The odd angry word: Recent writing about Australia’s military involvement in Vietnam

Tony Smith

Michael Caulfield The Vietnam Years: From the Jungle to the Australian Suburbs, Sydney, Hachette Livre Australia, 2007 (493 pp). ISBN 9-78073361-985-4 (paperback) RRP $35.00.

Paul Ham Vietnam: The Australian War, Sydney, HarperCollins, 2007 (814 pp). ISBN 9-78073228-237-0 (hard cover) RRP $55.00.

Trish Payne War and Words: The Australian Press and the Vietnam War, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 2007 (340 pp). ISBN 9-78052285-326-1 (paperback) RRP $49.95.

Some commentators derided the 2007 federal election as a ‘Me Too’ campaign but some policies did differentiate the major parties. Labor’s promise to withdraw Australian troops from Iraq received less attention than Kyoto ratification and the dismantling of WorkChoices, but it forms part of the Rudd Government’s mandate. Since troops were committed in 2003, critics have likened the Iraq adventure to the debacle of the Vietnam war of the 1960s. However, the context of the earlier war was different and its consequences at home have been greater.

The Menzies Government’s decision to commit Australian troops to fight communism in Vietnam alongside the United States changed the course of political and social history. Between 1962 and 1972, the nation grew increasingly divided as 500 soldiers, including conscripts, died in an undeclared war, and demonstrations grew in size and violence. Labor’s return to power in 1972 after 23 years in opposition arguably owed much to its ability to sense the direction of the youth revolution at the heart of those protests.

The many attempts to explain the Vietnam war, including official histories, memoirs and fiction, display the same range of opinion around at the time. And because no single work will satisfy every reader who remembers the time, the field will continue to grow. In 2007, offerings by Michael Caulfield, Paul Ham and Trish Payne use diverse approaches but suggest some common conclusions—that the commitment to Vietnam was disastrous, that military personnel were among the victims, and that this was a politicians’ war.


As curator of the Australians at War Film Archive, Michael Caulfield is well qualified to describe The Vietnam Years. His title suggests a specific phase in Australia’s military story, and leads the reader to expect material from documentary film and oral history. The many interview transcripts with veterans are valuable resources for the academic researcher, but much of Caulfield’s own writing, which sometimes reads like a documentary voice over, will appeal mainly to more casual readers.

The subtitle From the Jungle to the Australian Suburbs suggests that Caulfield’s aims are more ambitious than simple reporting and description. The long war conducted elsewhere had deep implications for domestic social and political life. Perhaps the title should read My Vietnam Years as Caulfield’s own memories of the 1960s frame the material. This personal approach makes the book accessible but introduces subjectivity. This is generally acceptable, except that although he eschews the status of historian, Caulfield makes some sweeping interpretations of events. Two observations must be made here. First, Caulfield takes pains to establish empathy with Vietnam veterans, who were placed in such difficult positions. The book’s comments, the placement of the veterans’ views, and the author’s language all show this concern. Secondly, while some readers will feel that the book does not juxtapose the jungle action with the suburban misgivings about the war, the tension of the era emerges strongly from the ambivalence of the soldiers themselves, both then and in hindsight. Empathy with veterans does not destroy the work’s balance.

Caulfield takes
pains to establish empathy with
Vietnam veterans.

There is general agreement about the political process precipitating the involvement of troops in Vietnam. Some key events such as the sending of ‘advisers’ preceded the dreadful experiences that embittered so many Australians in the second half of the 1960s. Caulfield’s description of this earlier period is evocative and accurate enough. Few readers will dispute the book’s criticism of Menzies’ manipulation of the truth about Vietnamese requests for assistance, his ideological fervour, and his exploitation of the spectre of a communist menace, ‘yellow peril’ and fear of the ‘domino’ effect. As the decade ends the commentary reflects the growing cynicism of the soldiers and the general community. Caulfield’s writing about these latter years is best when he recalls his own experience of anti-war Moratorium marches. At times, however, he over simplifies the politics and gives some controversial interpretations of events, the roles of Gorton, McMahon and Whitlam, and the activities of anti-war demonstrators. Academic researchers will regret the lack of referencing here.

Caulfield creates well the inter-generational tensions that emerged as the aspirations of the young exceeded anything understood by previous generations. The impact of widely available consumer goods, especially television and cars, and the freedom of post-secondary education meant that traditional values were questioned and sometimes rejected on principle. The coincidence of this social mobility with the commitment of military forces to Vietnam might have mattered less had the Government of the day not decided that conscription was an appropriate way to fill the ranks. Caulfield recounts the stories of many conscripts. Perhaps the most moving is the story of a friend who was ostracised by his father and grandfather for deciding to register as a conscientious objector. The boy was so ashamed that he suicided. Caulfield researched the service records of the men who had hounded him to go to Vietnam and found no direct experience of warfare (pp. 106–107).


