‘Australia’s Vietnam: Myth vs History’ by Mark Dapin

dapin_australia-vietnam

2019, 231 p.

In August 2007 an article about the Vietnam Veterans Motorcycle Club appeared in the  Good Weekend magazine insert that accompanies The Age. Written by journalist Mark Dapin, it was based on interviews with members from the Queensland chapter, hard-drinking men, many of whom suffered with PTSD. They told Dapin of seeing (and even being involved in) atrocities during their tours of duty, of being flown home in the dark in a futile attempt to avoid protestors at the airport, of being spat at, being jeered as ‘baby killers’, having paint poured on them, and smarting from the absence of welcome home marches.  He reported what he heard.

But after over 160 interviews, six years of study, a non-fiction book and a Ph.D. on the topic, Mark Dapin would no longer write that original article in the same way. In a way, this book is a long mea culpa for his easy acceptance of what he had been told. In his opening chapter ‘The myths I helped to make’, he writes

I no longer believe a significant number of people in the 1960s and early 1970s regarded Vietnam veterans as baby-killers, bludgers or morons- although negative stereotypes of the returned men existed in some circles, and those stereotypes altered, mutated and probably intensified from the late 1970s through to the mid 1980s…I do not think Australian students poured paint over returning soldiers in Australia in 1972 – or that they held any protests against returning soldiers that year. I doubt that many – if any- Australian veterans were spat upon. I do not think many – if any – Australians committed large-scale atrocities. I know no serviceman was flown home in the middle of the night specifically to ‘avoid protestors’. But I also know that I wrote my story in good faith. I believed what I was told, and I am certain the men who spoke to me felt they were telling the truth. (p.9)

Dapin’s book addresses the most prominent myths that have arisen out of the Vietnam War. Many of them are not even recognized as myths: most of them circulate in everyday commentary, propelled by politicians, journalists and historians like Paul Ham, whose Vietnam: The Australian War is too enthusiastically embraced by veterans as the definitive history of the war.

In succeeding chapters, Dapin unpacks the various myths attached to the popularly-received image of Vietnam. There have been claims, most stridently in Ham’s book but often echoed by Vietnam veterans themselves, that  no national servicemen were forced to serve in Vietnam and that, in fact, they were all given a chance not to go. In his appendix Dapin publishes the correspondence between radiographer David Wittner and the Minister for the Army Andrew Peacock that makes it clear that national servicemen were sent to Vietnam against their will.

He looks at the ballot system used for selecting National Servicemen.  One of the most widely-distributed myths is that Normie Rowe was falsely drafted into the army (still referenced on his Wikipedia page).  Dapin explains there was no conspiracy to enlist this pop singer: his birthday did come up in a supplementary ballot for men who were out of the country, as Rowe was, during their registration period.

He rebuts the idea that there were no welcome home parades as soldiers returned. It was the perception of a lack of welcome that prompted the Welcome Home Parade and National Reunion in Sydney in 1987, fourteen years after the last soldier returned.  In his appendix is a table of the sixteen welcome homes of the Vietnam Years, listing the estimated size of the crowd and the number of marchers (although I note that there are none in Melbourne?). He cites multiple newspaper articles from the time that laud the enthusiasm of the crowd and make mention, if at all, of only ‘a few’ demonstrators. At the sixteen parades he identifies, there was no blood thrown, although one protester, Nadine Jensen, did smear two men with red paint, kerosene and turpentine, at a Sydney welcome-home parade on 8 June 1966. That was the only incident of its kind. The only time an appreciable number of demonstrators confronted returning soldiers was when 20 demonstrators tried to join the end of the parade with their banners on 9 December 1969 in Adelaide.

Likewise, he could find no newspaper evidence at all of airport demonstrations against returning soldiers, although he did find evidence of a protest against the South African surf-life saving team which was heavily reported, and a small three-person protest against Dr Benjamin Spock, opponent of the Vietnam War when he arrived at Brisbane Airport in 1971. It is true that the soldiers often flew in at night, and the army’s own bureaucratic procedures delayed them until the early hours of the morning. But the nighttime scheduling was not to avoid protest but occurred instead to accommodate the daytime commercial needs of the airline companies who were providing the flights.

