Stephens, David: We need to talk about how we commemorate our wars in other people’s countries – and our own

Australia’s Vietnam War – and keeping it in context: others in the series


David Stephens

‘We need to talk about how we commemorate our wars in other people’s countries – and our own’, Honest History, 18 August 2016 updated

hero-36933Maori Wars, New Zealand (New Zealand Government)

Apart from the Frontier Wars against Indigenous Australians, all of Australia’s wars, from New Zealand in 1845 to Afghanistan and Iraq now, have been fought overseas. Battlefields are overseas, graves are overseas, what Abraham Lincoln called ‘the mystic chords of memory’ stretch across oceans, we travel thousands of kilometres to distant lands to seek ‘closure’ over the last resting place of a distant relative who died perhaps a century ago.

These facts have implications: if we want to do commemoration properly, really get into it, we have to go to someone else’s country. And we don’t always do that sensitively; which means the locals, in whose countries our men and women lie and whose countries we fought over, are likely to get upset.

We have seen it in Turkey. Prime Minister Howard felt that Anzac Cove was ‘as much a part of Australia as the land on which your home is built’ and had it designated as an ‘overseas place of historic significance to Australia‘, which is about as close as you can get to annexing a piece of another country that you once unsuccessfully tried to conquer by force. Heaven knows what Turkey thought of that or what Turks in Çanakkale think of the continuous influx of Australians, peaking around Anzac Day.

The Turks certainly welcome the cash that comes with Australian tourists. Anzac Day there in 2015 was notable among other things for the suggestion that commemoration would be less raucous and alcohol-sodden than usual but the long-term record is mixed, to say the least.

We have seen it in France. ‘Australian commemorative diplomacy … serves the domestic Australian community’, Romain Fathi has written, ‘as the town [of Villers-Bretonneux] is transformed into a pedestal to assert an Australian national identity. Here, commemoration is politics in action.’ Richard Reid has chronicled how commemoration at Villers-Bretonneux has grown over the years from a quiet service run by local people (who have had genuine affection for Australia) to an extravaganza catering to tourists and where the locals are sidelined.

Now we have just seen it in Vietnam. We may never quite know what led to the change from a large ceremony to staged small contingents visiting the Long Tan cross. Perhaps it was the numbers of tourists expected – estimates ranged from 1000 to 3000 – and some hints in the behaviour of visitors in recent days that a shemozzle was imminent. Perhaps it was some quirk of local versus central Vietnamese politics or a failure of communication between Australian and Vietnamese diplomats or an aversion to Little Pattie.

More seriously, Australian visits to Long Tan have always been sensitive since they began in 1989. The Vietnam War – or ‘the American War’, as the Vietnamese call it, fought by the United States and its ‘lackeys’, still exists as a deep layer of trauma beneath today’s prosperous, thrusting Vietnam. There are lots of eggshells in Phuoc Tuy province.

The Twitterverse response to the inital Vietnamese decision ranged from, on one side, outrage (‘once a Cong, always a Cong’, ‘this is what Communist countries do’, ‘they have our money’) to incredulity at the outrage (‘it’s their country, dammit!’, ‘how would we feel if 1000 Japanese turned up in Darwin wanting to celebrate the bombing of 1942?’). A sensible response came from RSL National President, Rod White, who registered disappointment, particularly at the late notice, but balanced that with a rueful ‘it’s their call’.

One of the less sensitive reactions was from veterans’ spokesperson, Ken Foster, who talked of the mental trauma that might befall Australian veterans deprived of the chance of closure by visiting Long Tan. The mental trauma of the millions of Vietnamese directly affected during the war and since might also be imagined. (Emma Reynolds’ piece for News Limited is relevant, as is our collection of resources on Agent Orange.)

Nguyen_Xuan_PhucPrime Minister Phúc (Wikipedia)

The initial ‘kick in the guts’ remark by Veterans’ Affairs Minister Tehan was perhaps understandable, though less judicious than most of his statements since he took the job earlier this year. He was obviously upset, as was the prime minister, though the latter did the sensible thing and got on the phone to his counterpart, Nguyễn Xuân Phúc, to sort things out. An article from former Australian Ambassador to Vietnam, Richard Broinowski, touches on the politics of the issue.

