Australia and the Vietnam War

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Vietnam War Myths

Overview

Troops travel on landing craft to board HMAS Sydney for their trip home in February 1972. The men were among the last members of the Australian Force Vietnam to return to Australia. [AWM FOD/72/0043/VN]

Troops travel on landing craft to board HMAS Sydney for their trip home in February 1972. The men were among the last members of the Australian Force Vietnam to return to Australia. [AWM FOD/72/0043/VN]

For Australia the Vietnam War ended in 1972. In the intervening years, songs, film and literature have emerged, mainly from the United States, to create an impression of a war unlike that experienced by many Australians.

Drug use, long associated with the American soldiers’ experiences of Vietnam through films like Apocalypse Now from 1979 and Platoon from 1986, was never the problem for the Australian military that it was for the United States. Nor were the racial tensions that sometimes existed between black Americans and their white counterparts, also depicted in Platoon, experienced by the far more racially homogenous Australians.

The scale of the war, reflected in films portraying major battles, such as We Were Soldiers Once, Full Metal Jacket and Hamburger Hill, was quite different for Australians. Mostly, Australians were involved in small unit actions using counter-insurgency tactics. The large battles at Hue, at the Ia Drang Valley and in countless other remote corners of the country, particularly in the north, were unlike those experienced by most Australians.

  • National Servicemen were forced to go to Vietnam.  Although the National Service Act mandated that National Servicemen were liable for service in Australia and overseas, this was not always the case in practice.  National servicemen, like all soldiers, could apply to remain in Australia on compassionate grounds.  Other examples indicate that men who expressed an unwillingness to serve in Vietnam were re-posted by their officers.  Decisions of this type, made at unit level, did not always reflect the strict wording of the Act.  Some men therefore remember being given the option of at least expressing a desire not to go, others do not.  The first national servicemen to serve in Vietnam were members of 5RAR.  Here the battalion marches through Sydney before sailing for Vung Tau in April 1966. [NAA A1200 L54706]
  • Australian troops en route to Vietnam via Singapore left Australia in ‘civvies’ to avoid airport confrontations. In reality, it was the Singapore Government who, sensitive to the Malayan Emergency, insisted Australian troops were not to land in Singapore in uniform. Royal Australian Navy Clearance Diver Tony Ey described his stop-over in Singapore during his flight to Vietnam: …Strict orders not to leave the confines of the airport and everyone knows this but we had to take off our military shirts. Still had polys and GPs [General Purpose boots] and put on, most of us all had flowery type Hawaiian shirts so you'd see 120 young blokes making out they are not going to Vietnam all identical army gear. But they actually had MPs [Military Police] at the airport to make sure we didn't get out. [Clearance Diver Tony Ey, RAN, Australians at War Film Archive, Interview No: 1836][AWM P02866.003]
  • Qantas troop-carrying flights left Australia at night to avoid protestors and the media. 
In reality, the flights left at night so they could arrive at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airport around mid-morning. Qantas staff would reload the aircraft with returning personnel and depart again several hours later. The flights were scheduled at night simply for a quick turnaround in daylight in order to protect the aircraft and their crews from Viet Cong rocket and mortar fire. [Image courtesy of Jens Smith]
  • None of the returning soldiers received a welcome.
All the infantry battalions received a ‘welcome home’ parade. Here returning troops parade through Brisbane streets in March 1971. [NAA: A1500, K26966]
However, National Servicemen who returned by air in small groups were often discharged from the Army almost immediately. Unlike the regular soldiers who retained the support of their units, discharged National Servicemen went straight out into the civilian world on their own.
  • Vietnam was always an unpopular war.
Despite some early dissent in 1965, there was general support for Australia’s involvement in Vietnam. This anti-Vietnam protest in front of Parliament House in Canberra in May 1968 did not generate the level of community interest that would arise later during the war. [NAA: A1500, L71054]

Popular culture – again, mostly American, through films such as Rambo and The Deer Hunter – has also promoted an image of the Vietnam veteran as a dangerous social misfit. Such a stereotype does not accord with the experiences of veterans, Americans or Australians. The trauma and dislocation felt by some veterans has found expression through addiction to alcohol or other drugs, has been the ruin of family life and the cause of ongoing pain, but portrayals in these films are exaggerations that bear little resemblance to reality.

Representations of the Australian experience in popular culture are far fewer than those of America’s war in Vietnam. The most notable, perhaps, is Redgum’s 1983 song I Was Only Nineteen (A Walk in the Light Green) which tells the story of Frank Hunt, maimed by a landmine and now a wheel-chair bound veteran of the war. Other well-known portrayals of Australia’s experience of the Vietnam War were the 1987 television miniseries Vietnam and the 1979 film The Odd Angry Shot. Like many films and television shows they rely to a degree on stereotypes, but licence sometimes demands this and they bring us closer to what the war was like for Australians than the American portrayals.

Outside popular culture, many other myths, or misunderstandings, about the war persist. The war was not, for example, widely unpopular from the beginning. In the early years of Australia’s involvement, far from being actively opposed, many people paid almost no regard to the war at all, particularly while it was being fought by regular soldiers. There was dissent in 1965 but it did not become widespread until later in the decade. The mass protests that many associate with the Vietnam era did not occur in Australian towns and cities until the 1970s after the withdrawal of troops had already begun.

Associated with misunderstandings about the extent and longevity of opposition to the war is a widespread view that those who had served in Vietnam were denied recognition when they returned to Australia and that many veterans of the conflict were treated with hostility by the public. For infantry battalions at least, a parade was a normal part of their return to Australia. When a battalion sailed into the country aboard HMAS Sydney, the ship was often met by the Minister for the Army, the Chief of the General Staff and other local dignitaries. Those who had just sailed in from Vietnam usually received a parade within hours of their return. Only the occasional lone dissenter indicated that support for the war was less than widespread. For other returning soldiers the situation was different. Many, replacements and members of smaller units, came home in small groups, by aircraft, often arriving at night to little fanfare. The absence of parades for these people had more to do with the piecemeal nature of their return than a policy of denying them recognition.

As is the case with any conflict, myths and misunderstandings about Vietnam abound. These few examples are perhaps the most prominent and some have been perpetuated by veterans. Men who perhaps encountered the hostility of a few upon their return took this to be the opinion and experience of many. Acts of hostility against returned soldiers were not isolated, but they were not universal. Australians fought in a war that, over time, became unpopular and which ultimately ended in defeat for the side on which they fought. It was a unique position for Australian service personnel to be in. Veterans of earlier wars had the experience of being involved in conflicts in which Australia fought on the winning side. They also fought in conflicts that were widely supported by the public and, in the case of the Second World War in particular, required the active participation of a large percentage of the Australian population. Vietnam was different, it lasted far longer than previous wars in which Australians had fought and it occurred at a time when societal changes, some brought about by the war, meant that attitudes at the beginning of the war were very different to those at the end. Many of the myths that have arisen about the war are partially attributable to this. Generalisations about one part of the conflict – and the dissent that arose in its final years is one example – do not necessarily apply to another.