To the extent that there was jeering and anti-Vietnam protest, Dapin suggests that this arose later, in the 1980s onwards. There was  a report of spitting directed towards Harold Holt, and another at the May Day celebrations in Melbourne in 1972.  There were, of course, the huge Moratorium demonstrations, and in Adelaide, there was a confrontation between demonstrators and civilian- dressed soldiers from the 3RAR in May 1970.

Even the song ‘I Was Only 19’ has a complex history. Frankie Hunt, on whom the song is loosely based, changed his story about his Vietnam experience as he told it in 1987, 2005 and 2015 increasingly incorporating all the myths and tropes of thrown fruits, epithets, and calls of ‘child killers’. Yet Hunt himself did not ally himself with conservative forces and marched with the anti-nuclear movements.  Dapin does suggest that some of the so-called airport demonstrations were in fact anti-rape demonstrations of the 1980s, prompted by the women’s movement. Caution abounds as he writes:

I might feel emboldened to argue that the Vietnam-era national serviceman symbolized a certain kind of tough, disciplined, militarised masculinity that fell out of favour in the 1970s…that the later drafts of soldiers felt that Australia had shifted socially while they were away in Vietnam, and altered even further once the war ended… (p 202)

It is one thing to disprove myths: it is another to grapple with the question of why his interviewees told the narratives they did.  He cites Frank Bongiorno who notes that history has defined itself as a form of truth-telling in the face of myth (p.205). It makes it easy to condemn ‘oral history’ but he accords with the words of C. P. Stacey, the official historian of the Canadian Army in the Second World War who wrote

One very seldom encounters a deliberate liar [but] there were considerable numbers who lied to me while honestly believing they were telling the absolute truth. (cited on p. 205)

So what has happened here? He suggests that perhaps Australian veterans have incorporated the stories of American veterans, both in their homecoming response, and even the committal of atrocities. Film depictions have taken on the appearance of memory. Events from one phenomenon like the anti-rape demonstrations become merged into others, like the  homecomings. Stories, quoting unidentified sources, are published and become incorporated into individual narratives and become solidified into historical ‘fact’. Historians and journalists are squeamish about rebutting assertions presented as fact by a man sitting directly in front of them, and there is not enough rigour in fact-checking afterwards.  He is perplexed that the story of the conservative, pro-war forces, which dominated politics during the 1960s, has remained untold.

It seems to me now that mythology dogs and distorts the Australian soldier’s Vietnam experience, from its beginnings (for some) in the workings of the national servicemen’s birthdate-lottery selection process – to its end, in the lost memories of the 16 often enormous, enthusiastic wartime welcome home parades…when I talk about some veterans’ stories as mythological, I do not consider them to be mistaken or dishonest, but tales that are based on archetypes- the rejected returning serviceman; the soldier as a dupe of higher powers; the man-hating feminist; the fanatical agitator- and told to make sense of subsequent events. It has been said [by oral historian Alessandro Portelli] that ‘what informants believe is indeed a historical fact (that is, the fact they believe it) as much as what really happened’ but people believe all kinds of things, for reasons that range across the whole breadth of human experience. (p.17, 18)

In many ways, this is a brave book.  He unsettles the territory, interrogates dates, looks to contemporary rather than retrospective reports and makes things much more complex and contestable. Many people, most particularly veterans, politicians and some historians, will not like what he writes. He writes that he hopes that his book might put some of the myths of Vietnam to the sword, but he is not optimistic. Nor am I. I’m not sure that his book will challenge the big fat military history books written by authors whose names are in bigger font than the title…yet.

My rating: 8.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Some good reviews: David Stephens on the Honest History website and Hamish McDonald in the Saturday Paper, whose review prompted me to read this book.

 

 

 

3 responses to “‘Australia’s Vietnam: Myth vs History’ by Mark Dapin

  1. Interesting … I was a draft resister and a protester in Melbourne 1969-1971 and Brisbane 1972. I certainly believe that soldiers returning from Vietnam in the latter part of the war were not warmly received (“welcomed home”). I can’t see that that would have been possible in the face of massive protests. I know that soldiers initially thought they would be involved in some sort of a re-run of their fathers’ WWII experiences and that they were disappointed that by the time they returned, they were losers and their effort had been futile. And I’m sure that fed into the depression so many reportedly suffered.

    • Well, he went through all the newspaper reports of welcome home ceremonies, and there was no mention of disruptions. Many of the more conservative newspapers would have leapt on the chance to criticize protesters if they were attending the welcome home marches, but there was no disruption for them to report.

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