The legacy of the Vietnam War shaped many young Australians growing up in the 1980s. We watched and listened as those who had lived it told their stories through cinema, TV and music.
It was the first full decade since 1939 that young Australians weren’t sent off en masse to fight on foreign soil. Instead, as Australia and its allies continued to wage the Cold War – in the shadow of potential nuclear conflict – we lucky few looked back and took stock.
The Vietnam War and portrayals of its veterans were everywhere on screen, especially in US TV series and movies like Tour of Duty, China Beach, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Hamburger Hill, Rambo… okay, even Air Wolf and The A-Team. In some of those, my male peers and I found role models, principles, and ways to be around friends.
From WWII sprang Hogan’s Heroes and everything from A Bridge Too Far to Where Eagles Dare. From the Korean War of the 1950s came the bittersweet M*A*S*H. Those were still on TV, but the stories that came to us from Vietnam were more current, bleaker and more desperate. Conscripts going home in body bags. Napalm and agent orange. Possible war crimes. Locally, the soundtrack was Redgum’s tragic “I Was Only Nineteen” and Cold Chisel singing about “no D-Day heroes in 1973”.
The Vietnam War on film portrayed diversity. Many major characters were black. China Beach showed women at war, more than men. Heroes were flawed, major characters were lost and the tragedy was palpable, for the Vietnamese people as well as the US-led forces.
Also on TV was Star Trek: The Next Generation, science fiction in which humans had overcome war and sought to boldly go in peace among the stars. This seemed logical, as Mr Spock might say, because there was genuine hope for lasting peace, especially when the 1980s ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was as John Lennon had sung: “war is over, if you want it”. Unlike the UK and Argentina in the Falklands, Australia went a decade without an odd angry shot.
I remember sitting in a friend’s backyard in 1989, drinking bottles of beer around a fire pit and playing music. Somebody had a guitar and sang a song he wrote. I read some of my writing aloud. We couldn’t help it; we were being the guys on Tour of Duty, sitting in our base camp, making the most of the peace.
The children of Vietnamese people who'd been through the war were in our school system. Returned veterans were among our teachers. My gym lessons in Sydney were run by a US Vietnam veteran with a limp. We looked up to him. We thought we had some idea of what they'd all been through.
Of course, we had no idea. We were just kids. We were the lucky ones, living in fortunate times, before Australians were again sent off to the Gulf War, East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Ken Burns’ series The Vietnam War, which begins this Saturday on SBS, is the Vietnam story we needed to see back then. By all accounts it’s a harrowing watch, but a necessary and brilliant one, which critics have consistently reviewed at 9/10.
You can also catch Oliver Stone’s Platoon, this Friday December 8 at 8:30pm on SBS.