Tuesday, April 17, 2012

One more time around the mulberry bush kicking the ABC can ...

(Above: a simple test. Which image would you identify with?)

Splendid news and splendid logic in Gerard Henderson's warrior communique from the front lines Left-wing critique of US alliance is a little hit and myth.

It would seem that it was right and proper to head off to Vietnam to get a belting (sssh, be very quiet, don't mention that Australia was on the losing side) because it was a way of tackling a belligerent Indonesia.

In 1965, Australia was genuinely worried about the military designs of the nationalist Sukarno regime in Indonesia. Menzies and others believed that if Australia supported the US in Vietnam, then the US was more likely to support Australia against Indonesian militarism in the region.

End result? No war against Indonesia, a belting in Vietnam, and an invitation to participate in a bloody war in Iraq and a senseless, useless war in Afghanistan.

Yet somehow Henderson contrives to imagine this is a stout-hearted defence of Menzies against the wicked left, who it seems are always banging on about the value of the US military alliance.

Along the way, as is usual for our prattling Prufrock, there needs to be a little gilding of the lily, and so it is with the discussion of a recent ABC documentary:

All the Way also claimed that the Americans forced "conscription on Canberra" because the US wanted more American troops in Vietnam. This is mythology. Conscription for overseas services was introduced in November 1964, well before Australia decided to send combat forces to South Vietnam. Also, as Peter Edwards makes clear in the 1992 official history Crises and Commitments, the prime reason for conscription was to help Britain defend Malaysia against an attack from Indonesia, and to help defend Papua New Guinea.

Let's be kind and assume that there's a typo in the first sentence relating to Australian troops. But how could we be kind about the dating error?

Let's just head over to the National Archives fact sheet for a moment:

The National Service Act 1964, passed on 24 November, required 20 year old males to serve in the Army for a period of twenty four months of continuous service (reduced to eighteen months in 1971) followed by three years in the Reserve. The Defence Act was amended in May 1965 to provide that conscripts could be obliged to serve overseas, and in March 1966, Prime Minister Holt announced that National Servicemen would be sent to Vietnam to fight in units of the Australian Regular Army. (here)

Yes, it was May 1965 that conscripts could be obliged to serve overseas, and by that time Vietnam was front and centre in the federal Liberal government's collective mind.

Sure enough in due course some 63,000 men were conscripted, and some 19,000 served in Vietnam, and while Menzies might have blathered about the deteriorating situation in Asia and in Indonesia, it's extraordinarily disingenuous to pretend the situation in Vietnam had nothing to do with anything.

But then Henderson is never above a little mythologising, in what might be called a mythological counter-mythologising strike, in which in the same breath as mentioning Vietnam, he manages to drag in the Korean War, the Malaysian emergency, and Konfrontation.

It's just another variant on the baleful domino theory doing the rounds at the time, and typical of the hostile "other" world view cultivated of Asia by the Menzies government, which saw Vietnam as a pawn in the Chinese communist end game, when truth to tell the Vietnamese and the Chinese have never been the best of comrades.

The end result? Henderson is still lock step all the way with Julia Gillard and Stephen Smith on Afghanistan:

Successive Australian leaders - with the exception of Whitlam in the early 1970s - have embraced the US alliance because they believed it in Australia's national interest. This was the case in Vietnam. It remains the case concerning Afghanistan.
There were many Vietnamese who supported the US and Australia at the time. Just as there are many Afghans who support NATO's involvement today.

Uh huh. Would they be the ones in Afghanistan on the receiving end of all the moola and worried the drug trade to the States might suffer?

As usual, Henderson sees the dark conspiratorial hand of the ABC in all this, as he tries to work out why Paul Ham's book on Vietnam differs a little in tone from the documentary All the Way:

...there is a significant difference in content and tone between the book and the film, perhaps explained by the fact that ABC staffer and documentary maker Anne Delaney directed and co-wrote All the Way.

Perhaps? Um m'lud, misleading speculation without a shred of evidence. Did the writer speak to the Ham in question, or Ms Delaney before indulging in unfounded speculation?

M'lud: Oh okay, go on.

M'lud, is it not the case that Mr. Ham was both the co-writer and the presenter of the program in question? Is it being a tad silly to suggest that somehow Anne Delaney contrived for Ham to say what he said in the show? Did she use mirrors? Or perhaps a form of hypnosis? Did he speak the unspeakable because he drank tea at the ABC, perhaps with a drugged scone?

M'lud, is it true that, in the days leading up to the program's airdate, the said Ham was out and about beating up the program in the press, as if it somehow contained an accurate guide to his thinking? Like this:

Presenter Paul Ham, author of the book Vietnam: The Australian War, on which the program is based, puts it to us that the Vietnam War was a story of anguish and disillusionment, of misplaced trust and wishful thinking in the name of which our politicians risked the lives of 50,000 young Australians.
The kind of warfare Australia staged in Vietnam was far less macho than that of the Americans, whose behaviour, Ham says, was unnecessarily gung-ho.
"My belief is that we destroyed Vietnam simply because we followed an ally that was lying to us," former private Paul Murphy says.
Ham goes further. "We found ourselves harnessed, not to an American policy but to the American ego." (here, but the paywall might require a google)

Ham goes further?