Paul Ham’s history parallels Caulfield’s work in some ways—he also uses a chronological approach and interviews, and like Caulfield, if he errs, it is on the side of the soldiers. Sympathetic to veterans, Ham shares their disdain for the politicians who sent them, the society that failed to support them and the protestors who opposed their involvement. One significant difference with Caulfield is that Ham supports his more controversial claims with references to published works.

Ham’s chapters on Vietnamese history are essential background for understanding the attitudes of foreign governments. Movements of national liberation and north-south reunification converged with communist insurgence against corrupt regimes in Saigon to create a political complexity that eluded western governments. As the United States became embroiled in Vietnamese affairs, the Menzies Government confronted the withdrawal of British forces from South East Asia and decided that the American alliance was essential to Australia’s ability to survive the communist threat. Ham notes that in this respect Australia’s position was more creditable than that of the United States. In the need to encourage the alliance, Australia had at least one certainty with which to justify involvement, whereas the United States was bereft of justification for its policies. Menzies had also to consider the position of the rabidly anti-communist Democratic Labor Party, whose split from Labor kept him in power.

Ham describes public acceptance of the commitment of the ‘advisers’ in 1962 and the 1st Battalion in 1965. However, the military personnel involved were conscious of political pressures from American comrades. As they took responsibility for Phuoc Tuy province, frontline troops were quickly disillusioned by the casual American approach to the war and senior officers had to resist American pressure to act more aggressively to increase ‘body counts’. The Australians were experienced in jungle warfare in New Guinea, Malaya and Borneo, and proceeded cautiously. The Americans sent the infantry out to attract enemy fire so that they could employ artillery and bombers and stage helicopter assaults.

Ham exposes the faults of conscription, which was not greeted enthusiastically by the military hierarchy. He says that ‘The National Service Act was a political and legal abomination – vague, obtuse and ill-presented’ (p. 168). The first conscripts arrived in time for the battle at Long Tan where eleven conscripts were among the eighteen dead. Despite the relative caution of Australian strategists, there were tactical disasters. The decision to build a huge minefield had catastrophic consequences as the enemy lifted the mines to make booby-traps. Ham describes the devastating effects of mines on human flesh. Towards the end of Australia’s commitment, morale fell and there was a danger that troops could be affected by ‘mine neurosis’.

Ham exposes the faults of conscription.

The Viet Cong suffered enormous casualties in the Tet offensive of 1968, but the invasions of major cities made the Western powers seem vulnerable and achieved a propaganda victory. The press, which had previously supported the war, ‘vigorously changed its tune’. Ham notes that media did not lead opinion but reacted to middle class opposition to the war: ‘they reflected and fed off it’ (p. 402). He cites several instances where the military felt they had been betrayed by correspondents and notes the role of the press in the resignation of Defence Minister Malcolm Fraser. Fraser accused Prime Minister Gorton of disloyalty to him and precipitated a crisis in Gorton’s leadership.

Gorton, according to Ham, ran the country like the ‘boisterous publican of a rowdy hotel’ (p. 436). Unfortunately for the troops, he did not make general policy clear and the Task Force Commander began to feel abandoned, a sense which filtered down through the ranks. Politicians seemed to be paralysed and feared anything that might increase the arrival home of body bags during sensitive election campaigns. It was hardly surprising, then, that protests grew. Ham takes a critical view of the peace movement and calls one chapter ‘Australian Viet Cong’. He identifies several organisations and individuals within the broad movement, and is quicker to indicate the presence of international socialists and the naïve than of idealists.

From 1968, the US policy changed to ‘Vietnamisation’ and the encouragement of self-reliance. Australia’s aims were always mixed: to support the United States, to defend the government in Saigon, to deny the Viet Cong access to the villages of Phuoc Tuy, to stop communism, and to kill the enemy. While these aims might have been compatible, they created different military priorities.

Ham gives ample attention to the continuing impact of the Vietnam commitment after withdrawal in 1972 and the fall of Saigon in 1975. He reports on the fate of some of the locals who were considered disloyal by the masters of the reunited Vietnam. Some of these came to Australia as refugees, some as ‘boat people’, and many of these have been influential in the diaspora gathered around Cabramatta in Sydney.

