Australian history

Reflections on the Fall

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Today is the 46th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan. Vietnam veteran Bob Whittaker reflects on the Vietnam War and its meaning.

Bob Whittaker, 7RAR, 1970.

Saigon fell on 30th April 1975.

At that time, five years after returning from Vietnam, I was teaching sick and disabled children at the Xavier Hospital School, in Coorparoo, on Brisbane’s South side. For me, 1975 was significant for other reasons, as it was the year in which I met my wife. We were married two years later.

1975 also marked the dismissal of the Whitlam government, an event which generated so much bitterness at the time. This was brewing, and political commentary and reports from Vietnam were competing in the news cycle.

Xavier Hospital School was across the river from my home at Chermside on the other side of town, so I spent an hour each way daily negotiating traffic. Three afternoons each week I didn’t go home after my day’s work at school. Instead I’d drive out to St Lucia at 3.30pm to attend night lectures and tutorials at University of Queensland.

One of the benefits I’d picked up post Vietnam was a rehabilitation scholarship which granted me one year’s full time study, and now I was plugging away finishing two degrees part-time. I was very busy and focused, but the capitulation knocked me off track for a while.

I spent hours in my car daily, and my strongest memory of that time is of listening to the news broadcasts of the deteriorating military situation on my car radio. I remember being late for a four o’clock tutorial because I sat in the car listening to the news as the Communists advanced on Saigon.

I’d buy the Courier-Mail at the refectory and read the accounts in detail between lectures. I never discussed it with my classmates, despite the fact that one of the subjects I was studying at the time was South-East Asian History. It didn’t pay to let on that you were a Vietnam Veteran on university campuses in the seventies.

I don’t recall the fall of Saigon causing much of a ripple on campus. The prevailing response was cold indifference. My country had officially been at peace when I was conscripted. It was still officially at peace. What had changed?

After Uni I’d be home, usually by ten, and would devour the news reports before going to bed. I remember finding sleep difficult for a week or two after the event. One image of a helicopter rescuing people from a rooftop in Saigon was burned into my brain.

The news of the fall left a feeling of profound emptiness. It didn’t provide what the current psychobabble calls “closure”. It did the opposite, opening old wounds. Years after Vietnam, my wife and I lost a child through stillbirth. Looking back at it now, the fall of Saigon for me was the same kind of experience.

Something precious was lost, gone forever — but what was lost was an idea, a hope, an aspiration. How do you mourn a loss so ephemeral?

For me, there was no surprise in the news of the capitulation. I knew after my first month in country that we weren’t winning the only war that mattered, the battle for the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese.

In my unit, the prevailing attitude to the Vietnamese – whom we called “Noggies” – was hostility. Some Nashos, who didn’t want to be there, blamed the Vietnamese for their plight. Some Regs, who believed strongly in the cause, detested the Vietnamese because they didn’t share their visceral hatred of Communism. For most of us, hostility was driven by fear. Friend and enemy looked the same, so it was safer to consider all Vietnamese the enemy.

By the time I arrived in the country in 1970, what Regs and Nashos had in common was a loathing of the people we had been sent to defend. This attitude was hardly conducive to winning the confidence of the local population. By the end of my tour, the decision had been made in Australia to begin a staged withdrawal, so the Vietnamese who rejected the Viet Cong may have also felt a sense of betrayal.

Our feeling of futility was reinforced when my unit took casualties, especially to land mines. The anger and frustration felt when someone was killed or maimed by a mine was numbing. With mines there was no opportunity, in the heat of the moment, to fight back. Our knowledge that the cause was most likely already lost added this sense of futility to anger and frustration.

Even if we had come to the situation united in the cause of fighting Communism, what we saw when we arrived in Vietnam swiftly poisoned any belief in the nobility of our enterprise.

I remember travelling with my platoon on a truck between Vung Tau and Nui Dat We, returning from R & C, a three day break by the beach. I witnessed a Vietnamese child of about six or seven being hit in the eye by a rock-hard fruit thrown by one of my comrades. The children would run after us chasing cigarettes and sweets, which we would throw from the trucks.

He fell down screaming with blood pouring from what was obviously a very badly injured eye. The response from some of my comrades was derision. I remember thinking that there would be at least one Vietnamese family that would hate us from that day forward.

I remember asking myself why decent men (and I knew they were decent men – I’d been living and fighting with them for months) would react in this way. I remember thinking that most were horrified, but none, including myself, felt free to show it. The mask of cynicism had descended on all of us.

Instinctively, we knew that keeping a cynical distance from the suffering was the only way to retain sanity — even if what we were doing was contributing to that suffering. We would remain sane in this asylum by remaining detached, by not allowing ourselves to feel either empathy or sympathy.

