An attempt to find common ground amongst Veterans in the recent debate about Australia’s role in the Vietnam War (1962-72)… The article below received enormous feedback on the www.onlineopinion.com.au website
Gallipoli good, Vietnam bad
By Sasha Uzunov – posted Tuesday, 21 July 2009
Don Tate, Vietnam Veteran and author of The War Within, has made explosive claims that his unit was ordered to dispose of the bodies of enemy soldiers killed during Australia’s most controversial war by blowing them up. This debate has split the Vietnam veteran community.
The purpose here is not to agree or disagree with Tate’s book or to pick sides but to find common ground between the two warring factions, who both have a democratic right to present their case and evidence. No doubt there will be those who view the Vietnam War as immoral. But the cold hard reality is that no war in history has ever been nice and/or neat. Nasty things happened during World War I, II, Korea and so on.
Overall, Australia’s military had an impeccable record in Vietnam. There was no US-style My Lai massacre of innocent Vietnamese. Hypothetically speaking, it is one thing to blow up the bodies of dead enemy and another to kill innocent villagers.
There are those in the media who have a romantic notion of Gallipoli – a military operation during World War I that was a failure but which established Australia’s Anzac Legend – but who have condemned Vietnam.
We are also forgetting the Viet Cong communist massacre of innocent Vietnamese civilians during the battle of Hue in 1968 at the time of the Tet Offensive. And that many thousands of Vietnamese fled by boat to Australia post 1975, after the communist takeover.
Earlier this year, I remember sitting down to watch the evening news and saw a touching scene of the most recent Victoria Cross winner, Trooper Mark Donaldson, of the elite SASR meeting with World War II recipient Edward “Ted” Kenna, who has now sadly passed away. It was one generation of brave Anzacs passing on the torch to another. It reminded me of a famous drawing of an old War I digger handing over the mantle to a World War II digger.
It got me to think: who is the person who decides which war is “good” and which war is “bad” and should or should not be part of the Anzac legend? Donaldson, serving in Afghanistan, was the first to win the Victoria Cross in 40 years since the last winner, Keith Payne earned his in Vietnam.
To call Vietnam immoral would be insulting to Australian Vietnam veterans and the 501 who died there. It would be a slap in the face for Long Tan heroes Dave Sabben and Bob Buick; it would be insulting to Coral/Balmoral hero Neil Weekes and Operation Ivanhoe hero Gary McKay, who is a famous author in his own right. Moreover, it would denigrate Keith Payne, Victoria Cross winner for bravery in that war.
It would also be a kick in the guts for Tate, who was wounded in action in Vietnam. It would be offensive to the thousands of Vietnamese who now make Australia home after escaping communist tyranny.
Ray Martin, born 1944, the hugely popular Channel 9 personality and reporter, built a rapport with the Veteran community and even offered to use his then program, Midday with Ray Martin, to champion a Welcome Home March in 1987 for Vietnam Vets. In 2004 I interviewed Ray Martin by asking him:
… you’ve been a big supporter of the Anzac Legend over the years. Considering your enthusiasm and passion for the Anzac legend, could you explain why you didn’t volunteer for military service in South Vietnam? (1962-72). Don’t journalists who report on war have a professional and moral obligation to undertake some form of military training, much in the same way we require doctors, lawyers and mechanics to be “trade tested”?
Martin responded (by fax on November 15, 2004):
“I found your fax offensive, but I’ll answer it. Being a patriot, eulogizing the Anzac legend etc doesn’t require anyone to volunteer to fight a senseless, immoral war. Even Peter Cosgrove [then Chief of the Defence Forces] has acknowledged that Vietnam was wrong.
Your nonsense about ‘moral obligations’ to serve in the ADF [Australian Defence Forces], irrespective of the rights or wrongs of the war, is just that nonsense. I support everyone of our troops who put their lives on the line. But that doesn’t require everyone else to sign up, every time Canberra decides to go to war. Being a patriot doesn’t mean you blindly accept what the pollies [politicians] want. You’re entitled to your opinion. I’m entitled to disagree.”
Martin provides no evidence to back up his assertion that Vietnam was immoral. For the record, General Cosgrove called the Vietnam War a mistake because it was militarily un-winnable not immoral, much in the same way that famous WWI correspondents Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett and (Sir) Keith Murdoch called Gallipoli a disaster at the time.
The Allies of which Australia was a member ended up winning WWI. The “Free World,” of which Australia was a member together with the United States, lost Vietnam in 1975 but won the Cold War against communism in 1989. Robert McNamara, the architect of the US war in Vietnam, later admitted the war was a mistake. Respected commentator Dr Gerard Henderson has made the brilliant point, missed by many but so obvious:
“As a consequence of Watergate, [US President] Nixon and his successor Gerald Ford, under pressure from Congress, walked away from the US commitment to provide military supplies to the anti-communist regime in South Vietnam. This contributed to the conquest of South Vietnam by communist North Vietnam, which was supplied by the (then) Soviet Union. “
Australia and the United States entered the Vietnam War in 1962 and pulled out in 1972 because of internal political pressure without losing a single battle. For three years an underdog ragtag South Vietnamese military managed to hold off the Communist North until 1975. If Gallipoli is seen as a romantic failure why not the three-year valiant struggle by our allies the South Vietnamese with their backs against the wall? Be that as it may, the Martin mantra is that Gallipoli was good, but Vietnam bad.
This is an introduction to Martin’s story for 60 Minutes about Gallipoli (April 21, 2001):
“Eight thousand, seven hundred and nine Aussie soldiers were killed at Gallipoli, but now 10 times that number of Aussie tourists make their pilgrimage each year. Most of them are about the same age as the soldiers who died there. As Ray Martin reports, it’s a phenomenon, almost a rite of passage – young Australians in search of our history, and perhaps in search of themselves. “
The tone is reverential for Gallipoli but not for Vietnam. Why? Gallipoli was a military failure that cost more than 8,000 Australian lives and was fought in someone else’s backyard, Turkey.
One of the reasons why Australia’s Vietnam War was seen as immoral comes from media perceptions that have been now discredited, in particular the infamous, exaggerated Viet Cong Water Torture story that never was but brought fame and fortune to newsman John Sorrell in 1968, who later became Director of News at Channel 9 in Melbourne. The Sorrell story inflicted enormous psychological damage.
Gary McMahon, a two-tour Vietnam Veteran, tells of a mate who was:
“Absolutely destroyed later in his life about the lies and insinuations that came from the bullshit in that report. I served two tours of duty, saw a lot of action and cannot recall one incidence of anything more than an Aussie kicking an enemy body or spitting on one. Like that whole war though everything was misreported, misanalysed, misunderstood and so on.”
I tried to contact Sorrell when he was still alive: he died earlier this year. In a democratic society, we should be able to debate national legends and myths and taboo subjects. As far as I know, no one, including the media, holds copyright on the Anzac Legend. It belongs to everyone.
Vietnam for better or worse will remain Australia’s most controversial of wars for the simple fact it was the first television war, unlike Gallipoli.