Having now exposed some of my inner emotions, I feel both saddened and yet relieved. It is a strange feeling to see before you, your own inner core, both metaphorically and literally in black and white (or gold & black). Sadness comes from the now easily accessible mental photographs that I have dragged out from the depths and placed on open display, catalogued by a mere sub-title and page number. Relief comes from the cathartic effect now experienced, having untied so many knots in the jumble of what is a major part of my past and the past of many others.
Readers from all walks of life - students, veterans, politicians, women, ex-anti-war and conscription protesters, the sympathetic, the empathetic, the apathetic, the ignorant, the ‘fence-sitters’, the alienated and ‘wannabes’ will no doubt have mixed feelings; some having perhaps modified previously held views, others having reinforced their previous stand. That is both understandable and desirable, since free thought and sensible debate should be the essence of our democracy. Besides, there can be no clear-cut answers to such a traumatic and confusing chapter in our history.
In this account, I have attempted to cover some aspects of the wide range of events concerning Australian involvement in Vietnam and some of the prelude and aftermath. Critics may justifiably accuse me of having at times emphasised the role of the National Serviceman. I accept that criticism in advance but do so unapologetically for two reasons. Firstly, I was one of those 17,500 odd conscripts and my views would be slanted unavoidably from and in that direction. Secondly, as such, it is very difficult to be completely objective in discussing a role played by any particular group of which one is a member. However, I’ve waited in vain for fifty odd years for someone else to tell the real story of the conscripts’ role. It is now clear why this has not been forthcoming. Few if any officers or regular soldiers are likely to give this slant to the story for obvious reasons. No politician or conservative civilian supporter is likely to want to be confronted with past mistakes. The general public of the time would no doubt prefer not to be reminded of their support, opposition, antagonism, indifference or compliance. All those under middle age would be too young to remember anyway.
I believe that all Vietnam veterans were treated poorly, to varying degrees, but in view of the ‘freedom of choice’ for regular soldiers (sailors and airmen too), then the National Servicemen (restricted to the Army) were treated worst of all; dishonestly and discriminately by politicians, in that only certain groups amongst 20 year old males were included; unfairly and with bias by the Army (see statistics in Postscript) and shabbily (by many), having been dismissed upon their return with scorn, or at best, indifference. Whilst the community was aware of the disparity and many disapproved of it, many were also relieved that their own sons were not included. A selfish ‘don’t rock the boat’ attitude seemed to exist initially amongst many individuals, organisations and corporations. The efforts of the Labor politicians in the so-called Opposition at the time were little short of pathetic in the early years. Whilst people generally may have ‘tut-tutted’ under their breath or even expressed concern on occasions, the bottom line is that words are cheap ... most didn’t use any influence that may have been available to them or protest with their vote until it was too late.
In round figures, from the 804,000 20 year old males available between 1965-72 only 63,000 were selected [8%]. Of these only 17,500 [2.2%] served in Vietnam. Of the 40,000 Vietnam troops in units with conscripts (excluded from navy, air force, AATTV and 1RAR1), 400 were killed of which 200 were conscripts … a disproportionate number. Furthermore, 1,200 conscripts were wounded and many of the rest affected permanently, in varying degrees, for the rest of their lives ... and for what?
“If you possessed daemonic powers and desired to send someone ‘crazy’ in the 1960s, how could it be done? What would be the worst set of social, economic, political and psychological conditions one could create? Firstly, you would send a young man, not that long out of high school, to an unpopular, controversial, guerrilla, revolutionary war that was far from his homeland and expose him to an abnormally high level of stressful events. Since you are daemonic, you would ensure that the veteran is stigmatised and portrayed to the public as a ‘drug-crazed psychopathic killer’ with no morals or control over aggressive behaviour. Unlike the situation after previous wars, the returnee is not given preferential treatment at employment interviews. Thus he must struggle against all the odds to establish his personal identity and niche in society.”
- Extract from J.P. Wilson, 1980.