Voices from the Battlefield: Personal Narratives as an Historical Tool in Studying the Place of the Vietnam War in Australian Society

By Hiddlestone, Janine | Journal of Australian Studies, March 2002 | Go to article overview

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. …

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