‘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.

 

 

 

‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’ by Audrey Niffenegger

Niffenegger_TimeTravellersWife

2004, 519 p.

I used to read many more books that I do now, particularly between the years 2000 and say 2007, when I had an extended period of ill health. When this book was produced with a flourish as our July read for book group,  my heart sank a little as I had read it back in 2005. But fourteen years is a long time between reads, and although I remembered the gist, I didn’t remember the details.

It’s a time-travel book. I quite enjoy time-travel books that have a relationship at the heart of them until I try to explain them, and then the whole construct falls apart. It is the story of Henry, who travels back and forth through time, and his love for Clare, who would become his wife. The structure is confusing at first, with the chronology jumping back and forward, with Henry at varying ages as Clare plods through her allotted life span as Henry appears, disappears and reappears again.  I often found myself having to turn back to check the date of the chapter, and there was not enough difference in tone and language between the alternating narratives of Henry and Clare. The book has many references to literature and poetry which don’t really rescue it from what is often very domestic and every-day. The ending was a long time coming, with ‘just one more chapter’ being tacked on to the last.

Did I like it any more in 2005? It seems not: in fact, I seem to have mellowed in my old age. This is what I wrote in 2005:

I should have been warned off this book by the Women’s Weekly Great Read sticker on the front. It’s an interesting idea: a chronodisplaced man pops in and out of the life of the woman who is to be come his wife, but worthy only of novella treatment – not a whole 500 page tome! So much of this was banal: getting dressed, eating, mundane conversation lived by an adolescent randiness and panting and always-wonderful sex.  It will probably make a nice enough movie, but it doesn’t need all this print to support it. It’s a first novel, and one badly in need of a judicious prune.  5.5/10

Ouch! I was surprised by how much sex there was in the book, which seemed rather gratuitous in the end.  Perhaps I would enjoy the movie more? After all, that Christopher Reeve movie ‘Somewhere in Time’ was a favourite when I was about 20.  Still, I’m pleased to see that my opinions about books generally hold firm over more than a decade, and that I won’t have to go back to re-read all the books I didn’t like.

My rating: 6.5 out of 10 (I told you that I had mellowed)

Sourced from: CAE as a bookgroup selection.

 

Movie: Rocketman

What is it with the nostalgia for old rock stars? Freddy Mercury in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, the Beatles in ‘Yesterday”, Michael Hutchence,  a new Bruce Springsteen movie coming out… and ‘Rocketman’.  I know that there’s a deliberate targetting of baby-boomer filmgoers who actually pay to sit on a cinema seat, but …I don’t know…there’s something a bit moth-ball-y and retirement village-y about all these excursions into the past. I personally mightn’t enjoy it and wouldn’t pay to see it, but are current musicians not worthy of celebration? Was the only good music written and performed between 1964 and 1994?

This was far more like a musical than I imagined it would be, and the songs are used to advance the story,  rather than a strict chronological discography.  I hadn’t realized how closely the lives of Elton John and Bernie Taupin were intertwined, but it seems strange to use the lyrics (which Taupin wrote) as a narrative skeleton for a telling of Elton John’s life. As someone once said: how odd that Elton John should sing for about forty years without ever singing his own words.  And I felt just a bit ambivalent about the idea of a very wealthy rock star writing and funding his own lavish autobiographical film (yes- I know, I’m inconsistent because I read autobiographies).  Hence, his prattishness was made to seem reasonable, or at least understandable, and there’s quite a bit of special pleading going on here.

That said, I did enjoy it, and hearing all those old songs from my adolescence and early adulthood again. I also enjoyed watching YouTube videos of Elton John and Taron Egerton singing together, with Elton beaming away like a stage mother in her dressing gown.

My rating: 3.5 stars.

I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 24 – 31 July 2019

13 Minutes to the Moon continues. In Episode 6 Saving 1968 they look at Apollo 8, which was the break-through journey leaving Earth’s orbit and entering that of the moon, and travelling to the ‘other side’. Shame about the Bible reading on Christmas Eve though. In Episode 7 Michael Collins: Third Man they examine the career of Michael Collins, who stayed behind when the lunar landing craft sailed off into the darkness. Much of it is read from Collins’ autobiography

Today in Focus (Guardian UK) The Story of Grenfell United takes up the story of the survivors of the Grenfell Towers fire, two years on, who still feel that they have not been heard and that there will be other Grenfells.  It finishes with a ‘roll call’ of those who died, at a memorial ceremony. It’s chilling to hear how many of them have the same surname.

