This Vietnam Veterans’ Day will hold a special place in the hearts of our veterans of Vietnam as well as their families. This year we mark 50 years since Australia formally declared its cessation of hostilities in Vietnam bringing an end to our longest war of the 20th century.
Today we stop to remember the 60,000 Australians who served in Vietnam, the more than 3,000 who were wounded, and the 523 Australians who fell in that foreign land.
In a controversial and polarising conflict which engendered public protest on the home front, the service and sacrifice of soldiers was often forgotten. At the time, public opinion often failed to draw a distinction between the politics of war and the people who fought in it.
Having returned home, veterans found that their communities, colleagues, friends and even families neither understood, nor wanted to understand what they had experienced. Some were subjected to outright hostility and accused of war crimes. Others were met with ingratitude or indifference. Many did not receive adequate medical support to deal with their wounds, seen and unseen. Our veterans of Vietnam deserved so much better.
In the decades since the Vietnam War, we have come to acknowledge our nation’s historical mistreatment of many who returned. And we have come to tell stories of the endeavours, valour and sacrifice of Australians who served in Vietnam – to see beyond the politics and rightfully honour the people, their character and their deeds.
Today we remember the Nashos – the 15,000 Australians who served in Vietnam having been conscripted under the National Service Scheme. Their birth dates were pulled from that ‘lottery of death’. But they went to war without complaint. As the Official History notes, contrary to perceptions at the time, the levels of compliance were high, with less than 1.5 per cent failing to register.
Today we also remember the soldiers’ experiences. The gruelling 12-month tours of duty of which a demanding 80 per cent of time was spent in the operational field. The brutal nature of a predominantly ground war with no front lines. The constant patrols. The search and destroy missions. The perils of mines, booby traps, protracted guerrilla warfare and hit-and-run attacks at night. The unrelenting risk of ambush from an enemy who had infiltrated South Vietnam and could be present in any village, jungle, mountain, swamp, rice paddy or rubber plantation. The intense engagements which began without warning and were typically fought at close quarters of less than 30 metres.
And today we remember those major battles like Long Tan, Coral-Balmoral, Binh Ba and others where, testimony to the Anzac spirit, Australians again proved their mettle.
Our dutiful act of remembrance on Vietnam Veterans’ Day is a threefold promise. A promise to the past to honour the fallen. A promise to the present to thank those Vietnam veterans still with us. And a promise to the future to afford all veterans with the proper treatment and dignity they deserve.
As we look around the world at periods characterised by resurgent authoritarianism, we can better understand the strategic reasons behind Australia’s participation in the Vietnam War. Indeed, we can better appreciate the values for which Australians shouldered arms, shed blood and sacrificed so much. Australians stood with our friends against those hell-bent on conquest.
Vietnam is a reminder that the values we hold dear endure beyond any conflict – provided we never become indifferent to defending them. Our region would look very different today had Australians not fought to defend those values in Vietnam.
To all our Vietnam veterans:
In this important commemorative year, Australians express our profound national gratitude to you. You did your duty. You showed courage, camaraderie and commitment in extremis. You are revered equally among all the Anzacs who have served and sacrificed for our country and helped to defend liberty. You have a secure place within Australia’s pantheon of war heroes. On your day, Vietnam Veterans’ Day, we honour you. We thank you. We commit you to our national memory and to always remember you faithfully.
18 August 2023