By Phil Shannon
Vietnam Days: Australia and the Impact of Vietnam
Peter Pierce, Jeffrey Grey, Jeff Doyle (eds)
Penguin, 1991. 323 pp. $19.95
Reviewed by Phil Shannon
"The struggle of people [against power]", wrote the Czech author Milan Kundera, "is the struggle of memory against forgetting". Some of the contributors to Vietnam Days are firmly on the side of forgetting — forgetting the origins and nature of the war brought on by imperialist greed-heads as they sought, over the incinerated and broken bodies of the Vietnamese, to teach the poor elsewhere in the world that they exist to serve the stock exchange.
The book begins with a breathtaking exercise in historical revisionism by Ian McNeill, a former Australian Army major. As the "official" historian of the war, McNeill parrots government propaganda. He takes us deep into the Orwellian terrain of the "communist threat" to regional "security" posed by North Vietnam, which required "forward defence" by Australia to prevent "catastrophe".
McNeill is unable to conceive that this Cold War Speak about communist iniquity masked the real concern about the "threat" that Vietnam's model of independent development posed to the "freedom" of the business looters in the West to exploit the world's poor.
McNeill binds his Cold War thesis together with all the old lies about Vietnam. The liberation forces in the south (the NLF), he says, were dominated by the ruthless "North Vietnamese", who invaded the South, justifying the West's "involvement" (not, of course, called the West's "invasion").
He is wilfully blind to the facts (easily ascertainable from even such establishment sources as the Pentagon Papers and CIA dissidents) — facts such as the South Vietnamese government being the creation of the CIA, with no popular support and surviving only courtesy of US firepower and a 50,000 strong secret police. Or that, by the CIA's own estimate, 80% of the Vietnamese population would have supported the Communist Party in free elections which the US scuttled. Or that the US invasion started many years before the North sent army units south in response to the US invasion.
McNeill mentions none of this because it doesn't meet the guidelines of "official" history. The rest of McNeill's article celebrates the "success" of the Australian Army in "securing" the province of Phuoc Tuy, with no discussion of
what this meant for the people "secured".
Also a dab hand with the political whitewash is Jeffrey Grey, who attempts to redeem the war to the mythic glories of the Anzac tradition by bagging the Vietnam Veterans' Association for its campaign on Agent Orange — which tarnished the idea of a noble and clean Vietnam War with support at all levels of society for "our boys". Grey selectively cites those studies (the "official" ones) which claim to show no link between dioxin and physical and mental abnormalities, consigning to the memory hole those studies in Australia and Vietnam which show contrary evidence.
In idealising the Vietnam digger, Grey also evades the issue of the Australian Army and war atrocities. He doesn't mention the integration of the Australian "training team" into the US Phoenix Program, a terror campaign against NLF sympathisers which killed between 30,000 and 50,000 civilians.
Neither does Grey, in his zeal to separate the besmirched US soldiers from the fundamentally decent Australian digger, consider what was (politically) similar between the US, Australian (and New Zealand, South Korean and Thai) societies which sought to stop the "threat of a good example" (in Chomsky's phrase).
The book gets somewhat better after all this revisionist whitewash. (It could hardly get worse.) Robin Gerster describes those novelists who reflected official thoughts as being concerned "for a simplified and nostalgic" return to celebrating military prowess, a process which also involves the racist caricaturing of the Vietnamese guerillas as "incarnations of Oriental evil" and "stock Asian monsters" who are, of course, "fanatical" (never "dedicated or "courageous" — terms reserved for the imperialist soldiers). In these novels there is "little doubt or uncertainty as to the rightfulness of the Australian military presence in Vietnam".
Other novelists, however, dig a little deeper. Graham Greene's "perception of the destructive consequences of the rhetoric of idealistic imperialism" (in his 1955 Vietnam novel The Quiet American) is "analysed and confirmed by other writers, American and Australian" in their novels, writes Peter Pierce.
Other cultural events criticised include the US and Australian "welcome home" marches (in Jeff Doyle's article), which manipulate sympathy for the veterans into an apolitical "forget the war, remember the warrior". This process transforms "guilt and doubt into duty and pride" (although Doyle believes this applies to the US parade only and he is at pains to criticise Australian antiwar protesters like Harry van Moorst who see the march as "a conservative rewriting" of the war, cresting a wave of "rising new
But what really stirs the blood of the editors is Australian nationalism. They give the impression that the most shameful aspect of the war was Australia's dependence on the US — hence their efforts to differentiate the "good" Australian experience from the tarnished US.
Nationalism, of course, requires "healing the wounds of social division". Though why the students, workers and others who opposed the war and were attacked by the political and corporate warmongers (who ruined Vietnam to maintain divisions of wealth and power) should forgive and forget is not at all obvious.
In fact, the political divisions which were opened up by the war — between the hard grey men of an ugly order and the young vanguard of the political opposition and counterculture — are worth deepening, not healing. Remembering Vietnam is an important part of the struggle against power. Vietnam Days is both obstacle and aid to this. If you do read it, keep some Chomsky or Pilger nearby as an antidote.