As a kid growing up in Perth, Western Australia in the 1960s and ’70s, I didn’t learn about the Vietnam War from classroom history lessons. Vietnam and the broader Indochina War were on our radio and TV news every morning and evening, and in the front page headlines of our daily newspapers (though I can’t claim the precociousness of reading beyond the headlines).
From the news and adult conversation, I knew the main combatants were the Americans and Communist North Vietnamese. Australian soldiers also fought in Vietnam. We had national service in those days, with conscription based on a “birthday ballot“. Twenty-year-olds had to register for the ballot and if your birthdate popped up in the “lottery draw”, you served in the army for two years, with every chance of overseas deployment, to Vietnam.
As far as I know, no one in my family was “called up” or served in Vietnam – my dad and uncles were too old, and we kids were too young. But I did have a footy coach whose birthdate came up in the “lottery”. I recall an end-of-season speech by an older club official, who may have said something blokey along the lines of, “Keep your head down, son.” We boys may have laughed and cheered – all I remember for sure is my coach looked grim.
Gough Whitlam and Labor were elected to government in 1972 with a promise to end conscription and Australia’s engagement in the Vietnam War. I have a vivid memory of watching Whitlam’s victory speech on the TV news and feeling relief.
I was ten-years-old at the time, but I had already worked out when it would be my turn to register for national service. I was only a schoolboy, and Perth was a long way from the Indochina conflict zones, but with the radio and TV news and newspapers, the Vietnam War felt much closer to home.
The years rolled on, as did the Vietnam War, engulfing neighbouring countries, until 1975, when the Americans helicoptered a hasty evacuation of their embassy in Saigon, and the city fell to the North Vietnamese forces.
One of my chores as a thirteen-year-old was to tend to the wood heater for our evening hot water. I remember pulling apart a daily newspaper to light under the wood and seeing an editorial cartoon of an Asian farmer squatting in a bomb-cratered rice paddy field. His head was tilted towards the sky, free of American bombers and helicopters, and in a single thought bubble he observed, “So this is peace.”
However, we know the fall of Saigon did not bring peace to the South Vietnamese, who took to boats to escape retribution and oppression under the regime of the new, unified Vietnam. Thousands of Vietnamese “boat people” arrived in Australia and many resettled in Perth. Under the Liberal Prime Ministership of Malcolm Fraser, we were a more welcoming nation in those days (though let’s be honest, there was still racism towards the “reffos”).
I grew up, left Perth, travelled and worked overseas, and read. My interest in the Vietnam War led me to build a small collection of books on the country and conflict. From Stanley Karnow’s weighty 750-page Vietnam A History – The First Complete Account of Vietnam at War (1983) to Charles Fenn’s slim Leaders of Modern Thought biography of Ho Chi Minh (1973). From actual and fictional accounts of reporters covering the Indochina War, like Christoper J Koch’s Highways to a War (1996), to the Vietnamese author, Bao Ninh’s award-winning novel, The Sorrow of War (1991).
Through my reading, I learned how the Vietnam War had much earlier roots than the America versus Communists conflict. It stretched back to Vietnamese armed resistance to the Japanese invasion of WWII. I read how conflict escalated with the return of the French colonialists after WWII, who ignored nationalist demands. And how America and its allies, like Australia, ramped up the war to never before seen heights of destruction in Vietnam and neighbouring countries, with their anti-Communist crusade.
Stanley Karnow quotes Phạm Văn Đồng, unified Vietnam’s first Prime Minister, as saying: “Yes, we defeated the United States. But now we are plagued by problems. We do not have enough to eat. We are a poor, underdeveloped nation. Waging war is simple, but running a country is very difficult.”
The Vietnam War from my boyhood perspective was real and frightening. And yet I was safe growing up in faraway W.A., unlike the boys and girls of my age, bombed in the villages and jungles of Vietnam (and who can forget the photo of the girl burnt by napalm, running down the road, naked and crying?).
As an adult, I read and learned more about the war and the mistakes that were made, particularly on the American side. And yet I have friends whose families fled Vietnam in leaky boats. Commonsense tells me you don’t risk your family’s lives unless Communism proved to be more of a nightmare than a fairytale “utopia”.
It’s a paradox this boy from Perth can only resolve by reading more about the Vietnam War, by learning from those with a closer connection to the country, its past and present, and perhaps by one day visiting Vietnam, as a middle-aged man.
© 2018 Robert Fairhead
Sydney, NSW, Australia.
