Going beyond one-sided 'understanding' of the Viet Nam War


By Peter McGregor

This article was written as a reply to a feature article by Tony Stephens in the April 10 Sydney Morning Herald. The Herald declined to publish it. Peter McGregor is one of the curators of Viet Nam Voices and a lecturer at the University of Western Sydney, Nepean.

Tony Stephens' article about Viet Nam Voices, a range of events at the Casula Powerhouse over the next two months, does "give voice" to six "participants" in the Viet Nam War. Yet Stephens' article is restricted to the stories of people from one "side" only — what used to be called "our side".

Legitimacy for antiwar voices is withheld by their absence. Yet, as ex-soldier Sam Wilson says, "We thought we'd gone to fight the baddies. I still don't really know what it's all about."

That's precisely the point of the Viet Nam Voices project: more than 20 years after the end of the war, to reassess just what the war was about, as another step towards reconciliation between the parties that made the war.

Unlike other wars where Australia has been on the side of the winners, the apparent defeat of our side in the Viet Nam conflict raised the issue of whether we were on the wrong side. The comments of the other two Australian soldiers are also revealing.

Ian Kuring still believes in the domino theory, as, incidentally, does Robert McNamara. Yet, while unrepentant hawk Kuring regrets we didn't "fight with both hands", McNamara's shift, from hawk in 1961 to covert dove, evident by 1968, was based upon the empirical refutation of Kuring's Rambo theory: "It's [the bombing campaign] done nothing. They've dropped more bombs than in all of Europe in all of World War II, and it hasn't done a fucking thing."

Matthew d'Arcy's story sounds like the reminiscences of someone from Tim Spicer's Executive Outcomes. D'Arcy elaborates his approach — as a "war lord" — to "winning the hearts and minds" of the villagers in an essay in the Viet Nam Voices Catalog, proudly admitting involvement in the Phoenix program (covertly assassinating Viet Cong sympathisers).

Just as the issue of war crimes in Cambodia under Pol Pot remains unresolved, the responsibility for the treatment of villagers by "our side" during the Viet Nam War also remains unsettled.

Where is the balance to these three Australian veterans? What about a voice from a VC guerilla soldier, or a North Vietnamese regular? What about a voice from those Australian "veterans", like draft resisters Michael Matteson, Geoff Mullen et al, who stayed in Australia and "fought" the war on the domestic front? Or even Australian soldiers like Brian Day, who changed his mind after fighting in Viet Nam, becoming a communist, opponent of "our side" and organiser of medical aid to Viet Nam? Now there are some ordinary Australians who became extraordinary because of the war. Certainly heroic.

Perhaps Stephens was only seeking a balance around gender, rather than around politics? Ex-go-go dancer Lynne Lawson, as a result of the war, abandoned a music career for community service. Yet it took until the October 1987 Welcome Home March for Lawson to deal with her Viet Nam experiences. Lawson now works as a psychologist and counsellor with Viet Nam Veterans.

June Roe, through marrying a vet whose post-traumatic stress disorder has recently forced him to give up work, is now "up to her eyeballs in Vietnam". The Viet Nam Voices seminar she is coordinating for vets and their families looks as though it may include as many Viets as Aussies.

The only Viet Stephens includes is Ann Pham, a southerner whose middle class family became boat people soon after 1975 and are now firmly settled in Australia. Yet, when asked about the war, Ann says, "There's so much I can't understand".

Viet Nam Voices is multifaceted — a (massive) "art" exhibition that both documents people's experiences of the war and also expresses their feelings and thoughts; floor talks by participants; the launch of John Cheeseman's new documentary film, The War that Changed my World; play readings; education workshops for schoolkids; June Roe's seminar for veterans and their families; and a weekend seminar on the war itself (with many speakers from diverse perspectives — the seminar papers to be published in a special issue of the History Teachers Journal).

These latter events especially are attempts to make explicit the assumptions and issues that may otherwise remain covert. For instance, there's the issue of who really won the war.

While "our side" may appear to have been defeated — at least militarily — it was Viet Nam that was left in ruins: 500 Australians and 58,000 Americans dead, but 1.5 to 3 million Viets; fewer than 3000 US MIAs compared to 300,000 MIAs in Viet Nam. The effects of Agents Orange on US and Australian troops is dwarfed by the much more massive effects upon Viet Nam, which lacks an equivalent, sophisticated medical system to handle it. And then there's the legacy of all the mines and unexploded ordnance.

Such discussions raise belatedly the need for compensation for Viet Nam — the people and country — as an integral part of any meaningful reconciliation.