The Decade of Silence


The Australian historian Ann Curthoys has drawn attention to the lack of a contemporaneous public voice for Vietnam veterans in the 1970s. Curthoys has suggested that the published recollections of veterans have been "a 1980s and 1990s story, rarely heard publicly in the 1970s" (1). Curthoys has pointed out this absence in the historical record of the seventies in an essay on the anti-war movement in which she was a participant. This highlights the need, not only to address the issue of the silence of Vietnam veterans in the 1970s, but for it to be addressed by veterans themselves.

Curthoys is not alone in acknowledging the absence of a Vietnam veterans voice in the seventies. Jeffrey Grey states that "the withdrawal of Australian troops in 1972 was followed by a lengthy public silence." (2) Jock McCulloch noted in 1984 that "it seems surprising that they have remained silent for more than ten years. Unfortunately, the social and political climate following the Vietnam war discouraged veterans from talking of their war experiences." (3) Stuart Rintoul suggests that "At first there was no-one to listen and afterwards they came to believe that no-one could understand." (4) When I contacted a friend and fellow Vietnam veteran, Bob Gibson, and informed him that I intended to write about Vietnam veterans in the seventies, his immediate response was "ah yes, the decade of silence." It is clear that what has been needed is not a further reiteration of the existence of the "decade of silence", but rather an attempt to explain it, with a thorough examination of its causes and its implications.

Such an investigation by a Vietnam veteran is an inherently ideological and political project because Vietnam veterans in the Seventies were not simply silent: they were in fact silenced by other voices. It is undertaken in the knowledge that it will be read by Vietnam veterans. This project is inevitably a process of personal reflection as well as of historical investigation. I served as an infantry soldier in Vietnam with the Third Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR) in 1967-68. In the early 1980s I was elected to the position of National Secretary of the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia (VVAA), and held that position for several years. I was also one of the early organisers of the Australian Vietnam Forces Welcome Parade and National Reunion, held in 1987. The following poem, "Tell me what it was really like", is an illustration of my own attempts at a dialogue with the Australian people following my return from Vietnam. Although the feelings depicted in the poem were strongly held through the Seventies, it was not until 1987 that I was able to articulate them. The poem reflects the silencing of personal experience by the primacy of constructions from popular culture and mythology:


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.

This project also moves from personal reflection and historical investigation to theory and politics: the personal IS the political. Discourse theory, as expounded by the French philosopher Michel Foucault, provides a useful theoretical tool for understanding how Vietnam veterans came to be silenced in the Seventies. Foucault wrote extensively about the way societies form a variety of discursive practices within the larger discourse of society itself. Foucault wrote specifically about the formation, in his native France, of a medical discourse, in "The Birth of the Clinic", a psychiatric discourse, in "Madness and Civilization", a law enforcement and punishment discourse, in "Discipline and Punish", and about discursive formation in general, in "The Archaeology of Knowledge" and "The Order of Things". Foucault describes discursive practices as being "characterized by the delimitation of a field of objects, the definition of a legitimate perspective for the agents of knowledge, and the fixing of norms for the elaboration of concepts and theories. Thus, each discursive practice implies a play of prescriptions that designate its exclusions and choices."

Chapters One and Two will explore two dominant discourses in search of explanations for the decade of silence. These discourses will be referred to as the public discourse and the historical discourse purely for simplicity. They refer, of course, to far more complex discursive formations created from a variety of competing discourses. They possess their own discursive boundaries, within which they have the power to define, to fix norms, and to elaborate concepts and theories. These powers inevitably include processes of exclusion. Chapter One will explore sources which indicate the state of public debate, discussion and opinion in the Seventies. These sources will be employed to demonstrate the place of Vietnam veterans in relation to the shifting boundaries of the public discourse. Chapter Two will examine historical texts from the Seventies. This search will be especially significant, since an important characteristic of the historical discourse in this period was a self-conscious expansion of its own professional boundaries.

