The title of the article was: 'Ticking like a bomb. Two new books show what Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War left in its wake.'
The second book was written by an acquaintance of mine, who organized a number of tours of Vietnam after hostilities ceased. It is now on my Christmas wish list.
The first book are reflections, written by the daughter of a returned conscript, who died at the age of 52, and whom she would ‘never know fully’ as a result of his experiences in Vietnam. When Bronwyn, the writer, was four, her father returned from Vietnam. She notes that she didn’t think much of this stranger, and a stranger he largely remained.
I knew immediately what it was. An ‘au dai’….. the traditional Vietnamese dress that enchanted me when I visited Saigon in 1970, now named Ho Chi Min city.
The war was raging and I was part of an international peace mission at a time when there was some thought that the war could be resolved peacefully.
While there, I also purchased an ‘ao dai’ wanting to impress my girlfriend and future wife. Although I think I was also motivated by more basic urges. I am sure entertaining to the locals, was the sight of the Vietnamese tailor and I, seeking out a suitably statured young woman in the street, of similar height to my Elizabeth, to be our model.
Jump forward to mid 2021
My then partner and I were doing a tour of Victoria, long before I had even considered moving to Benalla . We were primarily in Victoria to search out her family history story lines in Ballarat.
During a lull in Covid restrictions, we decided to do the ‘tourist thing’. Great Ocean Road, Sorento, Mornington Peninsular and of course, the penguins on Phillip Island.
I noticed a large sign.
Immediately, I thought of my brother, in the early 70’s, a regular Aussie soldier in Vietnam. After service, he returned to Australia, never able to hold a full-time job again and afflicted by alcohol and gambling addictions after a failed marriage.
Annette, my partner, motivated by compassion, decided that she wanted to visit the museum.
My anger over the decision by the Australian government to passively and deceitfully follow the lead of the Americans into the war, resurfaced again. I was determined.
I would go for a walk instead.
Yet, I felt a nudge. Perhaps I could accompany her, energized by my anger and seek out an opportunity to debate and argue against our involvement.
On entering, I was appalled at the ‘adventure playground’ nature of the exhibits. The hall was packed with instruments of war. Khaki green and metal grey everywhere.
On their Webpage, the Vietnam Vets state:
‘The museum seeks to remember, interpret and understand the experience of Australia’s longest war and the enduring impact of the war on society. A museum created and run by volunteers.’
Over an hour and a half I observed, read, and experienced what was presented. I felt the exhibition tried to find a balance. It incorporated some arguments against the war and even surprisingly took a neutral approach to historical opposition to the war. I was emotionally moved.
Still, I wanted to argue my position and sat down with a couple of Vietnam Vet volunteers and drank coffee.
Instead of talking I listened.
Yes the volunteers were proud of their service and keen to talk about the history of the museum.
But after 50 years there was still pain. No vain glory but a sense of solidarity with those who served and those who died.
I talked of my brother, his experiences, most never shared with me, and expressed my gratitude to the Vietnam Veterans’ Association, who enticed my brother out of the abyss.
The men talked about the history of their struggle with their own mental health and the failure of the RSL to embrace them.
I sat, with tears in my eyes, with a very present and healing sense of connection.