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Did anti-Vietnam war protests really cause all those problems for Veterans?

By Kevin Bain - posted Friday, 2 May 2003

An urban myth has developed in recent years, about the supposed vituperation of Vietnam veterans by the anti-war movement of that time. This has been accepted as gospel by many people who should know better - to those who were there at the time, it is a mischievous fiction. We know that the peddlers of urban myths like to amplify and embellish them in new and outrageous dimensions. Recent comments by Greg Barns ("Nothing green or peaceable in silly gestures", The Australian, 10 April 2003) provide a degree of proof that there are a lot of porkies being told on this issue.

Barns is too young to have personal knowledge of the anti-Vietnam war movement, so he should be more circumspect about ponderously telling us to "remember … its grave mistake". Apparently on the basis of a few anecdotes from veterans, he is able to confidently claim that the anti-war movement "condemn(ed) our military personnel", and "the consequences are with us today in the form of thousands of mentally and physically scarred Vietnam veterans".

Excuse me? The protesters are responsible for the post-war traumas, the inadequate government response, the toxic chemicals, and the shame and guilt about Vietnam throughout Australian society? Well, why stop there? Why not add on responsibility for the suicide rate of veterans' childen being three times that of the general community?


The Vietnam anecdotes repeated at this time of year actually put a different complexion on the cause of the "consequences" Barns refers to. Aundry Beck, 53, of Sydney, was interviewed by Jonathan King ("Bonds of Duty and sacrifice span a century of proud service", The Australian, 25 April, 2003). Aundry bashed up protesters who threw blood on him but that was the least of his battles. "The worst was seeing my mates blown apart on a night exercise at Nui Dat by friendly fire from a New Zealand battery which stuffed up behind us." After that, "nothing ever mattered again".

I suspect that veterans felt socially excluded because their families and workmates were muted on their return and were not open in discussing what happened in a divisive war that the majority of Australians came to see as wrong. The "don't talk about the war" syndrome also affected previous generations of veterans - no doubt the emotional satisfaction of being on the winning side is a big compensation.

Rather than protesters being the source of their problems, many Australian veterans blame their plight on a government that used them with reckless disregard, then discarded them after use. In the US, disaffected veterans seized the Statue of Liberty at one point to show their anger with their government, and thousands protested against the war.

The Australian recently reported ("Trauma tests for all troops", 25 April, 2003) that all Australian soldiers returning from the Gulf will be screened for post-traumatic stress disorder, with an estimated 30 per cent of our troops likely to suffer from sleeplessness, flashbacks, anxiety or irritability. According to a treating psychiatrist, "the military culture historically has tended to look at mental health problems as a sign of weakness, but I think that's changing". This will be the first time every returning member of a military operation has been psychiatrically assessed - draw your own conclusions about the concern for soldiers' welfare shown by governments.

As a participant in scores of marches, meetings and rallies in the latter years of the "dying regime" of Billy McMahon (1971-2), I never heard the suggestion, from a public platform or in print, that soldiers were the guilty party, or that protesters should vent their spleen on them. The fact of conscription - "the lottery of death" - meant that military inductions were a focus of protest activity but the soldiers were always seen as pawns in the slaughter, not targets for vilification. Groups such as Save Our Sons and the Draft Resisters' Union tried to reach out to soldiers and counsel them individually, with some success. Who would deny there were slanging matches occasionally, or even expressive behaviour at public protests? But nothing went beyond this.

Vietnam was a formative period for a generation of Australians, affecting values and beliefs for years afterwards. Now that conservativism occupies the commanding heights of our institutions, and the scope of public discourse is narrowed, the Right wants to rewrite history and hide the moral bankruptcy they showed at that time. Discrediting the opponents of that war is a useful start.


In his article (written after the military victory in Iraq), Greg Barns is quick to impugn the motives and practices of many in the movement against the Iraq war. Unless he is just a former Howard adviser who wants to come in from the cold, he should take his own advice to the protesters: target the government, don't turn on the activists in the front line.

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About the Author

Kevin Bain spent Sunday morning, 3 December 1972, banging on the walls of Pentridge Prison with his mates, demanding the release of jailed draft resisters Ken McClelland and Bob Scates. They were released 4 days later as one of the first acts of the Whitlam-Barnard "two man" government.

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