Thursday, December 13, 2007

Vietnam: The Australian War, by Paul Ham

My knowledge of the Vietnam war is fairly sporadic. I get the north and west, the communist and non-communist all mixed up. Author Paul Ham writes that his book, Vietnam: The Australian War is the first full history of Australia’s involvement in that appalling conflict. (The Vietnamese call it The American War.) One wonders why it has taken so long to write such a book.

Running at 700 pages, it is a pretty exhaustive study. Every aspect of the war is looked at, and from every national and political angle. We get a brief 3000 year history of Vietnam, right up to the French colonising the country. If Vietnam had never been colonised, we learn, then the Vietnamese never would have turned to communism as a tool to boot out the French.

Of course once the French finally got the message and left, then the American’s stepped in. The rationale was to stop communism taking over the Asian region. This was called the domino effect. Once Saigon fell to communism, then it was all over red rover for the rest of the region.

In Australia, prime minister Robert Menzies could not get us into the Vietnam war fast enough. He by passed parliament and his cabinet to give assurances that we would give moral and military support to America. For the first couple of years, the war in Vietnam had popular Australian support. This was helped along by a media that spruiked for the war too. Then once the complexity and quagmire of the war set in, Australians started to turn on the war.

Perhaps one of the most depressing things about the Vietnam war was the response of anti-war protestors to soldiers both fighting and returned. They were vilified by fired up protestors as being baby killers and rapists. This attitude filtered down into the culture so deeply that people made such comments almost casually, as though it were a lamentable truth. In many instances the behaviour of these anti-war protestors was despicable.

As Paul Ham rightly says, these soldiers were sent off to war with mass Australian approval, by their politicians and the citizens that elected them, only to be spat upon and demonised horribly on their return. To get an idea of how bad this response was, even most RSL clubs shunned them. These men had limbs blown off and witnessed friends being blown to pieces.

Even more disgustingly, the Australian government at first refused to fly back the remains of killed soldiers. It was only after protests from the families concerned that this policy was reversed.

Then there are the sufferings of the Vietnamese people themselves. It all beggars belief that people lived through such hardship. Australians should think themselves lucky to have Vietnamese people living here.

This book is a bit of hard work. There is much detail of battles etc. that I’m not fond of reading. Yet any student of Australian history will find it indispensable reading. It’s a cliché I know, but we need to learn from the mistakes of the past. The more Australians that read this book, and think deeply about what it says, the better off we will be as a country.

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