The silence of the Seventies was broken for Vietnam veterans with the formation of the VVAA in 1979-80. This act of self-empowerment by Vietnam veterans presented a classic example of what Foucault would call a counter-discourse. In a dialogue with his colleague Gilles Deleuze in 1972, Foucault detailed the ways in which a counter-discourse is created when a group within a society, having previously been denied a voice because others possessed the power to speak for it, begins to speak for itself. The subject, and the title, of Chapter Three is "The Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia as Counter-Discourse". The Association was formed when a significant number of veterans began to suspect that they may have been affected by the use of chemical herbicides and pesticides in Vietnam. When those veterans approached the traditional sources of help for war veterans, such as the Returned Services League (RSL) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA), they encountered obstruction where they had expected assistance. It was this exclusion from the established discourse for veterans, represented by the RSL and elements of government, particularly the DVA, which created the need for a counter-discourse.

Writing the history of events in which one has been personally involved presents unique challenges. Again I am indebted to An Curthoys, this time for her article "History and Reminiscence: Writing about the Anti-Vietnam-War Movement". As she explains, "I faced the particular problems of writing about events in which I had participated: the contrast between History and Reminiscence, objectivity and subjectivity, documentary research and memory. I had to decide on the writing strategies that might best deal with these problems and engage the reader."

My own strategy for working around these dilemmas has been to relate only those events for which memory is confirmed by documentary evidence. I do this in the interest of historical accuracy, rather than through any desire to avoid emotional engagement. Such engagement is necessary and unavoidable if the story of the Australian Vietnam experience is to be told from the veterans point of view.


1. Ann Curthoys, Vietnam: Public Memory of an Anti-War Movement, in Kate Darian-Smith and Paula Hamilton (eds.), "Memory and History in Twentieth-Century Australia", Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 131.

2. Jeffrey Grey, Vietnam, Anzac and the veteran, in Peter Pierce, Jeff Dayle and Jeffrey Grey (eds.), "Vietnam Days: Australia and the impact of Vietnam", Ringwood, Vic., Penguin, 1991, p. 78.

3. Jock McCulloch, "The Politics of Agent Orange: The Australian Experience", Richmond, Vic., Heinemann, 1984, p. 150.

4. Stuart Rintoul, "Ashes of Vietnam: Australian Voices", Richmond, Vic., William Heinemann, 1987, p. xii.

5. Lachlan Irvine, Tell me what it was really like, published in Robert P. Arnoldt and Jacqueline A. Marx, "Vietnam Insights: A Guide to the American Experience in Vietnam 1960 to Present", West Dundee, Illinois, Visions Unlimited, 1991, p. 104. Also recorded on audiocassette by Normie Rowe, Together Then Poetry, with accompanying booklet, Sydney, Australian Vietnam Forces National Reunion, 1987.

6. Michel Foucault, "Birth of the Clinic: an archaeology of medical perception", (A.M. Sheridan, trans.), London, Tavistock, 1973.

7. Michel Foucault, "Madness and Civilization: a history of insanity in the Age of Reason", (Richard Howard trans.), London, Routledge, 1989.

8. Michel Foucault, "Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison", (A. Sheridan trans.), London, Penguin, 1977.

9. Michel Foucault, "The Archaeology of Knowledge", London, Tavistock, 1972.

10. Michel Foucault, "The Order of Things: an Archaeology of the human sciences", London, Tavistock, 1970.

11. Michel Foucault, History of Systems of Thought, in Michel Foucault, "Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews", (Donald F. Bouchard, ed. & trans.), Ithaca, N.Y., Cornell University Press, 1996, p. 199.

12. This dialogue between Foucault and Deleuze can be found in Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, Intellectuals and Power, in Foucault, "Language, Counter-Memory, Practice", 1996, pp. 295-217.

13. Ann Curthoys, History and Reminiscence: Writing about the Anti-Vietnam-War Movement, Australian Feminist Studies, No. 17, 1993, p. 117.