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Shooting down Vietnam myths

20 December 2014 375 views No Comment

‘The Nashos’ War: Australia’s National Servicemen and Vietnam’
By Mark Dapin
Viking, 470pp, $39.99 (HB)

DURING the Vietnam War almost 64,000 young Australians were drafted into national service across a seven-year period. Beginning on March 10, 1965, the “‘nashos were chosen by chance, their birth dates drawn from a lottery barrel at the Department of Labour and National Service in Melbourne. As journalist and author Mark Dapin points out, not all of these conscripts were sent to Vietnam, but their random fate came to symbolise the war and divide a nation.

This fine book is not the one Dapin initially thought he would write. When he first became fascinated by the national service scheme, he believed much he has since determined to be false. In particular, he wrongly assumed that most of the national servicemen made a deliberate choice between the army and conscientious objection and that most resented being sent to war.

He also wrongly assumed that on their return to Australia, soldiers were met by protesters and demonstrations. In fact there were huge welcome home parades, which as Dapin discovered were widely reported at the time.

As this carefully researched book demonstrates, throughout the Vietnam War most Australians, including those in the military, were conservative, patriotic and law-abiding. In contrast, anti-war protesters were a distinct and often unpopular minority even at their peak.

In telling this full, fascinating yet unvarnished story of national service in Australia, Dapin had the help of more than 150 former nashos. He not only interviewed these men in depth but also made excellent use of their often previously confidential wartime diaries and ­letters home.

Dapin does not wish to imply Vietnam was merely a nashos war. It is simply that the war as lived by national servicemen is his primary focus. He explores how thousands of young male conscripts from all walks of life, including some well-known footballers and musicians, were sent to the jungles of Vietnam to fight, and often die, in some of Australia’s bloodiest ­battles, including the terrible slaughter at Long Tan in 1966. Dapin reminds us that the army opposed the reintroduction of national service. Bearing this in mind, it is also useful to be reminded that during World War I conscription referendums were defeated in October 1916 and again in December 1917, which caused then Australian Labor prime minister Billy Hughes to split the ALP.

Rather than govern with his anti-conscriptionist comrades, Hughes, “the little Digger ­entered into a merger with the conservatives to form the Nationalist Party of Australia.

One of the most illuminating sections of The Nashos’ War deals with Normie Rowe. For the army, the most significant event in the first half of 1969 was the Battle of Binh Ba. But for the tabloids it was eclipsed by the fact that on January 14, the pop star arrived in Vietnam to start a tour of duty as a member of the Royal Australian Armoured Corps 3rd Cavalry Regiment.

Rowe confided to one journalist, “At first I felt butterflies in my stomach and didn’t really want to go. Then the excitement built up inside me and now all I’m doing is looking forward to arriving. He added without irony: “I feel it is ­always good for an artist to get away from his audience for a while.

Trooper Rowe began his first operation the day after he reached Nui Dat. In a chapter titled, ‘Normie Goes to War, Many Don’t’, Rowe, who was driving an armoured car that afternoon, is quoted: “ I knew there were going to be dead bodies. I knew that there were going to be some pretty shithouse periods of time. But to arrive in the country the day after I was in civilian clothes and go out into the field and have to clean up the results of a very successful ambush that had been executed on the Viet Cong, I don’t think anybody can really be prepared for a thing like that.

Rowe revealed: “I’d seen dead animals, drowned dogs and cats in the local creek, kangaroos out in the bush, but I’d never seen human beings. They looked to me like dead ­animals. My respect for any human being who’s just lost their life is incredibly high, but it might as well have been a leaf that had fallen off the tree. In August 1969, Rowe, who suffered a ­severe injury, was promoted to lance corporal.

Rowe’s arrival in Vietnam is captured in one of the many fine photographs in this moving book. Two others stand out. The first is a shot of Errol Noack, the first national serviceman to be killed in the war. A reluctant nasho, who at the time of his conscription was too young to vote, Noack died on May 24, 1966, 10 days after he arrived in South Vietnam. Unreported in Australia until long after the end of the war, the 21-year-old was a victim of what is euphemistically termed friendly fire. The other is a portrait of the Long Dien village marketplace in Phouc Tuy province.

When I finished reading The Nashos’ War, I thought of the wise words of Herodotus, who Dapin quotes at the outset. “No one is fool enough to choose war instead of peace. In peace, sons bury fathers, but in war, fathers bury sons. How true is that?

Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.

The Weekend Australian, December 20-21, 2014, Review, Books, page 18.

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