- The Long Shadow: Australia's Vietnam Veterans Since The War, by Peter Yule. Australian War Memorial and NewSouth, $49.99.
This book is as important as it is impressive. It is a long book, 568 pages of text. In his foreword, General Sir Peter Cosgrove says he read it in a sitting. Wow! The General obviously has more stamina than most. But if he means it is hard, almost impossible, to put down, then most readers would agree.
It is remarkable - even astonishing - that the book is published by the Australian War Memorial, usually a cautious and careful publisher. You won't die wondering what Peter Yule thinks. He lines up his targets and disposes of them carefully and with forensic intensity.
The targets are numerous and include: American and Australian strategy in Vietnam, Australian prime ministers and politicians who sent our soldiers to war and kept them there, the Department of Veterans' Affairs, deceitful and cowardly, most of its ministers and secretaries, the Evatt Royal Commission into Agent Orange, the official historian of Agent Orange, Professor F.B. ('Barry') Smith and, by implication, the supervising official historian who commissioned and published Smith, Dr Peter Edwards.
The Long Shadow is firmly on the side of Vietnam veterans and their families, and it abounds with their voices. The veterans were sometimes wrong. There was no riot at Sydney airport between returning veterans and anti-war protestors. No Australian ever threw red paint over marching Australian returning veterans. There was no booing and little protest at the marches in capital cities to celebrate the return of units.
But mostly the veterans were right. It was the wrong war and it couldn't be won. They were grievously damaged by the war they fought. They were hounded and hurt by the way Australians viewed their war and by their perceived place in Australian society. They were good, perhaps great, soldiers, well-trained, cohesive, resilient, efficient, hard-working and reliant on one another.
But it is a sad book. There is misery, suffering, outrage and injury on almost every page. Yet there are moments of great happiness and joy - the Welcome Home parade in Sydney in 1987, the eventual understanding and broadly-based support of the Australian community, and the support and comfort that veterans fostered among themselves.
This is, fundamentally, a medical history and that is why it is so important. It examines physical and psychological injury at war, it accounts for the emerging term and condition, post-traumatic stress disorder, and it shows how careful medical attention and counselling can - eventually - heal.
The book came about in response to veterans' outrage at the publication of a volume of the official history, Medicine at War, and Barry Smith's essay on Agent Orange in that book. Yule concludes - trenchantly - that Smith "did not so much write a history as present a case, making personal attacks, distorting evidence, and gloating over the discomfiture of veterans". "[The veterans]," writes Yule, "deserved better of an official history." They have it in The Long Shadow.
One of the strengths of the book is to show the interconnections between the American experience of Vietnam and the Australian experience. Yule makes the excellent point that the cohesion and comradeship of Australian units was fostered by the fact that most soldiers arrived in Vietnam as part of a unit or battalion. They had trained together to peak efficiency in Australia, they had travelled together, and they fought together. In contrast the Americans arrived in Vietnam individually and were assigned to a unit after their arrival.
But the aftermath of the war in both countries was very similar with a close liaison on so many matters affecting the veterans' welfare, health and wide-ranging medical research. It was American research and integrity that helped overturn the effects of the Evatt Royal Commission in Australia.
Readers will be amazed and warmed by the lengthy account of the persistence of key Australian veterans and organisations in confronting governments, seeking to improve the health and welfare of their mates. Men like Phill Thompson, Tim McCombe and Graham Walker deserve recognition and honour for their unpaid, voluntary and skilled campaigning on behalf of their mates.
Yule makes no distinction between the service in Vietnam of national servicemen and regular soldiers. But he makes the essential point that there was a great deal of difference in their rehabilitation in Australia. A national serviceman, fighting in the jungle one day, might be back at work in bank or office a couple of days later. Mates on whom they had relied for life itself were lost to them. Read this wonderful book. It will open your eyes to a tragedy in the Australian story.
- Michael McKernan is the author of When This Thing Happened, an account of one veteran's tragedy in Vietnam.