Lest we forget

May 7, 1997

By Peter McGregor

The commemoration of Anzac Day has a special temporal link to Australia's role in the Viet Nam-USA War. April 30 is the date when Vietnamese commemorate either the liberation, or the fall, of Saigon and the South, depending on one's politics.

For the Vietnamese there have been a whole series of wars this century. There's the Japanese war, part of World War II; the French war from 1946 to 1954; the American war from 1955 to 1975; and the Cambodia/China war when Viet Nam overthrew the Khmer Rouge. It's little wonder that Viet Nam, and Laos and Cambodia, remain amongst the poorest and most backward countries of Asia.

A lot of Asia around 1945 was underdeveloped and Third Worldish (with the obvious exception of Japan). By 1997, many of those countries (e.g. Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand) that cooperated with, and fitted into, the interests of the west — and especially the USA — had prospered.

Those countries (e.g. Viet Nam) that resisted have suffered and are the most underdeveloped. There would appear to be a reverse domino effect, whereby anticommunism and pro-western attitudes have spread like a virus throughout much of Asia.

The "threat of a good example" of independent development — away, or separate, from links with the west — has been crushed. While it may seem the US did not "win" the war against Viet Nam (and Laos and Cambodia), it achieved its overall goal. Indochina may not have been "bombed back to the stone age", but it was left in economic and ecological ruin, with its social and political fabric deformed.

The compensation agreed to by the US in the 1973 Paris Peace Agreement, of US$3.25 billion for reconstruction, was never paid.

A comparison of the costs is revealing: while 58,000 US troops were killed, and just over 500 Aussies, estimates of the death toll for Viets, north and south, civilian and military, vary between 1.5 and 3 million; while there were around 2300 US troops missing in action and only a few Australians, the Vietnamese had 300,000; while the authorities in the US and Australia have been reluctant to acknowledge the effects of Agents Orange on their own troops, the Viet authorities have been leaders in researching the effects of chemical warfare.

We have become increasingly aware of the trauma suffered by Australian troops and their families. Jean Williams, author of Cry in the Wilderness: Guinea Pigs of Vietnam (1995), has a chapter in the Viet Nam Voices Catalog which addresses the effects of chemical toxins upon Australian veterans. But what about the effects upon the Vietnamese? One can hardly imagine the magnitude of the situation in Viet Nam, a country with only the most basic health care and medical facilities.

In the mid-1980s, some Australian veterans became involved in establishing and financing Xuyen Moc hospital, in Phuoc Tuy province, where the Australian task force had been located. (By 1975, there wasn't one hospital in the whole of the province.) In the 1990s, Freedom From Hunger took on supporting the hospital on a continuing basis.

Yet last year on August 18, Long Tan "day", when a somewhat different delegation of Australian veterans, led by Tim Fischer, attempted to hold an (Australian) memorial service at Nui Dat, there was hostility from the villagers.

An Australian journalist had previously drawn attention to the outstanding claims of Phuoc Tuy villagers. "Vietnam farmers seek land compo" (Nick Carter, Melbourne Herald-Sun, March 6, 1994):

"Nguyen Van Chau, 76, a farmer in Vietnam, has sent a letter to the Australian government appealing for compensation for houses, land and possessions lost during the war. A group of farmers say they have been forced to live in poverty since they were ordered off their land at gunpoint in 1966 by Australian troops at what was to become the Australian base at Nui Dat. They say that forty peasant families had their land taken when the base was established in 1966 ... Chau's son Nguyen Ngoc Tri had been so incensed by the confiscation of the land that he joined the National Liberation Front and was later killed ... After the war they returned to try to recover their 3.5 hectares of land including bananas and papaya but were unable to do so because of the devastation caused by Australian bulldozers before the troops departed."

Australia has welcomed home its own veterans. Are Australians willing to take that further step towards reconciliation? To accept responsibility for what was done in our names to the villages and people of Viet Nam?

Lest we forget.
[Peter McGregor is one of the curators of Viet Nam Voices (a series of events about the Viet Nam War — art exhibit, films, seminars, educational workshops, at the Casula Powerhouse, until June 8) and a lecturer at the University of Western Sydney, Nepean.]

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