A middle-aged dad and dog owner, Robert is an editor and a writer for Tall And True and blogs at RobertFairhead.com. Robert enjoys reading and writing (fiction, nonfiction and reviews), playing the guitar (though seldom finds the time to practice), and riding his bike and swimming laps (when he can!). Robert has had a varied career, as an electrician, sales and marketing rep, computer programmer, volunteer dog trainer and wanna-be writer. He has also had a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.
NB: This piece is also published on the Robert Fairhead’s blog at http://tallandtrue.com
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In revisiting the PBS series on Vietnam, it is even clearer to me now that Burns’ intention was more about bolstering his self-created image as america’s chronicler of culture and benchmark events than it was to providing journalistic integrity in an attempt to uncover the many truths that still remain buried in mainstream accounts of Vietnam. But to do that, Burns would have had to stand up to his bosses at PBS who are solidly in the pocket of the neoliberal/neocon establishment.
Ten hours of dramatic footage and cherrypicked interviews does not tell the true story of how the invasion of Vietnam was planned before WWII had even ended. Or how the massive US military machine that was created during that war was eager to test for itself the evolving technologies that the Axis powers had been developing before their defeat for the control of developing nations – particularly those intent on self-determination and guerrilla resistance. The genocidal experiment began in earnest long before troops were committed when the following steps and events began taking shape:
* The relocation to Bethesda and Aberdeen of various key members of the Third Reich and the scientists who ran the infamous Japanese torture center, Unit 731.
* The Pentagon’s designing the “electronic battlefield” strategies for efficient carpet bombing of infrastructure.
* Massive testing of bio-defoliants, “rainbow herbicides” and chemical weapons by Dow, Monsanto and others leading up to Operation Ranch Hand where the chemicals, like dioxin, were sprayed directly on millions of Vietnamese civilians to test mortality thresholds.
* Drafting plans for sabotaging rice paddies and dams to force mass starvation through crop destruction and flooding to test human endurance.
* Forced mass relocation campaigns to subvert all sense of cultural identity and ancestral tradition.
* New interrogation, humiliation and torture techniques along with creation of programs like the State Department’s Phoenix Program designed to destroy all will in the hearts and minds of the peasants who resist complete subjugation.
The following quote by the great war photo journalist, the late Philip Jones Griffiths, will provide the needed contrast and perspective on Ken Burns’ collaborationist tripe. In his book Vietnam Inc, Griffiths quotes a US officer reviewing the effectiveness of napalm on site in Vietnam in language that reveals the deep racist undercurrent of the US military. Race was a most critical factor in gaining approval in government funding for the atrocities, yet overlooked or downplayed by Burns, as it has been with every other revisionist “historian” of the US campaign of Terror in Southeast Asia, specifically the Vietnam Experiment in Counterrevolution, a/k/a the Vietnam War:
“We sure are pleased with those backroom boys at Dow. The original product wasn’t so hot – if the gooks were quick they could scrape it off. So the boys started adding polystyrene – now it sticks like shit to a blanket. But if the gooks jumped under water it stopped burning, so they started adding Willie Peter (white phosphorus) so’s to make it burn better. And just one drop is enough, it’ll keep on burning right down to the bone so they die anyway from phosphorus poisoning.”
Today Vietnam has the same “communist” government the the overwhelming majority of its people risked their lives to install in the 3 decades after WWII, yet it is now a principal trade partner of the US proving that the “war” had nothing to do with communism and everything to do with the trillion dollar war profiteering the experiment provided the US war economy. The great Vietnam driveby ended, not through the countless hours of demonstrating by VVAW members like me – though that brought a certain necessary consiousness to the public, but when the experiment ended. And not a day sooner.
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This man’s comments leave me confused. The Australian soldiers were well trained fierce soldiers. We can look back now and question but it was a do or die combat!
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Randall, where in the article does this man challenge the training and abilities of the Australian soldiers? Now I’m confused..
Good article to read. I was privileged to work with some members of the AATTV in Vietnam shortly before their return to Australia early in 1973. I also was privileged to be resettled in Australia in 1985. I am totally happy with my life here. Some people mention racism, and I encountered it, too. However, the bottom line is mutual respect and together we make Australia even a greater country. I have been working with many Vietnam veterans in Melbourne and found them very respectable, compassionate and tolerate.
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It’s kind of peripheral, three of my favorite books are: “365 Days” , “Chicken hawk” and “10,000 days” the latter was written by Nguyen Cao Ky !
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