NOEL TURNBULL. Myths, myths and more myths

As Anzac Day approaches are you getting ready to remember afresh how Anzac defines Australian culture and history and why we fought; how the French will never forget Australia and its role in WWI; and, how our Vietnam veterans were spat upon, reviled and denied welcome home marches?

Well, if you are, you probably shouldn’t read Mark Dapin’s Australia’s Vietnam Myth vs History; Romain Fathi’s Conversation essay about whether the French care about Anzac; Peter Cochrane’s Best We Forget; or my Anzac Day memorial address in 2017. On the other hand, what have you got to lose but some illusions shared by many of your fellow Australians?

Mark wrote the definitive book about Vietnam era National Servicemen – The Nashos’ War; a military history book – Jewish Anzacs; and a couple of novels including one, R&R, about Vietnam which sadly didn’t sell very well despite being immensely evocative and engaging.

In his latest book he apologises for ‘the myths he helped to make’ about Vietnam veterans: “that every Australian soldier sent to Vietnam was a volunteer (false); that…many Australian soldiers saw (or committed) ‘lots of atrocities’(false); that there were no welcome home marches for veterans (false); that returning soldiers faced demonstrations at Sydney Airport (false); that women spat on them (false)”; the allegedly toxic relationship between the RSL and Vietnam veterans (sort of false); and, the ballot was rigged (false) despite Tim Fischer’s’ attempt to prove it was true.

The Nashos’ War identified the myths – the latest book demolishes them. But, as Mark quotes the military historian Craig Stockings, the ‘zombie’ beliefs about military history “grow back undiminished” despite being refuted time and time again. Mark’s book (which grew out of a PhD thesis) is primarily based on the hundreds and hundreds of interviews Mark did with national servicemen over a number of years.

But, while initially accepting their memories as valid, he then subjected them to scrutiny through: checking the Nominal Rolls the Army holds about when and where soldiers served; exhaustive trawling of the National Library’s Trove archive to compare news reports with memories; analysis of Qantas flight plans and priorities; deep research in the archives of both protest organisations and official sources; and, re-interviewing to clarify comments in the light of his research.

The saddest part of the book is the fantasists who claim to have been in Vietnam and to have undertaken some top secret SAS activities. Mark quickly learnt to just put down the phone and go on to the next interview. Almost as sad is the extent to which myths emerged in the 1980s – some derived from Hollywood films, some from one incident in New Zealand – and some from constant reiteration which convinced the veteran that what he was saying was true.

To start with one common myth – Qantas scheduled their flights from Vietnam to ensure the veterans arrived at night to minimise demonstrations. The reality is that it was just a normal commercial operation dependent on optimal aircraft deployment. The fact that some troops got though the airport late at night or very early in the morning was purely a result of commercially-based scheduling, Customs inspections and flight delays. I, for instance, was carrying a trophy AK47 for the Regimental museum when I disembarked. The only delay was that airport staff wanted to hold and look at the weapon out of curiosity rather than import caution. On that night the only people in the airport were Sydney family welcoming their sons back home. For Melbournians and others we got sent to hotels, got up early the next morning and flew home to similar welcomes. There is no record at all of demonstrations at the airport. Nor any record of spitting at veterans – a myth which may have originated from an incident in a Hollywood film.

As far as the lack of welcome home marches there were actually 16 of them between 1966 and 1971 one of which attracted one demonstrator, another three; and, one other about a score. There was, however, one significant incident in New Zealand.

As for the ballot being rigged – Tim Fischer’s argument seems plausible but the reality is that what seems unusual in outcomes was purely a result of demography. The ballot was based simply on when you turned 20 but many of those who did were in tertiary education and got deferments. In later ballots their availability changed both the number called up; the demographic profile; and, which units they were sent to.

This is a brilliant, important book which tells us much about Vietnam and Vietnam veterans and, most importantly, the problematic nature of oral history, memory and controversy.

And while on the subject of myths there is also the one about how the Australian troops in WWI had ‘saved’ Amiens, won the battle of Villers-Bretonneux and shortened the war. What gets ignored is that the Canadians, the British, the French and others all believe the same.

Now a Flinders University historian, Romain Fathi, has written an essay for The Conversation which describes exactly how the French came to ‘care about the Australians.’ Fathi writes: “Realising that the good people of Amiens would certainly never believe that the Australians had done it all, Australian authorities turned their interest to much smaller villages to have their glorious and often historically inaccurate narrative displayed and therefore ensure the commemoration of the Anzacs.”

The plaque – Do not Forget Australia – was erected as a propaganda measure to attract Australian funds to the Villers-Bretonneux village and other small French villages quickly got into the act as well. Bullercourt got some support although in the early 1990s the local paper reported that: “Paradoxically, Bullercourt is better known in Sidney (sic) or in any other town in Australia, than in France.” In the 1950s, however, a few French did start to honour the Australians in France although the millions being spent by Australian Governments were also valued for their impact on tourism revenue. These French must be disappointed that the latest multi-million dollar Australian monument, the Sir John Monash Centre, is looking as if it is an expensive white elephant.

Peter Cochrane’s, Best We Forget, puts the role of Australia’s White Australia policy back into WWI perspective dovetailing with Henry Reynolds and Marilyn Lake’s Drawing the Global Colour Line about Australia’s racist line at the Paris Peace Talks although Marilyn Lake has disputed some of Cochrane’s conclusions.

Noel Turnbull blogs at and was interviewed for Mark Dapin’s books.

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3 Responses to NOEL TURNBULL. Myths, myths and more myths

  1. Stuart lawrence says:

    Watch peter Greste documentary on tv next week on john monash

  2. Ian Robinson says:

    Thanks, Noel, for both this, and the link to the Port Melbourne speech. They have helped my clarify my own ambivalent attitude to war. As you know, although we were at Uni together, I was then too old for the draft so missed Vietnam. But my Dad and my Grandfather fought in WW2 and WW1 respectively. I hated the former because it took my Dad away when I needed him – from the time I was 2 until I was 6.
    He always said WW2 against fascism was worth fighting, but WW1 was immoral – just a few bellicose nations flexing their muscles. But my Grandfather still went, even though he didn’t have to – he was a middle-aged accountant, leaving my Grandmother to struggle bringing up a family alone, a struggle which killed her in the end, so I never got to know her. The distinction you draw between remembering and commemorating is crucial. And we need to remember the bad things that happened as well as the good. Well done.

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