‘Review note: Vietnam – the war that made us what?’ Honest History, 26 April 2016
SBS showed a three-part series on the Vietnam War, Vietnam: The War that Made Australia (now on video), which had an unusually narrow focus and a predictably grandiose title but which still managed to be quite interesting. The series covered ten years of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) and the close relations it built with South Vietnamese soldiers and Montagnard irregulars supporting the South. There were poignant moments, particularly around the themes of trust and desertion – what the locals thought was happening when the Australians at first withdrew from particular regions and then altogether.
AATTV badge (Wikipedia)
There were lots of shots of disconsolate former AATTV members staring into the camera or the distance as memories returned. In the background there were occasional glimpses of Western satraps – particularly the oily Richard Nixon trying to explain ‘Vietnamisation’ – to remind us again that men in the jungle may strive and die but the decisions are still made by the suits.
The title of the series still puzzles. ‘The grim and often desperate Vietnam War changed the face of Australia forever’, we were told. Well, yes, kind of, but any society is changing all the time for all sorts of reasons and it tends to be producers of TV documentaries that over-hype their particular change. A talking head, Andrew Jakubowicz from the University of Technology, Sydney, appeared occasionally and overstated the impact of Vietnam on Australia’s awareness of Asia, almost as if the Yellow Peril and the Brisbane Line, let alone the Colombo Plan and students from Asia, had not existed.
What the series really showed was: the impact of their Vietnam service on the relatively few men of the AATTV (melodramatically and portentously styled ‘the Team’ by the narrator at every opportunity), including the effects on them of Agent Orange; the gratefulness of Vietnamese refugees at their chance to start again in Australia (often with the help of former AATTV colleagues); and, third and least, the impact on Australia of Vietnamese migration.
Perhaps this migration helped make us more tolerant of Asians who did not threaten us but it probably didn’t make us any less fearful of ‘the other’ in general. Certainly, the show and the video are likely to be a hit with former residents of South Vietnam; a dog whistle sounds every time the narrator uses the word ‘communist’ as in ‘the communist North’ or ‘the communist Viet Cong’. Of course, they were communist but it was their country, too.
Saigon, 30 April 1975 (Wikipedia/UPI Hubert van Es)
All in all, this was a small part of the Vietnam War saga but a story that was worth telling, albeit one that is likely to mean a lot to only a small section of today’s Australia. My own Vietnam story, still remembered, is putting up two Vietnamese former colleagues on our lounge room floor in Canberra as Saigon fell in 1975. They had to get passports before the South Vietnamese embassy closed. They made clear that they understood why we did not support their country that was about to be no more but that it was the only one they had. A couple of years later they were living in Belgium.