M'lud, we understand that there was no sighting of Anne Delaney pushing and prodding Mr. Ham to go further in his interview with The Australian.

Enough already. There is of course a simpler, more banal, less paranoid explanation. Ham's book ran some 832 pages in hardback. By the time you get to compressing that kind of monument down into an hour-long television show, you're going to get simplifications, and elisions. As usual, Henderson prefers ideology to pragmatism. Put him on the television documentary with a national interest budget and watch him flounder ...

The rest of Henderson's column is of the familiar kind, displaying his love of Menzies, as celebrated in his famous poem:

There was a Ming sweet and kind
Was never face and spirit and thought and deed so pleased my mind
I did but see Ming passing by
And yet I love him till I die

There's a sideswipe at the Whitlam years - though strangely not a sideswipe at Whitlam's real failure, which wasn't to withdraw from Vietnam, but to dud East Timor - and a few more paranoid flashes:

As a general rule, Australians do not have to check the calendar to learn that it's getting close to Anzac Day. ABC TV and/or radio invariably obliges with a documentary overwhelmingly critical of Australia's involvement in one or more military commitments. This fits with the familiar left-wing line that Australia has fought other people's wars.

But is it a familiar left-wing line? There, after all, is Henderson patiently explaining how important it is that Australia fight in America's wars, so that in due course should we contrive to get in our own war, America might come along and help us out. It is in fact an argument of the warrior class, Henderson division, conducted from the remote eerie behind the lines in the Sydney Institute that we should fight in other people's wars because it might turn out to be politically or ideologically useful.

And with the distinct exception of the second world war, where Australia was directly threatened (let's ignore the talk of the Japanese never wanting to invade, the bombing of Darwin and the submarining of Sydney will do), it's the armchair brigade that have always spluttered and explained how Australian lads need to be up to a barney and can put on a jolly good show. Because if we fight in other people's wars they'll feel the need to fight in ours. What a pity we haven't yet decided to invade New Zealand ...

As for the jab at the ABC, there's also a simpler explanation. You see the show featured Malcolm Fraser, Henderson's bete noir:

Malcolm Fraser, minister for army and defence under Gorton in 1969, explains at some length how the US kept Australia in the dark.

Oh how it must have made Henderson's skin crawl and rush forthwith off to the typewriter.

Never mind, there were a few upsides to the Vietnam war. The dry cleaning trade, and imitation French bakeries have boomed (though there's too much sugar in the baguettes), as has membership of the Vietnamese Catholic church in Australia, and the quality of food has increased exponentially to the point where goi cuon and pork rolls are now considered part of the staple diet. All thanks to Malcolm Fraser acknowledging that bulls in china shops owe an obligation to the ruined lives of people caught up in collateral military and ideological damage.

Whether that offsets the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese killed, or the continuing to this day entrenched, hard-headed Communist regime is another matter ...

As for the current mess in Afghanistan, Ham also has a few words, and they too don't seem to have been prompted by Anne Delaney at the ABC:

The question is, are we doing it again in Afghanistan? "We fight on in new wars with old allies, still in the dark, still trusting our friends," Ham says.

Oh how could you Mr. Ham. Don't you know that Afghans are totally onside with NATO's involvement today? Sssh, and whatever you do, don't mention the United States when it might be inconvenient, except when blathering on at length about the importance of the American alliance and why we need to be supporting the United States - we mean of course NATO - in its Afghanistan folly, which soon enough will prove that the United States can be as dumb as the Soviet Union ...

The result? Well we'd like to paraphrase Mr. Henderson's concluding par:

There were many Vietnamese who supported the US and Australia at the time. Just as there are many Afghans who support NATO's involvement today.
But you would never know this from viewing the Ham/Delaney documentary All the Way, or many like it.

Yep, there are many Australians who still won't agree that Australia and the United States copped a belting in Vietnam, and seem destined to cop a belting in Afghanistan today.

Poor hapless Stephen Smith in particular seemed almost catatonic and on the verge of an emotional or mental crisis as he tried to explain to Kerry O'Brien why we were still in Afghanistan, and how we were sure to see positive results.

His spinometer machine seemed to have run out of coins (Blood and Honour).

No doubt he wished he was back in Foreign Affairs, rather than defending the dubious ...

But you would never know about any alternatives to current Australian foreign policy by reading Gerard "love Mr. Menzies or leave the country", "all the way with the United States through hell high water and Afghanistan" "fear and loath the ABC in every respect imaginable and possible" Henderson's column today, or the many tedious predictable previous columns like it that have been dumped into the world, often as full as a goog with surplus one-eyed ideology and bonus historical errors ...

(Below: found here).


  1. Totally agree with Gerard, DP.
    Ham was damned by his cameo appearance in a black t-shirt. But, if that wasn't enough, he asserted that Diem was propped up by Catholics, LBJ lied and that Serong was a religious fanatic. All lies, of course, and more evidence the ABC should be banned.

  2. Funny, there is no mention of Mr Henderson's military career on his Wiki page....

  3. It's important, GlenH, to realise that those who sit in armchairs and type also serve ...


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