Voices from the Battlefield: Personal Narratives as an Historical Tool in Studying the Place of the Vietnam War in Australian Society
Hiddlestone, Janine, Journal of Australian Studies
The use of personal narratives has proved a popular method of studying the Vietnam War, both in Australia and the United States. Vietnam was one of the most controversial and longest wars in contemporary history. It was a war that was fought on the home front as well as on the battlefield, and for many, the wounds inflicted are still painful more than a quarter of a century later. The rash of histories that quickly followed previous wars were not so swift to appear after Vietnam. There was no great victory to celebrate and many found difficulty placing Vietnam into the context of a proud military history. When histories started appearing, they focused mainly on how Australia and the United States had become entangled in Vietnam, and how it had all gone wrong. Vietnam Veterans, as a group, felt dispossessed by society, and therefore ultimately, from history. Oral history offered them the opportunity to be heard.
The veterans' desire to have their say coincided with the growing popularity and acceptance of oral history as well as social history. Oral histories of Vietnam veterans began appearing in the early 1980s with groundbreaking works such as Mark Baker's Nam, and Wallace Terry's Bloods. (1) The latter text told the stories of African American veterans, a group that felt doubly disenfranchised. Australian veteran oral histories began emerging a few years later, with Smart Rintoul's Ashes of Vietnam in 1987 (2) being followed by numerous other titles in the early 1990s. Recent years have also witnessed the recognition of women's roles in the Vietnam War, in particular Siobhan McHugh's book on Australian women, Minefields and Miniskirts, which received high acclaim in Australia as well as in the United States. (3) Oral sources are not just used for purely oral histories, but also to complement to other sources. This has been put to good effect in various books by Australians Terry Burstall and Lex MacAulay. (4) Both used such documents as military dispatches and interviews with participants, not only to fill in the gaps of information, but also to give the reader an idea of how it felt to be there and other details that make the story a living one. Oral sources have also been used for more political studies such as Neil Sheehan's Pulitzer Prize winning, A Bright Shining Lie, Peter Edwards' Australian official history, A Nation at War, and Ambrose Crowe's The Battle After the War. (5) What has been largely missing however, has been an examination of the responses of Australian Vietnam veterans in an attempt to locate their place in history.
My research began with interviewing thirty-five Vietnam veterans in the Cairns area over a period of six months in 1999 and 2000. (6) Some were sourced by making contact with local veteran associations, such as the Returned and Services League (RSL) and the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia (VVAA). Thirteen made contact after reading an article in a newspaper about the research. (7) The remainder came from referrals from those interviewed, as almost everyone offered at least one referral, with a couple even inviting me to various functions and meetings to introduce other veterans. Many of those who made contact from the newspaper article were interested because it stated that I also wanted to talk to those not associated with any veteran groups. Therefore, I was able to interview a cross section of veterans with varying views and backgrounds. They were all male and represented all three services. (8) Participants were checked against the nominal roll of Vietnam veterans (9) to avoid interlopers, and although this is not a failsafe system, in a place like Cairns where most of the veterans know each other, it can be presumed that most, if not all, were whom they claimed. Unfortunately, no female Vietnam veterans were located.
The interviews were all recorded on tape. These took place at a variety of locations, including veterans' homes, cafes, workplaces, a motel room (with a chaperone), the gym, a truck and the RSL rooms. Naturally, it would be ideal if all interviews could take place in soundproof rooms, where no outside noises or distractions could intrude, but that is not always practical. A few could only be seen during their working hours, and some did not want to be interviewed in their homes, for various reasons. Some wanted to talk in their homes because they felt safe there, and others did not want me to come to their homes because they felt safe there and I was threatening that feeling of safety. A few were secretive at first with details such as telephone numbers and addresses (even their names), but after the meeting, most relaxed. Actually, the more they were assured that I did not require too many personal details, the more willing they were to provide them. Some of the more revealing interviews took place in the more unusual locations. A couple of the ones interviewed at home appeared to be withholding some information, perhaps in fear that a family member would hear them. Luckily, a reasonable quality tape recorder made the interviews perfectly understandable, complete with ambient noise.
Five of the thirty-five interviewed were willing to allow their names to be placed with their words. Many of the others agreed to be recorded only on the understanding that I alone would hear the actual tape. Most were happy to have their words quoted, but not to be identified, and releases were signed to that end. While some may be willing to lift the restrictions over time, or after their death, others have concerns about their families and may never want their names put against their words for one reason or another. Several indicated that they would be willing to be identified--but they would then be less forthcoming.
Various seminars and meetings of veterans were also attended, and some of the most fascinating information was obtained during these, or in personal communications, which were followed up where ever practicable. Facts were cross-referenced as much as possible, but opinions and emotions cannot be, and should not be, as they …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Voices from the Battlefield: Personal Narratives as an Historical Tool in Studying the Place of the Vietnam War in Australian Society. Contributors: Hiddlestone, Janine - Author. Journal title: Journal of Australian Studies. Publication date: March 2002. Page number: 57+. © 1998 University of Queensland Press. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.