I was recently asked by a Year 11 High School student about the hurt that was felt by Vietnam Veterans after coming home from the war. This is my reply to her.
Thank you for asking me about the hurt that happened to Vietnam Veterans. I have tried to answer your question carefully because I think that this is an important topic.
Part of understanding the hurt that the troops experienced in Vietnam requires an understanding of some of the social factors of the time.
Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War lasted from 1962 – 1972; the longest war in our history.
The 1960’s were a time of social change and rebellion. Young people were discovering a sense of independence and singers / songwriters like Bob Dylon were singing songs like ‘The times, they are a changing’. Protest songs and revolutionary ‘New Age’ musicals such as Hair, were all part of this revolution where traditional conservative ideas were replaced with the right for individuals to speak out. It was also about this time that the Womens Movement was developing and many new and ‘radical’ ideas (at the time) were coming to the forefront for the first time ever. The contraceptive pill had just become available and this was another factor that increased levels of individual independence and made many of the old values less relevant. (I think that it actually was responsible for the greatest social change in the last 100 years). Combined with an unpopular conscription for military service, these conditions were ideal for fostering a strong protest movement about the Vietnam War.
Together with this, technology had developed to the point where people could watch the war on their TV sets in their homes. In previous conflicts, news from the war was heavily censored, but this was difficult with TV and people saw all the horror of war every night in their lounge rooms. War is really awful and people at home got to see it without any sanitisation. Part of what they were able to see were were some terrible things that happened to civilians who were caught up in the conflict. (It was actually very hard to distinguish the enemy from ordinary people). On top of this, the Americans participated in morally wrong events like the My Lai massacre. I am sure that we Australians fought in a more disciplined and proper way and events like that were never part of our methodology. However, people at home didn’t differentiate and perceived all the soldiers as doing terrible things.
As people became more exposed to the war on TV, their opinion of it became more negative. Protest marches were held and families were split in their opinions about the war. My own brother was active in the protest movement, for example, and while I was serving my country, he was protesting about how bad the war was, and that it should be ended and the troops brought home. I took this very personally and was quite angry about what I perceived to be his lack of loyalty. At the time, it caused quite a lot of conflict in our family.
Because of the size of the military forces in this days, partly as a result of the fact that we had conscription, there were a lot of soldiers visible in uniform on the streets (far more than you would ever see in the community now). The soldiers were an easy target for the protesters who could not get access to the politicians because they were hidden away in their offices. Politicians were really responsible for sending us to the war, but the protesters took out their anger about the war on the soldiers (and other servicemen) because we were identifiable and readily accessible. We perceived their protests as very personal attacks.
As soldiers, we thought that we were serving our country and we expected this service to be recognised. I can remember being in an ANZAC Day parade while I was in Vietnam and thinking that at the end of my service, I would be an ANZAC too. As with the soldiers from WW2, we expected to return as heroes and be thanked by the community for serving our country. Our work as soldiers was dangerous and we were always under stress and potential threat. Our focus was on staying alive.
Rather than having any of these expectations realised, we arrived home after our tour of duty to find a very hostile community. Instead of gratitude for putting our life on the line, the response from the community included:
1. Calling us ‘baby killers’ which was an insulting term and very far from the truth. Some men had terrible experiences by being attacked and insulted by people that they had once regarded as their friends.
2. Some troops who did get to march through the streets in parades when they returned home were spattered with red paint (symbolic blood) by the protesters as a protest for their role of killing people (our job).
3. Veterans from WW2, who held a traditional view of the nature of conflict (large battles, rather than continuous guerilla warfare) dismissed the Vietnam conflict as not being a ‘real war’. Because it was different to their own experience, they had little respect for us and downplayed our importance. I went to an RSL just after I came home and was almost laughed at because I thought of myself as a returned serviceman and a veteran.
4. Very few people in the community had any real understanding of a guerilla war as their experience and knowledge was shaped by what they knew from WW2. It was very hard to explain our experience after we came home and we felt that no one really understood anyway.
5. We even had radical feminist groups calling us rapists as we marched in ANZAC Day parades. We didn’t see ANZAC Day as a time for glorifying war, but a time for being able to get together with old mates who actually understood what we had been through. Some of us owe our lives to them.
With this combination of rejection and understanding by a population with a different outlook and a biased opinion formed from what they saw on TV, the safest thing for us veterans to do was to keep a low profile and avoid the risk of being abused and attacked. This was very hard when we felt proud of our role and our service. We didn’t tell anyone that we were Vietnam Veterans and kept it a secret, except from our mates.
It was not until 1987 (17 years after I came home from the war) that we held a ‘Welcome Home Parade’ in which we could proudly march through the streets of Sydney and get recognition. By then, the war had been over for a long time and attitudes had softened. It felt to me as if a weight had finally been lifted from my shoulders and that it was now OK to admit that I was a Vietnam Veteran. I am now able to talk about my experience openly and feel that it is quite safe to talk about my experiences.
Seventeen years was a long time to hide something about which I was actually quite proud. I am glad that those days are over.
I think that we were very much victims of a time in society where people had a new awareness and a new voice. They could make their opinions openly felt. The mistake that I think that they made was to abuse the troops for decisions that were actually made by politicians. I hope that we never make the same mistake again.