Truth still the casualty of a just war
Sydney Morning Herald
20 June 2003
Look behind the lies and you'll see Michael Jeffery is right about Vietnam, writes Paul Sheehan.
When a lie, distortion or innuendo is repeated often enough it becomes conventional wisdom, an accepted fact, a media truth. Take, for example, the idea that, under the Howard Government, Australia has become a "deputy sheriff" of the U S.
This doctrine never existed. The words were insinuated into an interview with the Prime Minister by a journalist, and though never accepted as an accurate description of Australian policy, were endlessly repeated as fact. This myth was gleefully picked up by the Asian media. Yesterday's concocted controversy becomes today's foreign policy liability. Mission accomplished.
In the past year we also saw the sleazy campaign, conducted via the media, to link the Australian military with the drowning deaths of hundreds on the people-smuggling vessel known as SIEV X. Several people threw plenty of mud, but when an investigation found no evidence of Australian Defence Force culpability there were no apologies [emphasis added]
And now we have a Governor-General-designate who is a Vietnam veteran, who believes the war was a strategic necessity, at a time when Australia has never been more militarily stretched than since that conflict.
With Australian military deployments in three theatres - East Timor, the Solomon Islands and the Persian Gulf - and the prospect that lawlessness may engulf Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Fiji, it is a good time to re-examine the myths that grew up around the Vietnam War, myths that have moulded the thinking of the generation that runs this country.
The most comprehensive analysis of how the US military campaign in Vietnam defeated the Vietcong and decimated the North Vietnamese army but lost the propaganda war is Mark Woodruff's 1999 book, Unheralded Victory (Vandamere Press). Woodruff served in the US marines in Vietnam.
The book is filled with contrarian evidence, such as his analysis of the pivotal Tet offensive of 1968, a turning point in the war in more ways than one: "Most of the Saigon-based journalists, stunned and confused at their first close and personal view of combat, quickly declared the Tet offensive a communist victory even before the smoke had cleared.
"Cooler, more reasoned appraisals assessed it differently: a total catastrophe for the Vietcong. Even General Giap himself privately conceded that it had been a staggering military defeat ... 32,000 communist troops were killed and 5800 captured ... The civilian population clearly rejected the communist plea to rise up against the South Vietnamese government."
So many conscripts from North Vietnam were chewed up by the conflict - more than 1 million communist soldiers were killed - that many tried to avoid service and it became common for young men to tattoo this on their bodies: "Born in the north to die in the south."
"By 1972," Woodruff writes, "the North Vietnamese army, after years of head-to-head battles with the Americans and their allies ... was a spent force. It had been defeated again and again. All that was necessary was the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973." What could not have been foreseen by US strategists was that the Arab-Israeli War of 1973 would cause oil prices and inflation to soar, the US to pour aid into Israel, and Congress to slash aid to South Vietnam, all of which seriously weakened the country.
Woodruff challenges numerous conventional wisdoms about the attitude on the home front during the war: "A truism about the Vietnam War, rarely if ever even questioned, is that of diminishing support for those fighting it ... [While] people's responses to the opinion polls changed during the course of the war, few realise that the questions themselves, asked by pollsters, changed during that time.
"In late 1971, various polls showed that the majority of Americans now wanted its troops withdrawn from Vietnam ... [but] that majority fell apart if it was suggested that withdrawal would mean a communist takeover in South Vietnam ... and utterly disintegrated if withdrawal would threaten the lives or safety of United States prisoners of war ..."
Woodruff dissects the accepted wisdom that US forces suffered chronically low morale and that "fragging", the murder of officers by rolling grenades into their tents, became a problem. Pure myth. Of the 58,183 Americans killed in the war, 84, or 0.14 per cent, were "fragging" deaths, lower than the "fragging" rate in the Australian forces in Vietnam, where it was never perceived as a problem.
In the broader sweep of history, the US crushed Vietnam as a regional power. Since 1975, the US has become the world's dominant superpower while Vietnam has become a political, military and economic backwater. Communist Vietnam is no Asian Tiger. With a population of 82 million, it has a GDP barely bigger than that of NSW.
Was the Vietnam War a mistake? It certainly was for Vietnam, which has yet to recover. And our Governor-General designate, Major-General Michael Jeffery, does not believe it was a mistake for the US and Australia. "If the North Vietnamese Army had been allowed to march unhindered into South Vietnam, the repercussions would have been felt through Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Burma," he told me recently. The willingness of the Americans to commit to the fight greatly strengthened the resolve of the anti-communist governments of Malaysia and Indonesia. The war also exhausted the Vietnamese communists for a generation.
Jeffery believes another hangover of the Vietnam War generation is a sense "among some vocal elements in society that portray the military as staid, narrow-minded, conservative. But if you look at modern military officers, they are well-educated, socially aware, articulate, well-travelled, have high ethical standards, a love of country, and place a value on service."
He points to the fact that the US and Australian military have been fundamentally reformed and renewed since the Vietnam era, and their reputations reinvigorated in the public imagination. Not before time, as the Australian military prepares to play a greater role in our region, where our near neighbours are falling apart.