Revolutions Podcast Episode 10.5 looks at the life of Mikhael Bakunin, the ‘father’ of collective anarchism. He met Karl Marx before the 1848 Revolution, and hung around in similar circles. He was imprisoned for many years, then escaped to Japan and ended up travelling the globe before finally joining the International Working Mens Association. Episode 10.6 is very good, explaining collective anarchism. After abolishing the state, heredity wealth, the army, the police etc. a collective society would share the wealth amongst those who share the labour (i.e. no free ride here)

The Documentary (BBC) The Documentary has a series on language learning. As you know, I bumble along learning Spanish, and it was rather daunting to hear about  The Superlinguists: The Polyglots  who speak multiple languages – 15, 20 of them.  In The Superlinguists: Multilingual Societies they travel to India, which has a huge diversity of languages with people able to speak several, depending on purpose and audience, and Luxembourg where there are three different languages that children are educated in simultaneously and were people seem to be able to swap effortlessly between. How depressing.

Queensland_Native_Police_1864

Queensland Native Police 1864 Source: Wikimedia

The History Listen (ABC) The Native Police was a police contingent composed of indigenous men who were used by settlers and the colonial government to ‘disperse’ (i.e. round up, murder) other indigenous people in lands coveted by the settlers. It makes for an unsettling family history among indigenous people today – to have forefathers who massacred other indigenous people- sometimes among other branches of their own family. This series of two programs Queensland’s Native Police: the Frontier in my Family and Queensland’s Native Police: Grappling with the Gaps explores how present-day indigenous families deal with this uncomfortable knowledge

Essay: ‘The Long Road to Uluru’ by Megan Davis

I enjoy reading essays and articles, and so I’ve decided to write about them on my blog. Apart from the fact that they interest me, one of my criteria for selection is that they are available online or through a State Library library card.

NAIDOC week took place this month, with the theme ‘Voice, Treaty Truth’. This essay by Cobble Cobble woman, Megan Davis,  first appeared in the Griffith Review 60 ‘First Things First’  in April 2018 and it has been recently unlocked on the Griffith Review website in celebration of NAIDOC 2019. In the essay titled  The Long Road to Uluru: Walking together- truth before justice, she goes back to 1999 to describe the last twenty years of fumbling towards substantive and symbolic recognition. She is well placed to write this essay: she is Professor of Law at UNSW and an independent expert on the United Nations Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. She was also heavily involved in the Referendum Council that produced the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which this year’s NAIDOC slogan echoes.

It seems odd to read now of Rudd’s 2008  “2020 Summit” and realize that we’ve almost reached 2020 already. Not long after that summit, Rudd was presented with The Yolngu and Bininj Leaders Statement of Intent which in many ways foreshadowed the Uluru Statement some ten years later.

The old tactic of Delay by Report has been well exercised over the past 35 years:

Australia has amassed many reports on the exigency of structural reforms for Indigenous peoples, including a 1983 Senate Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, a 1988 Constitutional Commission, the post-Mabo Social Justice Package of 1992–95, the 1998 Constitutional Convention, the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation in 2000 and the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee in 2003, as well as a 2008 House of Representatives Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs.

In mid-2010 Gillard convened the Expert Panel with representation of a diverse cross-section of Australians and direct representation of all sides of parliament, charged with “leading a broad national consultation and community engagement program to seek the views of a wide spectrum of the community.” After handing up its report, the outgoing Gillard government generously funded the ‘Recognize’ campaign. This might have made white Australians feel better, but neither the Expert Panel Report or the Recognize Campaign had widespread support amongst indigenous Australians. Five years later the Referendum Council was formed, this time with a remit to give Aboriginal people a voice.

