The myth and the veterans’ problems that will not die

There are almost too many myths about Australia’s Vietnam War involvement to keep track. But one of them – that all National Service conscripts had the option of volunteering or not when about to be posted to Vietnam – is possibly the most persistent.

Unfortunately, the myth gets more attention than the very real mental health problems veterans suffer.

The author was recently reminded of the volunteer myth when someone authoritatively told him he must have volunteered to go to Vietnam and would have signed a paper agreeing to.

Despite protesting that no paper was ever signed the person persevered insisting that the document would be in the service records from the Australian War Memorial. So, after 51 years the application went in.

The only things that stuck out in the records were that the then recruit had been near the bottom of the class graduating from officer training and that commanding officers consistently seemed to think he wasn’t trying hard enough. There was no document volunteering for the war.

What was amazing though was the vehemence with which the volunteer myth was advanced and the extent to which it is widespread among veterans themselves. Although what is more revealing is how they got to believe it.

The authoritative demolition job on the myth was Dr Mark Dapin’s book Australia’s Vietnam Myth vs History. It followed on from his earlier book, The Nasho’s War, which was largely based on veteran’s memories of their service.

As he did further research for a PhD he realised that much of what he had been told by many veterans and included in the first book was wrong. The Myth vs History book was the result. His research has been complemented by that of Ben Morris, formerly of University of Wollongong and published in the International Journal of Civic, Political and Community Studies in 2015.

The myth seems to have originated from three sources: the 1990 book Duty First by David Horner; the fact that some units had asked conscripts to sign volunteer forms; and, the framing some Liberal politicians put on ‘volunteering’ in the form of not signing up for the Citizens Military Forces.

The unit ‘forms’ belief was true in one respect but was actually illegal. The practice was given the kibosh by then Army Minister, Malcolm Fraser, who said this had not been done at the direction of the government or the Army and that conscripts had no choice in the matter.

Fraser, as Dapin reports, made it clear in 1996 that national servicemen could not refuse service in Vietnam since they “were an integral part of the army and would not receive special treatment.”

The contemporary belief was clouded by some cunning framing when some Liberals followed the course of John Carrick who told the Senate in 1971: “Every person who has gone to Vietnam has elected to do so by leaving himself in the ballot and not opting for service in the CMF or registering as a conscientious objector.”

Bob Katter Jnr was prospectively in this situation although in retrospect, as Dapin shows, he has a very garbled memory of what happened.

Moreover, as the war was winding down in 1971 a new Army Minister, Andrew Peacock, said conscripts could refuse to go “from now on” making it clear that was not the position before his statement.

Dr Dapin and Morris suggest the myth may have been based on a number of factors. The inculcation of the Anzac army voluntary participation history; the unreliability of much oral history; and, the fact that a host of well-known authors have kept repeating it until it was deemed to be ‘true’.

Years after the original myth creation it got new legs when some argued there were documents that conscripts had signed which proved their case, only for archive research to demonstrate that the documents were a routine form signed before allocation to units. Morris concluded: “….rigorous research has failed to locate any form showing that volunteers volunteered for Vietnam.”

We are not the only ones, of course, who revel in myth – even about things which are real and demonstrable. One of the hallowed episodes in Australian military history is the Beersheba cavalry charge. In 1917 an Australian delegation went there for the centennial re-creation of the charge.

What they witnessed was mounted troops, many of them not carrying rifles or bayonets but flags – some of them Israeli flags – a country that didn’t exist back in 1917.

Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, told the crowd: “We saw here in Be’er Sheva (the Israeli occupiers name for Beersheba) 800 cavalry go against 4000 embedded Turks with machine guns, with bunkers. The few won against the many. That’s the spirit of the army of Israel. It stands today.”

Meanwhile something that is not mythical, but doesn’t get as much attention from the Anzackery obsessives, are the continuing problems of today’s veterans.

The DVA Mental Health Prevalence report is part of a comprehensive study on the impact of military service on the mental, physical and social health of ex-personnel – those it calls “transitioned [to civilian life] ADF [Australian Defence Force] personnel” between 2010 and 2014.

The study concluded. “An estimated 46% of ADF members who had transitioned from full-time service within the past five years met 12-month diagnostic criteria for a mental disorder … This level of 12-month disorder combined with the significantly greater severity of current self-reported symptoms of psychological distress, depression anxiety, anger, suicidality and alcohol use, particularly at subthreshold levels in the Transitioned ADF compared to the 2015 Regular ADF, places this population at significant risk of impairment and disability, highlighting the challenges of transitioning out of full-time military service.”

The report said: an estimated 75% of former ADF members met criteria for a mental health disorder prior to, during or after their military careers; a quarter were estimated to have met criteria for post-traumatic-stress disorder in their lifetime; more than 20% had suicidal ideation; 29% had felt life was not worth living; 8% had made a suicide plan; and, 2% said they had attempted suicide.

Lest we forget!

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Noel Turnbull is a blogger who has had a 40-year-plus career in public relations, politics, journalism and academia.

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