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Tuesday, 18 August 2020
The Cenotaph
Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC QC

I, too, pay my respects to the Gadigal of the Eora Nation and Elders and servicemen and women, past and present.

The day chosen to commemorate Vietnam Veterans’ Day is the anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan, fought 54 years ago today.  That battle epitomised the nature of the war that was being fought.  Lieutenant Colonel Harry Smith MC (Ret’d), D Company commander 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR), received a Military Cross for his service at Long Tan. He reflected upon that battle in these words:

"Like the errors of Gallipoli, a proper assessment of intelligence reports would have averted my company being sent out to face a VC regiment. But we saved the Task Force Base (at Nui Dat) from what would have been a disastrous attack by the 5,000-strong VC 5th Division, and their influence in the province was reduced thereafter. That is why Long Tan has become so significant and is feted as the icon of the war for all Vietnam veterans to commemorate those lost or maimed between 1962 and 1972.”[1]

The battle of Long Tan is etched in Australia’s military history.  The art of the historian is to analyse the past.  The art of the war historian is to analyse the outcomes of battles and of wars.  Such analyses have the benefit of hindsight, as they must, if the lessons of history, and of war, are to be learned.  

Our history here in Australia is to honour the individuals who fought the battles, regardless of the outcomes, to commemorate those who served in the wars.  At least it was - and is so - with the veterans of the First and Second World Wars.

Vietnam was different.  Well before that war ended, the commentary of regret flashed across our television screens.  Plainsight took hold before hindsight could play its part.  

The regret was memorialised in the documentary film: The Fog of War: 11 lessons from the life of Robert S McNamara, the Secretary of State during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.  In his 1995 memoir, McNamara wrote that his own behaviour in shaping the war was “wrong, terribly wrong”.[2]  But he, too, said he was saying that in hindsight.

The phrase, 'Fog of War' has a long military pedigree. Sun Tzu in his 5th century BC treatise, The Art of War, used the phrase to describe the situation where an army did not have a clear idea of what the enemy was doing behind the enemy’s own lines. 

No description could be more apt to describe the nature of the warfare encountered by our Vietnam veterans. 

As early as 1967 in America, and 1970 in Australia, there were public protests against the war.  The protests signified a deep concern by a significant part of the American and Australian populations that this was an ‘unwinnable’ war and it became an unpopular war.  In both countries, it was a concern that divided the nation, it divided families and it divided those not called to fight and those who did fight. 

Two things were overlooked in all of this.  First, and importantly, Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, commencing in 1962, was part of Australia’s forward defence policy, developed in the years after World War II.  This policy was a product of the Cold War security environment, in which Australian forces were based within Asia, the policy being aimed at repelling threats before they reached Australian home soil. 

Secondly, and fundamentally, Australian defence personnel - Navy, Army and Air Force - both regulars and conscripts, were fighting that war.  Regardless of the view that is taken of that war, whether in foresight, plainsight or in hindsight, these service personnel were doing their duty for Australia.  They were the not the policy makers.  

The lack of recognition and support given to those who served in Vietnam when they came home, is perhaps, a version of the adage ‘kill the messenger’.  We all know that that is simply wrong. 

The heroism of our veterans in Vietnam, the contribution they made as Australians to - and for - Australia, took 15 years to be accorded official recognition when that first parade of 22,000 veterans proudly marched down George St in front of 100,000  proud Australians. 

The role that the Vietnam Veterans’ Association NSW and Sub Branches[3] around our State played in advocating for your welfare was integral to that recognition. 

Because the Vietnam War created such division, from support to condemnation, we do not often speak of the positive contribution that the Vietnam War - and, therefore, those Australians who fought in it - had on  us as Australians, on our defence policies and in the region. The contribution and the impact of that contribution has been significant.  

In the region, Lee Kuan Yew, first Prime Minister of Singapore, was strongly of the view that, by delaying the fall of Saigon from 1965 to 1975, Singapore and other nation states, had 10 years to strengthen their political and economic resilience.[4]  

Australia was the place to which Vietnamese refugees fled, embracing Australia as home, adding to the vibrancy of our multicultural community. They fled here because of the goodwill created there by our veterans.

Australia’s defence policy changed from one of forward defence to continental defence, enabling Australia to develop an independent defence policy.[5] A single Department of Defence was established to replace the inefficiencies of five separate government departments.[6] 

Even though times had significantly changed by the end of the war, our Vietnam veterans, whether regular army or conscripts, ‘lived and wrote’ the need for the modernisation of the Australian defence force.  Their role in doing so is not to be underestimated.

It has been the veterans of the Vietnam War, who have most particularly made us understand that the impact of war does not stay on the battlefield.  It is relived in the physical and psychological trauma that comes home with those who are engaged in the conflict. The veterans of the Vietnam War made us aware that ongoing support is as essential as weapons on the battlefield.[7] [8]

We are as proud of you, our Vietnam veterans, as we are of the members of our past and present defence force. 

Although it took too long for us as a society to recognise and understand the extent of your sacrifice and contribution, and the significance of your service, you have made us a better society. I thank you for that.  We honour your courage and your commitment. We honour each and everyone of you.            

Lest we forget


[2] Kat Eschner:, Nov 29, 2016: How Robert McNamara Came to Regret the War He Escalated.

[3] Established nationally 1979

[4] The New York Times: Peter Edwards, 4 August 2017: What was Australia doing in Vietnam

[5] Whitlam Institute: Whitlam’s Australian defence policy reflected the need for an independent foreign policy

[6] Ibid

[7] There have been several DVA studies on veterans’ health, including on family health

[8] Including impact of Agent Orange, PTSD and moral injury- The Vietnam Veterans’ Mortality Study (2005) revealed that Vietnam veterans have a death rate 7% higher than the general male population, with deaths from cancer 21% higher, prostate cancer 53% higher, lung cancer 29%, ischaemic heart disease 10% and suicides 21% above the general male population. 

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