This article makes clear the differences between the Expert Panel and the Referendum Council which followed it December 2015 in terms of indigenous participation and findings. It explains how the Regional Dialogues were organized, what happened on the three days of the twelve dialogues held in different locations, and what the priorities were that emerged from these dialogues.  One of the strongest themes that came from the activities planned on the first day was the importance of ‘truth’ and making the indigenous story known to all Australians. Davis refers in particular to the Final Report of the Referendum Council, most especially the section ‘Our Story’ which starts on p. 16 of the text (p.24 of the PDF document)

The Final Report is interesting reading. Appendix D is  Galarrwuy Yunupingu’s essay ‘Rom Watungu: The Law of the Land’ from The Monthly July 2016.  As a shot across the bow on the part of conservative forces, Appendix E is Referendum Council member Amanda Vanstone’s ‘Qualifying Statement’ which has been echoed in recent commentary on Ken Wyatt’s referendum proposal.

I feel a little embarrassed to say that I hadn’t realized the nuances of ‘recognition’ and I had no real idea of how the Uluru Statement came to be written. This essay highlights that the Uluru Statement shouldn’t have come as a surprise, because it was foreshadowed many times when indigenous people were consulted in a meaningful way. It’s a rather depressing thought, although this essay is more optimistic than I am that we will ever to move past the fear and denial that has stymied action in the past.

 

‘The Vagabond Papers’ by John Stanley James

 

vagabond

1969, 256 p.

John Stanley James (1843-1896) , a.k.a ‘Julian Thomas’ and ‘The Vagabond’ was a journalist, originally of Staffordshire England, who ended up in Australia and the New Hebrides. His most famous articles were written in Melbourne in the 1860s through to the 1880s, where he worked under-cover in what we would now call immersive journalism, which was published in a number of newspapers, most notably the Argus. I hadn’t heard of him, and neither had Jill Giese who featured him in her The Maddest Place on Earth (see my review here) but he has been on historians’  and journalists’ radars for some years. He has even been inducted into the Australian Media Hall of Fame!

The version I read of this book was published in 1969 with an introduction by historian Michael Cannon. It has been recently republished by Monash University Press, with the original 1969 Cannon introduction supplemented by additional essays by Robert W. Flippen and Willa McDonald. I had heard podcasts of their presentations to the RHSV (see my review here), so having heard about their discoveries about James’ life, I felt comfortable enough with the older edition where Cannon signposts the very absences that Flippen and McDonald were to fill.

Vagabond2

2016

The chapters in this book are taken from his newspaper articles that deal with Melbourne and Sydney only,  illustrated by sketches from Punch, The Australasian Sketcher and the Illustrated Australian News. They have been arranged in six parts, reflecting their content.

In Part 1 ‘Down and Out’, James visits the places where the indigent gathered, often working ‘under-cover’. He pretends to be an outpatient at the Melbourne Hospital, where it takes him four attempts to be attended. He visits the police court (as Helen Garner was to do 140 years later) and visits the refuges and services offered. He compares the lodging houses in Melbourne and Sydney,  and writes about the Waifs and Strays of Sydney where his writing evokes Charles Dickens. He eats at a Sixpenny Restaurant and goes to the Melbourne General Cemetery to witness pauper funerals.

Part II “Life in Prison’ draws on his four-week undercover assignment at Pentridge Prison, where he works in the different divisions of the jail. In  Part III ‘Middle Class Morality’ he turns his attention to the churches including fashionable Scots Church in Collins Street, under Rev Charles Strong (who later formed the Australian Church), the suburban parish church of South Yarra and the bazaar at St Luke’s Church Emerald Hill. He turns a jaundiced eye to ‘Sabbath Breaking’ in Sydney at the theatres and bars.

Part IV ‘Cold Charity’ takes him to the Immigrants Home, the Benevolent Asylum, the Sailors Home, a Ragged School and fostering-houses for neglected children.  He picks up on this theme in Part VI ‘The Demi-Monde’, where he goes to the Magdalen Asylum at Abbotsford (now an artistic and cultural centre), and a Protestant Female Refuge in Carlton.  In Part V ‘Manly Sports’ he describes a football match and boxing rounds.

He often sets up oppositions within these chapters, where he compares organizations of different sectarian and social hues.  His language is often racist, with particular disdain shown for Jews and Chinese. It is disconcerting to hear his praise of the Magdalen Asylum, given what we now know about them, but his writing is very much of its time. In spite of this, his humanity, concern for the ‘underdog’ and his scorn for hypocrisy and cant shines through.

