity. We should honour our veterans but resist using the military except in times of genuine emergency.

Australia and the Vietnam War
Vietnam Veterans Association of Victoria

Tony SmithTony Smith holds a PhD in political science. He has taught at several universities, most recently at the University of Sydney.


Topic tags: tony smith, vietnam veterans, battle of long tan, veterans' families study



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Existing comments

All this rhetoric does not excuse the protesters. Their actions were despicable - if what you say is to be taken into account i.e. that it is the government to blame, why didn't the protesters aim their bile at MPs rather than the men who performed so valiantly in Vietnam and who have suffered since?

You are making excuses for the protesters. They don't deserve it. Some have already apologised for their actions at the time and now realise how wrong they were. The veterans and their families have learned to live with their experiences - they deserve every medal they are given. They have borne their burdens stoically.

And by the way, it is difficult to find anyone these days who will come out and say "I was a protester".

Pat Cannard | 22 August 2008  

Sadly the government of the day when the soldiers returned lead the way in the mistreatment of our VVs. Jim Cairns was too busy kissing North Vietnamese leaders to give due consideration to the boys who served in Vietnam as valiantly as any wwi or ww2 warrior. Vietnam war supporters felt let down but in truth politicians on both sides failed our returning military and the failed Paris Peace accord ultimately meant it was a war in vain, as too many conflicts are.

Paul | 22 August 2008  

I am a Vietnam Veteran (1970-71) and I guess like many, I too was the subject of verbal insults by anti war protesters.

The Government made the decision to send us to SVN. I was a Nasho and didn't wish to be in the Army anyway. My career and life were drastically changed by the war. I find it very hard to forgive those who made our lives even more of a hell than needed, simply by denying us our mail and other supplies in protest.

We did not ask to go...we just did our duty. I still wonder if the protesters ever wonder what damage their actions did to us and our families. Do they ever feel guilty that their lives were normal while many of us continue to suffer - I will bet not!

Gavin O'Brien | 22 August 2008  

Perhaps the protesters aren't to totally blame but they contributed to the isolation of many Vietnam veterans. All veterans, including we younger veterans, live with their memories every day - and it is not an easy feat.

In hindsight, the protesters are right (as they were before Iraq 2003) but at the time they contribute to the community apathy or anger which in turn leads to poor service delivery for veterans.

Australia is a country at peace with its Defence force at war - very few realise the depth of commitment by our ADF personnel with multiple deployments for many.

If a study on Vietnam vets has taken so long, us new veterans may be long gone by the time they get to the veterans of my generation

Phil | 22 August 2008  

As one who marched in protest against the lies perpetrated by the Lib-CP and DLP about the conflict in Vietnam in 1970/71, I take exception to Pat Cannard's comments.

Our actions were not despicable. The lies of the politicians were despicable. It took a lot of guts to stand up against the threats of the right-wing governments of Bolte, Askin & Co. to those who dared to protest against conscription and involvement in an unjust war.

I don't want any apology for my decision to protest and certainly reject any claims that I was wrong.

Vietnam was not a puppet of China. There was no masterplan in Peking to send the sampans sailing down through South east Asia to take Australia over. The "domino theory" was bunkum and we knew it. That is one of the reasons we protested. Our involvement in Vietnam was quite simply a cynical exercise to pay an insurance premium to the US to keep its forces in the Asia-Pacific region.

Ken | 25 August 2008  

Your correspondent fails to recognise the difference between those who were sent overseas and those who sent them and the damage that this caused to so many.

This fundamental difference is one of the wrongs that the Vietnam veterans
have fought hard to establish, and it is the reason that Australians today
can distinguish between their soldiers in Iraq and those who sent them to
Iraq. It may not seem much of a difference to those who stay at home, but it is an enormous gulf for those involved.

Clive Mitchell-Taylor is President, Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia, National Council, New South Wales Branch. Read the text of his Vietnam Veterans and Long Tan Day address here

Clive Mitchell-Taylor | 25 August 2008  

I was called up in the first ballot for 20 year olds, and deferred during university. I was opposed to our participation in the Vietnam war, and eventually took court proceedings against the government principally on this basis. I was deferred for 12 months and then failed the medical. With my record, the government did not want me.

