Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Vietnam Days

Tomorrow is Vietnam Veterans' Day in Australia.

It commemorates the battle of Long Tan, which was a very important day for Australia's Vietnam veterans. On 18 August 1966, a rifle company of 108 Australian soldiers, cut off and outnumbered by more than 2,500 Viet Cong, and pounded by monsoon rain so heavy that they couldn't see and a hail of bullets so thick that they couldn't raise their heads above ground level, held off repeated, massed Viet Cong attacks.

Vietnam veterans tell this story a lot, and chose the date of Long Tan as Vietnam Veterans' Day. It has a range of meanings. Usually, its about admiration for the men involved. Sometimes its about the failure of army intelligence that put the men at risk. Sometimes its used in Australian officer training about strategy.

When my partner tells the story, its about being a raw, new 20 year old soldier who had just finished his training, sitting at the Nui Dat base in 1968 and thinking "There but for the grace of God go I". They all knew such a thing could happen to them.

And, of course, many very horrible things did happen to them. My partner, for instance, spent many days walking through the Long Hai hills, through a Viet Cong stronghold honey-combed with tunnels and heavily mined. Seeing his friends blown up. Knowing that every single step could be the one that blows him up. And he kept on walking.

When he returned to Australia, it seemed that nobody understood the enormity of what had happened to him. Australians had sent this innocent, idealistic young man to a war, but when he returned, they just weren't very interested. They acted like he had been away on holiday. Or, worse, some were interested all right, but in all the wrong ways.

An Australian Vietnam veteran wrote a poem about this experience that seems to capture it perfectly:

Tell Me What it Was Really Like

What was it like over there?
Come on, tell me all about it
But don't spoil any of my preconceptions
Just tell me what it was really like

Don't use words like "service" and "sacrifice"
That's not what I want to hear
Tell me about burning villages
Tell me what it was really like

There you go, talking about mateship
Talking about courage and fear
Tell me about the drugs, man
Tell me what it was really like

What's all this about booby traps, tunnels
Jumping jack mines and mortar attacks?
Did you rape any women?
Tell me what it was really like

You go on about the heat and the mud
The hard work and the lack of sleep
Did you pick up a dose on R and R?
Tell me what it was really like

You talk about cas-evac and dust-off
I don't even know what that means
Did you kill any children?
Tell me what it was really like

It's getting hard to talk to you
You don't seem to communicate
You get upset too easily
I only asked what it was really like

You know, my partner wasn't classified as wounded when he returned home. But he did have wounds. The wound to his soul, to his innocence, from killing his fellow human beings and knowing that they wanted to kill him. The wound to his sleep, from the nightmares almost every night. The wound to his trust in the country that had sent him there. The wound to his health as the time bomb of his service just keeps on ticking away. The wound to his capacity for friendship - the best friend of his youth was killed in Vietnam, and the best friend of his maturity was a veteran who committed suicide after terrible health problems and a long battle with the government. The wound to his manhood, from being unable to satisfy his woman or father a child in the usual way. These are the gaping wounds that we both live with every day.

Its not surprising that Vietnam veterans chose Long Tan for their day. Because it reflects their experience of battling overwhelming odds. And I feel this way myself, at times. Every time we get another diagnosis of another mostly unfixable health problem. Every time I aknowledge to myself that, in many respects, he has just been damaged beyond repair. Every time we see our friends with cancer, or their children with birth defects from Agent Orange, and have to think "There but for the grace of God goes our family". Every time we start a new campaign or program to help veterans and the government's response is to deny, deny, deny the problem, until they finally give in, fling us a few crumbs and congratulate themselves on their generosity and patriotism.

And, you know, the Long Tan story is about courage. Courage and desperation. Fighting with everything you have, your backs to the wall, knowing that logic tells you that you can't win, but just refusing to say die and keeping on firing.

I am proud of my partner. I honour his courage - not just in Vietnam, but in our lives together. Despite everything that has happened, he is still a good man. Just about every morning, he lies there feeling so ill that he is certain he can't even get up, can't even get his breakfast, or have a shower. And every day, he does it. These small things take courage.

And he does more. He loves me, when he thought he wouldn't love again. He works with veterans, trying to bring something good from the devastation. And he looks after our child, nurturing new life when he has seen so much of death. And he doesn't complain.

But, you know, tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of the battle of Long Tan. My partner's service ended decades ago. The Vietnam War should be over. But it never is. Around here, it feels like we are always surrounded and out-gunned, refusing to say die and keeping on firing. In a way, it is always Vietnam Veterans' Day.


Blogger Rob said...

A very touching blog entry today Emily and fate decided that you among many others were meant to be with your partner, "refusing to say die and keeping on firing".

Good luck and much happiness to you both.

11:36 AM  
Blogger oldbear said...

Hi Emily, thank yo for a fine and moving post.

As an American who did and does believe in making sacrifices to defend freedom, I feel we Americans all owe you all (Canadians and ROKs too), and our veterans an apology for doing so poorly in electing, believing, and supporting those who conceived, planned and directed that war so poorly.

Bless you both, and may peace be with both of you, and all the Aussie Vets who gave so much. Like our guys, it was another world and another time, but many are still paying for it in the here and now.

With respect and gratitude, OldBear from San Diego.

7:21 PM  
Blogger freebird said...

What can one say? I just didn't want to leave without acknowledging your deeply moving post. My heart goes out to you both.

8:20 AM  
Blogger FTN said...

Thanks for writing that. My Dad was in Vietnam (does that make me sound really young?) and I look at pictures of him there and think, Geez, he was just a kid! In fact, nearly everyone there was just a kid. And that's a lot to go through for anyone.

11:55 AM  
Blogger Emily said...

Rob, Freebird - Thank you so much, I really appreciate the warmth behind your comments.

Oldbear - I am very touched by your very gracious note and showed it to my partner, who appreciated it, as well. Although I think we blame our government much more than we blame yours!

FTN - They look so skinny and gormless in the photos, don't they? Just kids.

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