This poem reflects the alienation within the Australian community between two groups. On the one hand, there are the politicians, unionists, students and other activists. All these groups had opposed not only Australia’s participation in the Vietnam War, but transferred that opposition into animosity and blame onto the second group, the troops. The latter had been sent to do their government’s bidding. Although attempts have been made to anneal the breach, many of the veterans cannot forget nor forgive the treatment they received during their tour and during the early years immediately following their return.
Prime Minister John Howard announced a formal collective apology on the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan (2006). Yet, in view of the Government’s mean-spiritedness towards addressing the significant erosion of service and injury pensions and the continuing devaluation of war service home grants over the last 40 years, most veterans of the Vietnam War saw it for what it was: a mere hollow rhetorical gesture designed to gain political mileage.
How ironic it was to note the meeting of Heads of State, three months later in November 2006 in Vietnam. The Prime Minister even visited the Long Tan battle site, extolling the virtues of the men who had fought there 40 years before. At that time, in 1966, as a 26 year old activist/leader of the Young Liberals, he saw no conflict in supporting/pushing his party’s policy in Vietnam whilst at the same time conveniently ignoring his opportunity to enlist into the services as a show of faith. Instead, whilst he pursued his studies and career, other young men took a different approach.
“It’s the soldier, not the reporter who gives us freedom of the press;
the soldier not the poet who gives us freedom of speech;
the soldier not the union organiser who gives us freedom to protest.
And it’s he who salutes the flag, serves beneath it, whose coffin
is draped in it and allows protesters to burn it!”
- Charles M. Province.
First tour completed,
That war game repeated,
Behind left that tragic score;
Two hundred with wounds,
Most from the platoons,
That year’s dead totalled eighty four.
Nearly all from these groups,
Mainly infantry troops,
Within just two battalions;
Although not applauded,
All survivors rewarded,
From coloured ribbons, hung two medallions.
And in both of these cases,
‘Cannon fodder’ fresh faces,
Had arrived as replacements that May;
From a place we all hated,
Vung Tau’s Ferry awaited,
Off the coast to take us away.
One last downward look,
From inside a giant Chinook,
A green quilted carpet spread out far below;
From up at that height,
’Twas a beautiful sight,
With meandering streams in full flow.
Cruising twelve days at sea,
Our minds running free,
Just relaxing, trying hard to forget;
In fresh army regalia,
Images came of Australia,
And other times that we’d always regret.
Soldiers on deck standing proud,
A welcoming crowd,
Others lined up along the main street;
Yet many later returnees,
Having served overseas,
Would march to a less friendly beat.
Under Freedom’s conditions,
Anyone can ‘sing their own song’ ;
Yet abuse of the troops,
From those protesting groups,
And any aid to the enemy was wrong.
With no justified reason,
Such action was treason,
During all other Australian wars;
That’s what we were taught,
Under conditions we fought,
Yet, politicians didn’t enforce these laws.
‘Regs’ at least re-united,
And some ‘pollies’ knighted,
Still no one today wants to know;
Nashos’ services regarded,
Because that’s now a generation ago.
* * *
Symbolic of time,
Grey hair is one sign,
As flashbacks merge with strange dreams;
Mountains and paddies,
And black-cladded ‘baddies’,
Plantations and diseased muddy streams.
And deep in their eyes,
It’s hard to disguise,
Not all wounds are so obvious outside;
To stop going insane,
The power of the brain,
Blots out many memories, denied.
A select group of men,
Sacrificed for what, back then?
For what purpose were they sent over there?
They try again and again,
To comprehend, yet in vain,
And why all those guilty don’t care.
Some never would, never could,
Restlessness and constant nightmares;
These aging survivors,
Fight young faceless advisers,
In charge of Veterans’ Affairs.
Long silence misconstrued,
Contempt had long brewed,
Well hidden way deep down inside;
For draft-dodging shirkers,
And waterside workers,
And for all those ‘pollies’ who lied.
And for ignorant odd millions,
And the elite, tertiary clientele;
Each well remembers,
Support lacking from members,
Of the ‘Old Guard’, in the ‘old’ RSL.
After so long divided,
Those in power then decided,
They’d open the Welcome Home gate;
A march here at last,
20 odd years having passed,
And for some that was bloody too late.
Of the sacrifice made,
All the parents too paid,
When their sons came home in a bag;
Though ‘The Ode’ often read,
We forgot these instead,
And allowed them to just carry a flag.
A plan to forgive and forget,
Embrace every ‘vet’,
Give a belated cheer, a ‘well done’ and a clap;
Still most can’t ignore,
Treatment after that war,
And can’t bridge that generation’s wide gap.