April 25 is Anzac day here in Australia (and in New Zealand). It commemorates servicemen and women killed in war, and honours those who returned.
It’s a big day here, with many thousands getting early up to attend the dawn service.
Nowadays, it’s big, but as a child I remember thinking Anzac day would be a non-event in my lifetime. Back then only the returned servicemen of the two world wars marched, and they got less every year.
Two things. One, families started marching with their returned servicemen. Just as importantly, veterans from the later wars, like Vietnam, finally started to march as well.
History has turned about-face in my lifetime
Many of the soldiers who fought in the Vietnam were conscripted. They had two choices. Join the army and fight, or go to jail.
Back when I was a child the people who chose to go to jail were the heroes. Those who actually went to Vietnam and fought were pariahs. When they came home many of them were vilified as murderers.
Yet nowadays, it’s the exact opposite. If you fought in the war you’re a hero, and if you dodged the draft (by going to jail) you’re a pariah.
Our version of history changes according to the times we live in
Our version of history changes according to the times we live.
The Australian involvement in the war lasted from 1962 to 1975. According to Australian Government Vietnam war website:
Vietnam … lasted far longer than previous wars in which Australians had fought and it occurred at a time when societal changes, some brought about by the war, meant that attitudes at the beginning of the war were very different to those at the end. Many of the myths that have arisen about the war are partially attributable to this. Generalisations about one part of the conflict – and the dissent that arose in its final years is one example – do not necessarily apply to another.
My memories of the war are totally about the later years. I remember the dissent. I remember the vilification. I remember the hostility around the veterans. Although, according to the same website:
Associated with misunderstandings about the extent and longevity of opposition to the war is a widespread view that those who had served in Vietnam were denied recognition when they returned to Australia and that many veterans of the conflict were treated with hostility by the public … myths and misunderstandings about Vietnam abound … Acts of hostility against returned soldiers were not isolated, but they were not universal.
It also changes according to your own experience
The Vietnam war website gives what is probably a balanced overview of the conflict and the treatment of returned veterans. It wasn’t my experience so no matter how balanced the site is, I’m biased. It feels like a whitewash.
It’s a bit like the parable of the blind men touching the elephant. Each one feels a different part. The one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a fan, the one who feels the tusk says it is like a solid pipe, and so on.
My experience of the Vietnam war, as a child watching, is totally different to that of an actual veteran, and each veteran will have his own memories, depending on where he was, when he was deployed and how he was received when he came home.
It’s living history
Memories are memories. They fade over time. Some parts of a memory become more important, other parts fade away.
It’s interesting, watching how changes in attitude and a little bit of time alter our historical interpretation of events.
Even in a single lifetime.