It was only when the end of the book was approaching that I realized that I hadn’t read the one thing that I had borrowed the book for- his expose of conditions in the Kew and Yarra Bend asylums. They are not included, and so I had to turn to the original newspaper sources instead through our wonderful Trove. It was interesting reading them in their newspaper format instead of the reader-friendly reproduction of his articles in book-form in ‘The Vagabond Papers’. (If you’re looking for them, they are in the Argus No I 22 July 1876; No. II 29 July 1876; No. III 5 August 1876; No. IV 12 August 1876; No. V 19 August 1876; No VI 26 August 1876). It made me realize how unaccustomed I am  to reading long-form journalism, especially with such small font and narrow columns.

I’m really pleased that I have met ‘The Vagabond’. He was years ahead of his time in his journalism, which is vivid and engaging, giving a good (if colourful) picture of Melbourne and Sydney from the bottom-up.  And what a fascinating personality, full of contradictions!

 

 

 

‘The Shape of the Ruins’ by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

vasquez_shape_of_the_ruins

2018 (English translation, originally 2015), 505 p.

When I learned that there was a new Juan Gabriel Vásquez book available, I made sure to put a hold on it as soon as it became available at the library. I had really enjoyed The Sound of Things Falling and looked forward to this new book. But I must confess that for about the first 100 pages I felt disappointed. Was this even a different book? I wondered. Many of the same elements were in both books: the tone of the narrator, who becomes obsessed with a murder at the same time as his partner is undergoing a health crisis; the fictionalization of a real-life event, and the sticky web of crime and conspiracy in Colombia. Is Vásquez only capable of writing the same book over and over?  That question still lingers, even though I was soon won over by the author’s smooth writing (no doubt ably assisted by an excellent translation).

The narrator is Juan Gabriel Vásquez himself, so already the lines between fiction and memoir are blurred. He becomes drawn into his friend Doctor Benevidas’ obsession with the (real life) murder of Colombian politician Jorge Eliécer Gaítan on April 9, 1948, an obsession that was almost handed down from father to son. Vásquez learns that his friend is not the only one obsessed: so too is Carlos Carballo, a former student of Dr Benevidas’ father, who conflates this assassination with other historical assassinations including J. F. Kennedy and the 1914 assassination of Liberal leader General Rafael Uribe Uribe. So there is this whirlpool of assassinations and conspiracy theories, investigated to the point of madness by amateur historian/detectives. Vásquez finds himself drawn into this whirlpool, while at the same time distancing himself from the conspiratorial world-view that propels it.

The book unfolds almost like those Russian dolls, starting off with one assassination, which is then likened to another, and then another.  There are stories within stories, each subtly but recognizably different from the other. The historical detail is rich, as I found when I googled to supplement my sketchy knowledge of Colombian history. This is not a bad way to have your history delivered, but Vásquez plays tricks too. He inserts completely fictional artefacts into the story, and makes references to his own fictional characters in his earlier books, as well as referencing other Latin American writers like Borges and, in a factual sense, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. There are photographs in the text, like a W.G. Sebald text, and the book is permeated with that same elegiac Sebaldian tone. It feels baggy and discursive, but it is always controlled.

So after playing with your head for 500 pages and making you feel as if you are stuck in one long Oliver Stone documentary, where does Vásquez leave you? The line between fiction and truth is blurred for him, as well as for you:

There are two ways to view or contemplate what we call history: one is the accidental vision, for which history is the fateful product of an infinite chain of irrational acts, unpredictable contingencies and random life events (life as unremitting chaos which we human beings try desperately to order); and the other is the conspiratorial vision, a scenario of shadows and invisible hands and eyes that spy and voices that whisper in corners… where the cause of events are silenced for reasons nobody knows (p. 496)…it would no longer be the fictional characters of that novel who would occupy my solitude, but a true story that showed me at every step how little I had understood until this moment of my country’s past, which laughed in my face, as if making me feel the pettiness of my narrative resources before the disorder of what had happened so many years ago. It would no longer be the conflicts of characters who depended on my will, but my attempts to understand truly and for ever, what ..had [been] revealed over the course of several encounters that were now blending in my memory (p. 501)

This is a complex read, but a compelling one. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize for 2019.  I’m frustrated that it is so similar to his earlier book, and yet I can’t help feeling that this similarity is completely intentional – that it is all part of a bigger vision. And so, when his next book comes out, I’ll be rushing to read that too.

My rating: 9.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.