Australian society remains deeply affected by the fates of the veterans. Many have reintegrated successfully and have exhibited minimal ill effects. Others, however, remain bitter about the wartime experience and about their subsequent treatment. There are accounts of social rejection and failure to adjust, of men suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and from injuries that have seen them classified as totally and permanently disabled. Ham tells the story of the fight to gain recognition for the debilitating effects of defoliants on veterans and their descendants and applauds the giant step forward in 1987 with the National Reunion and Welcome Home Parades and the decision to erect a Vietnam memorial in Canberra. His concluding paragraphs note that the final act of war is to grieve. That is, however, an act on which the curtain never falls.


Ham criticises the role played by the Australian media: on one hand, they earned the hatred of the military by writing about atrocities; on the other, they were ‘complicit in the process of censorship’. The incompatibility between the realities of war and the spin of the US military public relations briefings created a ‘jarring discord between language and meaning’ (p. 409). While Ham rejects the idea that the media lost the war for Australia, he finds the quality of coverage poor, inaccurate, and riddled with cliché.

Trish Payne takes the press reporting of decisions about the war as her focus. She examines the coverage of vital decisions and incidents—commitment of advisers in 1962, sending a battalion in 1965, committing a task force in 1966, the ‘water torture incident’ of 1966, and the beginning of withdrawal in 1969. It seems odd that the introduction and implementation of conscription is not a topic for a chapter, but the National Service scheme receives treatment in passing.

Payne delivers a back-handed compliment when she says that the ‘vitality of the commentary in Australian newspapers, particularly the Age, in late 1969, illustrated the strength that could be exerted by specialist reporters when no single political voice dominated’ (p. 304). Only the young Murdoch publication, The Australian, editorialised against the sending of advisers in 1962, but following Tet in 1968, a more critical attitude prevailed generally. This is partly attributable to the American press questioning the US commitment, especially when withdrawal was being considered.

Payne takes the press reporting of decisions about the war as her focus.

Until 1968, the dominant ‘single political voice’ was that of the Coalition Government. The Labor Opposition displayed divided opinions, and because the press was mainly interested in the political interplay over the war, it remained ‘selectively reflective’ and lacked ‘source diversity’ (p. 308), and reliance on ‘agency material’ led to uniformity (p. 312). Most stories focused on the activities of Australian units and this caused a neglect of ‘broader conceptualisations’ about the war’s directions.

Payne notes that quality of coverage depended on five participants—‘politicians, press, public, military and bureaucracy’ (p. 310). However, the Canberra press gallery dominated the coverage and this perpetuated the narrow view of debates as being essentially creatures of partisan politics (p. 315). While this seems a sound explanation, it does not explain how politicians lost control of the agenda so that the debate broadened to include questions about the morality of American policy. Payne says that incidents involving Australian troops, such as the severe punishment meted out to Gunner O’Neill and the alleged ‘water torture incident’, had the potential to allow the public greater involvement in discussions (p. 188). It is possible that the public had more confidence in a relatively new, alternative source of information: some observers have described the conflict as the first, and possibly the only, ‘television war’. Payne is careful to show diversity amongst the newspapers where it occurred, but does not give the reader any sense of differences between print media on one hand and radio and television on the other.

Payne’s book will mainly attract specialist readers and both her data and her methodology are of interest. Probably for reasons of space, she did not include the tables she used to analyse reporting. While some readers will be pleased that the flow of the arguments is not interrupted by wads of statistics, others will remain curious. She reveals for example that following the commitment of a Task Force, local content soared from 152 paragraphs to 1400, from 15 per cent to 71 per cent of material, with the rest from American and Vietnamese sources (p. 138). It is difficult to deny that this is a significant change.


Three decades after the end of the military conflict in Vietnam, publication of works recording the mosaic of experiences shows no sign of slowing. Australia’s Vietnam experience was distinctive, both in terms of military tactics and the political context. Historians cannot ignore the impact of the commitment on society but must acknowledge that the sixties was a watershed which profoundly influenced many Australians now in their middle years.

While the period was exceptional, many scholarly findings apply to all war experiences. Caulfield, Ham, and Payne remind readers that political problems cannot be addressed using military force, that politicians are liable to exploit the military, that patriotism cannot be enforced with legislation, that talk of winning and losing is nonsensical, that veterans always receive disappointing treatment, that an enterprise which promotes killing inevitably leaves deep, unhealable scars, and that in lieu of full disclosure of facts, people will believe the worst about the nature of the conflicts fought in their name. No amount of rational analysis can remove the horror from a phenomenon that is, essentially, a malaise that lingers from our pre-democratic past.

Dr Tony Smith is a Bathurst writer and frequent contributor to the Australian Review of Public Affairs.

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