Despite this prevailing attitude, and probably as a result of strong leadership and good discipline, we nevertheless treated the Vietnamese with more civility than the Americans did. The Vietnamese troops – the ARVN – were worse. They stole, looted and raped when the opportunity presented itself. The level of corruption we observed, at every level, made it absolutely clear that the prevailing administration was irrevocably broken and we were shoring up a rotting edifice.

Echoes of our better treatment of the Vietnamese linger when you travel back to the country now. Respect for Australians is acknowledged and real. The same respect for the GI is simply not evident in those that remember the war. Most don’t remember, of course, given the demographic in twenty-first century Vietnam. Most Vietnamese living today were born after what they call the “American War”.

For the duration of my tour, I lived a close quarter observation of the loss of a dream — the dream of fighting and dying for a noble cause. I was not one of the dreamers. This made the situation easier for me. I never held the conceit that we were fighting a just cause. Many of my comrades left Australia believing they were, and the outcome for them was bitterness.

My rancour was there, but it was different. It was directed inward, in that I compromised my personal beliefs and values by rolling over and going along with my call-up. I made an easy rationalisation. I decided that it was better to take my chances in the army than in the magistrate’s court. I had coldly calculated the odds. At this time, most infantry battalions were losing between twenty and thirty diggers each tour. I could manage those odds.

The fact that I ended up in a rifle section was ironically not part of that calculation, coming as it did after I’d made the initial decision not to resist call-up, and after I’d been through recruit and corps training.  I won the wager and survived. During the course of the conflict, five hundred Australians lost this bet.

Strangely, perhaps, although I was a very unwilling soldier, I took pride in my soldiering. I did my level best to do my job as well as I could.

Returning to Vietnam was my antidote for this avalanche of self-doubt. In my journeys back, I saw a people hell-bent on prosperity in a country that has shrugged off the spirit, if not the letter, of Marxism. These people give lip-service to a system of government which doesn’t figure large in community life.

Visiting Hanoi in 2007, I watched a display of Vietnamese puppetry. It’s highly stylised form provided a metaphor for the Communism that prevails since Doi Moi. It’s all about form — about how things look or seem.  Whatever substance exists is well and truly lost on the western observer.  To grow rich is indeed glorious in Vietnam today.

Back in 1970, with the blackest of humour, we called Vietnam the “funny country”. Returning since, and seeing the country as it is now, I am encouraged to hope.

Pragmatism has trumped ideology. The Vietnamese have survived the war and have got on with life. Many Australian Vietnam veterans haven’t been as successful.

Often during the last forty years I’ve wondered if our contribution made any difference at all. Perhaps we delayed the inevitable, and in that process gave South East Asia a breathing space. Perhaps we made the inevitable worse, in the sense that we gave some Vietnamese time and security to back the losing side, which for them made the outcome more dangerous and left no option but to escape on an armada of small boats.

None of this second guessing of history makes any difference. The fact remains that these days Vietnam as a country is doing well, the standard of living is improving, and the nation is secure. Today, most Vietnamese have no memory of war. When I was there in 1970, most Vietnamese had no experience of peace.

Nevertheless, the fall of Saigon left me desperately searching for the meaning of the conflict, and beyond that, the meaning of my part in it.

We were young, we were strong, we wore the same uniform, but we didn’t share a common belief or understanding of the war. I doubt much of this has changed in the nearly forty years since.

Despite this, as Regs and Nashos we shared some strongly held values.

We knew that we were good soldiers, that we looked after each other and we generally respected our unit leadership. Accounts I’ve read, and behaviour I observed in American units back then, made it clear to me that this self-belief was not universal. Between 1970 and 1971, there were 363 cases of "assault with explosive devices" against officers in Vietnam. This became so common that it generated its own jargon. It was called “fragging”. The Americans were destroying themselves.

So, despite our attitudes to the war being poles apart, we had in common a respect and pride in each other as soldiers and men. Those who have survived still maintain this respect. We were united in our loyalty to unit and corps. We wore the skippy badge with pride.

On the whole, life has moved on for the Vietnamese. If sorrow can be measured in bald numerical terms, they have much more to regret than we do. Their war memorials are similar to those found in every town and city in Australia save in one important aspect — their sheer size. Let the memorials in both countries mark our common and enduring sorrow for what has been lost.

The Vietnamese seem to have succeeded in leaving this sorrow and regret behind.

That should also be the case here, but for many veterans of Vietnam, moving on has been difficult.

Maybe, like the Vietnamese, we should let the tide of history erode the anger and bitterness that was an enduring product of this war; leaving the pride and respect we hold for each other and for our country standing stark and clear.

For me, reconciliation is what makes sense of it all. For many of us who lived through those tumultuous events, reconciling with our old enemy is probably less complicated than making peace with each other.

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