Reading Not Going to Vietnam is research, for a book I might one day get round to writing. (I’ve written some of it, but it has lain untouched in a drawer for quite a while.) I’m interested in how people have ‘moved on’ from seemingly irreconcilable positions on the Vietnam War. I found it interesting to learn, when we visited Vietnam in 2007, that there it is called not the Civil War, nor the War of Independence, but the American War. Despite this nomenclature, the Vietnamese - moving on - now welcome Americans. We saw many a middle-aged male tourist chastened in the War Remnants Museum, their shoulders sagged in humble dismay.
I was just a little bit too young to be involved in the politics of the Vietnam War in Australia, but of course I know people who were, on both sides of the issue. Hutchinson was a desultory student at the University of Melbourne then, kicked out of home because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. His family was one of many riven by the politics of this war, and the first chapter makes it clear that this book is an attempt to achieve some kind of reconciliation with his father. His revelations in the book, however, caused him some considerable trouble in 2008 when veterans belatedly discovered that its author, a former draft dodger, was in charge of veterans’ heritage in the Victorian Department of Planning and Community Development. Rancour towards opponents of the Vietnam War still runs very deep in some quarters.
Hutchinson describes events as he perceived them, and, not knowing all the facts, has a tendency to make light of some of them. For example, he quotes his own rather droll Farrago* report claiming that demonstrators arrested at a demonstration in 1968 were all discharged without conviction. Perhaps the cases heard in the Magistrates Court were dismissed, but the demonstrators who had the matter dealt with a higher court were convicted, and at least one of them had his career cut short because of it. Still, apart from this (which I know about from personal contact with the people involved), the rest of the book appears to be well-researched.
After a sojourn in the UK to avoid the draft, Hutchinson came back to Australia to face up to charges of failing to register for National Service, just in time for the election of the Whitlam government, the cessation of conscription and the withdrawal of the court case which could have sent him to gaol. From a position of left-wing activism, Hutchinson then moved ‘inside the camp’ and ended up working as an adviser to the Hawke-Keating government. It was in the 1990s when he was in his forties that he decided he needed to journey throughout Asia in order to make sense of the family conflict over Vietnam, and his travels form the second part of the book.
His argument is that it was the Fall of Singapore in February 1942 and the shocking story of Japanese War Crimes against POWs on the Thai-Burma Railway and elsewhere, which ‘created or continued the poisonous old Australian attitude to Asia and Asians’ which in turn created support for the Vietnam War. (p68) So in 1997 he travelled to Changi in Singapore, to Malaysia, to Thailand and (despite Aung San Suu Kyi’s pleas for a visitor boycott) to Burma. He visited military heritage sites and reflected on the courage and heroism of his father’s generation. His visit to Cambodia reinforced his scepticism about political messianism and personality cults such as those that surrounded Stalin, Mao Tse Tung and Che Guevara – but he doesn’t include Ho Chi Minh in this pantheon of communist leaders deserving scepticism (and this is in part what outraged the Vietnam veterans who came across this book).
From Laos, he travelled to Vietnam. His first stop was Hué, where the Tet Offensive took place in 1968. The locals occasionally tackled him about the war, and (handicapped by language difficulties) he tried to explain that he had opposed it. Without irony, he writes that they had trouble understanding this because opposition to the government is not allowed in Vietnam. In Hanoi, he was interested in Ho Chi Minh’s role as a secular ‘saint’ but came away disappointed that the Museums failed to capture his spirit and connection with the people.
What moved him was visiting Ho’s mausoleum, and seeing young Vietnamese weeping there. (Having visited this mausoleum myself in 2007, I can attest to the fact that Vietnamese still visit it in their thousands, and if what our guide said was true, it seems that making a pilgrimage to the site during their brief holidays is something that people save for months or even years to achieve.) Hutchinson makes no secret of his admiration for the man who led Vietnam to independence and victory.
When Ho Chi Minh died in 1969 I was in London, and now, finally, I was in a queue shuffling quietly towards the mausoleum. I know it is unfashionable to admire public figures, especially lifelong communists, but there is something about Ho Chi Minh that I still find appealing and sympathetic. He has blood on his hands, but not much, for the leader of a country which has been at war for fifty (or a thousnad) years. He regretted much that happened in public. He has never been accused of corruption or selfishness. He was the underdog who won. He wrote some poems. He died just young enough. (p250)
Hutchinson concluded his journey in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), disappointed that today’s Vietnamese pay scant attention to Australia’s participation in the war. He writes as if he were looking for some kind of memorial, a Gallipoli in Asia, and as if he were expecting some kind of acknowledgement of his sacrifice in opposing the war:
There was nothing of Australia left here, nothing of the camp behind the dunes, and nothing of why I had spent a few years not coming to Vietnam. This was the modern Vietnam, a tourist resort. (p289)
What is truly sad about this book is that the story ends there. There is no concluding chapter about reconciliation with his father…
*The student newspaper of the University of Melbourne.
Author: Garrie Hutchinson
Title: Not Going to Vietnam
Publisher: Sceptre, 1999
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Readings Bargain Table $12.95
PS Will I ever finish writing that book? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe moving on means letting things be…