Meanwhile, at today’s ceremony at the Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial in Canberra, some of the speeches (Governor-General, Prime Minister) touched on the issue of how returning Australian soldiers were treated. (The Governor-General’s speech includes incorrect information about the welcome home march in 1987, which we have advised his office about.*) There was, of course, indifference as well as ill-treatment. Richard Broinowski hints at one cause of that indifference when he recalls that ‘the [Australian Vietnam] force was token, more a premium on an insurance policy for American assistance under the ANZUS Treaty than a genuine attempt to stop Communist “expansion”’.

Insurance premiums, once paid, tend to be forgotten, particularly if the number of people directly ‘paying’ them is only a tiny proportion of a population which mostly goes about its normal business. We need to beware of indifference becoming the default position associated with our military adventures; wars to which most of us are likely to be indifferent are not worth the fight.

On the other hand, we could take more notice of the wars we have fought at home. There were very likely more Australians – men, women and children – killed in the Frontier Wars than died in either of our big wars or served in Vietnam. The sites of these wars are a lot easier to get to than Long Tan though there is still a need for sensitivity when visiting them; they are on other people’s country still.

A version of this article also appeared on Pearls and Irritations.

Related articles: Jennifer Wilson on Australia, Vietnam and white male supremacy; Ken Foster and Rowan Cahill, draft resister; Mia Martin Hobbs reports from Vietnam; more on the possible Vietnamese reasons for cancellation. Last words: John Blaxland, raising (at least by implication) the possibility that a reason for the Vietnamese Government’s resistance to the proposed commemoration was that local Vietnamese might come to realise that Long Tan was not a victory for Vietnam, as official mythology had presented it; Colonel Harry Smith, who understood the Vietnamese attitude. Mungo MacCallum in The Monthly. Australian Story on singer Little Pattie in 1966 and returning in 2016, in the midst of the fuss. Australian War Memorial video on its commemoration activities.

* Email from Honest History to Governor-General’s Office, 19 August 2016, following telephone conversation with the office. (The office thanked us for our feedback and left it at that.)

Phone call refers.

GG’s Anzac Parade speech says (p. 2): ‘In the great national series of “welcome home” parades around Australia on 17 October 1987, the Australian community started to put things right.’ This is not correct, as far as we can tell, though we would certainly be interested to see the evidence.

There was certainly one parade in Sydney on 3 October 1987, with about 25,000 veterans from all around Australia marching in front of about 60,000 spectators. See C Times report ; also M Caulfield, The Vietnam Years (2007), p. 462; P Edwards, Australia and the Vietnam War (2014), Kindle location 4656 (Edwards was an official historian of the war).

Caulfield quotes a veteran about another march in Canberra though a check of the NLA’s Trove only throws up a concert in April 1988, not a march.

Trove for that period only covers the Canberra Times but it seems unlikely that significant marches elsewhere in Australia would not have been reported in the Times. This was a time of great ferment in relation to Vietnam remembrance. DVA set up the veterans’ counselling service at about this time as the next step after the Sydney march and the Sydney march was not long after (August 1987) PM Hawke had designated Long Tan as Vietnam Veterans Day. There was a lot happening in the US also and the Sydney march was partly a knock-off of what was happening in the US.

Some of the confusion about 1987 may have arisen because there was a conscious, well-publicised effort to have Vietnam veterans play a large part in Anzac Day marches. But again, there is evidence of this as far back as 1972.

There were lots of welcome home parades between 1966 and 1972 (that is, while the war was on) though people seem to have forgotten these. The first one in Sydney in 1966 was watched by about five times the number of people who watched the Sydney 1987 one. The references below have more. Community indifference to the war, and to those who were fighting it, grew as the war turned sour. But it is very difficult to find evidence of blatant ill-treatment.

There is more on this in Honest History’s series , particularly . Honest History has been concerned to discourage officials from repeating generalised statements about how returning soldiers were treated when, frankly, the evidence is not there. The story is much more complicated. That having been said, we thought the Governor-General’s speech was more balanced than many.


Click here for all items related to: , ,
To comment or discuss, Log in to Honest History.
One comment on “Stephens, David: We need to talk about how we commemorate our wars in other people’s countries – and our own
  1. Leighton View says:

    Thoughtfully done. Sometimes the most obvious things are clouded by the fogginess of poor historical knowledge and a scarcity of empathy.

Leave a Reply