I did what I felt I had to do as a matter of conscience, but have never attacked the soldiers who went. Some believed that the war was just and necessary, others went because that is what the government told them to do. In the end, the obligation to make that personal moral choice does not give a basis for attacking the moral choices of others.

I am sorry that the returning soldiers were badly treated by some opposed to the war, and treated with indifference by the government. Some protesters were also treated badly physically by the government agencies and others (remember the Lyndon Johnson visit), and also shunned within their own social groups.

My hope is that this government does not treat our troops coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan with the same indifference, and that people like me who have opposed the Iraqi involvement can hold those responsible for this disastrous choice as accountable - certainly not the soldiers.

chris chenoweth | 26 August 2008  

Pat Cannard: "... why didn't the protesters aim their bile at MPs rather than the men who performed so valiantly in Vietnam and who have suffered since? "
Oh, Pat, we did; and quite a few of us suffered for that as well.

Pat: "... it is difficult to find anyone these days who will come out and say "I was a protester".
Not really, Pat. I am one, and I'll readily say it if it's relevant. One of my childhood friends was killed in Vietnam and a slow anger still glows in me, not at him, not at his assassin, but at the institutions that sent him there. I knew nashos who opposed the war. I spent Saturdays in the city leafletting and talking with people in the street, who were neutral or supporters of the war. None of the protesters I knew jeered returned soldiers, though they continued to jeer other politicians. I've helped refugees from Vietnam get a start in Australia after the war. I'd do it all again.

Tony Smith's article may be challenging to Pat and to some other readers, but they do need to read it again, because basically he is right.

Des | 02 September 2008  

hello my name is james schramm and i am a yr 12 society and culture student at wycliffe christian school

i have decided to do my major work on the effect of the protesters on the returning servicemen from vietnam and i was wondering if any of you have any information of first hand accounts of what it was like for the servicemen.

I would be greatly appreciated if you could send me them to this email address schramm_james@hotmail.com

if you want a final copy of my report i am more than happy to send you off a copy of it

thank you

James Schramm | 31 October 2008  

I agree with much of your article but it was a protester, inspired by Traitor Cairns, now dead yet hated forever, who threw red paint on our CO during a march. The protesters actively atacked troops returning fron Vietnam and we have not forgotten the insult. Incidentally, I did not sit in my backside at Vung Tau - I proudly fought with the Task Force believing that is what Australia wanted me to do. Vietnam 1968

Peter Murray | 28 September 2009  

Like many Australians I supported the war in 1966 and, then 20, would have probably gone along and joined the ranks had my marble been pulled out - but it wasn't.

Over the next 2 years I learnt a lot more about the war, including from Liberal Party enthusiasts and like hundreds of thousands of others, came to the view that the lives of these young Australians were being squandered by a government which knew the real facts of the conflict but ignored them for it's own political purposes. Its behaviour was despicable and has never been the subject of any apology in Australia, unlike in the US where several former leaders have confessed to now accepting how wrong they were. Had they no shame?

There is a lot of evidence that many protesters ignorantly vented their fury at a powerless group of victims of the War - the servicemen and women - but they comprised a very small fraction of the broadly based community opposition. I still regret that it took me too long to join groups protesting at our Vietnam policies but when I did I saw that the huge crowds demonstrating to end the war sooner rather than later (generally the wish of most servicemen as well), were in no doubt as to who bore responsibility for prolonging the conflict and the pain - the government, the focus of our anger, and certainly not the poor soldiers.

It as never a question of what the soldiers did in Vietnam, it was what they were sent to do. For that we as electors were responsible, not them, and the vast majority of us were well aware of it.

Visiting Vietnam last year only reinforced my guilt at not having worked harder and sooner to reverse public opinion and hence government policy. For that, I apologise.

Ian | 22 July 2010  

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