Legendary newsman John Sorell, aged 72, has died. Sorell made his name with the infamous and inaccurate Vietnam war crime story in 1968. It was a story that was to unfairly plague and stigmatise all of Australia’s Vietnam War veterans for decades.
When Mark Dodd, a reporter with The Australian newspaper, alleged on September 2, 2008 that Australian troops in Afghanistan in April of that same year were detaining Taliban suspects in dog pens, which was both insensitive to Islam and in contravention of the Geneva Convention, it sent shivers down the spine of Vietnam Veterans, who recalled Sorell’s Viet Cong Water torture story.
The Chief of the Australian Defence Force, Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston, testifying to the Senate on October 22, 2008, said the Dodd story was wrong:
I am able to advise that the Inquiry found that the available evidence did not support the allegation that the enclosures used by the ADF to house detainees on 29-30 April 2008 were “dog pens”.
This appears to be a colloquial term that was used by only a few individuals interviewed in the initial inquiry and is not representative of the actual function of the enclosures. The inquiry found the expedient enclosures had not previously been used to house dogs.
Sorell, a Walkely Award winning journalist with the now defunct Melbourne Herald newspaper, went on to become the hugely successful Director of News at television station GTV 9 Melbourne for 28 years before retiring in 2003.
In October 1966 he was in Vietnam reporting on the war. Sorell, then with the Herald, together with two other members of the Australian press, were outside a tent at Nui Dat, the Australian Army’s base when they saw a young female Viet Cong prisoner dragged in for interrogation.
An Army Warrant Officer, Ken Borland, who was not authorised to conduct interrogations, was seen carrying a jerry can of water into the tent. All three newsmen, at no stage ever entered inside nor witnessed what transpired.
Borland poured no more than a cup of water into the mouth of the prisoner in order to get her to talk. His superiors when alerted put a halt to proceedings. So what began as harassment of a prisoner later developed into a war crime. She was later handed over to the South Vietnamese.
Sorell sat on the story for nearly two years, claiming censorship had stopped him running the story at the time, a claim strongly denied by the Army.
Paul Ham, in his brilliant book on Vietnam, Vietnam: The Australian War and also in The Weekend Australia, wrote:
Eighteen months later, in March 1968, an American journalist Martin Russ “revealed” in his book “Happy Hunting Ground” that Australian soldiers had “water tortured” a Vietnamese civilian: his only source was a conversation with two Australian journalists, one of whom was Sorell …
The water torture case became part of the popular mythology that Australian troops were routinely committing atrocities …
Russ later disowned his story: “I didn’t see the Aussies use torture. The incident with the girl I wrote about was hearsay.”
As Ham points out: “The episode supplied an ‘atrocity’ when the media was particularly receptive to one, and equipped anti-war groups with a new weapon.”
The unfortunate consequence of the Sorell story was that Australian soldiers were unfairly painted as savages involved in an immoral war. But the inaccurate water torture story is the only cited example of a blemish on an otherwise clean conduct record of those Australians who all served, suffered or died fighting in the Vietnam War (1962-72). This Anzac Day we need to remember this.
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