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Issue #1745      August 24, 2016

Editorial

Long Tan – misdirected indignation

The media worked the news story into a lather. The Vietnamese government had withdrawn permission for Australian vets to conduct a ceremony at the memorial featuring the familiar white cross at Long Tan, east of Ho Chi Minh City. “‘Kick in the guts’ as Vietnam bans service”, as the Sydney Morning Herald expressed it. It appeared the Vietnamese government, for no clear reason at all, had decided to disrupt the plans of Australian veterans and their families to mark the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan. Bastardry on the part of the Communist government was suspected.

Prime Minister Turnbull was reported to have phoned his Vietnamese counterpart to secure a reversal of the decision or some sort of compromise. In the end, the planned major commemorative event was scaled back to a more modest gathering. As the days went by, however, the government’s and the media’s line that this was a “last minute” development and completely unreasonable started to come under pressure. Unease on the part of the Vietnamese government had been expressed for weeks and the servicemen, themselves, started to challenge the whole “kick in the guts” line.

Battle of Long Tan commander Harry Smith understood Vietnamese sensitivity on the issue and said Australia would be up in arms if Japanese veterans wanted to come to the Northern Territory capital to pay respects to fallen comrades. Some in the media, who lived through the controversy generated by the Vietnam War, took up the analogy. It is worth thinking about. Imagine the Japanese came here and placed wreaths on the graves of their fallen comrades, fellow conscripts and cannon fodder for Japanese imperialism. Few would be offended. But what if the delegation were to carry their banners, wear military uniform and dwell heavily on the damage their comrades inflicted on Darwin before their aircraft were shot down? There would be outrage.

Any mention of the Vietnam War in Australia and the role of its service men and women sparks a strangely misdirected anger in some quarters. The Moratorium Movement and other opponents of Australian involvement in Vietnam are portrayed somehow as the “enemy”. They supposedly created an atmosphere in which returning soldiers felt unwelcome and unappreciated. The major question about how this force of mostly conscript soldiers was used and abused in a US-led invasion and occupation of Vietnam is ignored. Thanks to the expiry of the secrecy restriction surrounding some government documents of the time, we now know the Australian government asked the puppet regime in the south of Vietnam for an invitation to join in the carnage directed against the national liberation struggle of the Vietnamese people.

Conscription and the Vietnam War were desperately unpopular with the Australian people. Everybody’s family lived with the fear a son’s birth date would come out of the dreaded barrel; that he would be forced to go and fight in an unjust war. The unpopularity of the war was a major reason for the election of the Whitlam government. Its first act in government was to abolish conscription and withdraw Australian forces from the conflict. This was an immensely popular act.

The truly offensive discrimination against Vietnam vets came from conservative forces within the government, the bureaucracy and even the Returned Servicemen’s League. Vets from Vietnam did not get the same reception as their counterparts from WW2, Korea, the Malayan “Emergency” and other “victorious” campaigns. Their claims of disability from contact with the defoliant Agent Orange were disbelieved as were their symptoms of severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

The anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan is an appropriate time to reflect on what a heavy price Australia and the people of the region have paid for the US alliance. It led the Australian government to sacrifice the lives of young men, some as young as 19 – old enough to die in a war against a whole people engaged in struggle for independence but not old enough to vote. The anger the media sought to direct at the government of a now united Vietnam should be directed at the US alliance and all it represents – the waste of so many lives and the squandering of resources that should have gone to meet the needs of the people of Australia and the region.

Next article – NT Juvenile Justice Royal Commission – Protests nationwide

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