If you were to ask a group of Baby Boomers leaning on a bar what was the most defining experience of their lifetime, many would say the Vietnam War. Younger people might scratch their heads and say, “Well, we’ve had to live with random terrorism since 9/11” and it would be a foolhardy person who would brush off the possibility of such a gruesome death.
While I think your average Baby Boomer would agree that the personal threat posed by terrorism might be existential, it is so remote — unless you are a captured Yazidi or American journalist — that it is unlikely to distract from the daily grind for more than moments at a time.
What made the Vietnam War so different was that it filled our television screens night after night and, being the early days of documentary journalism, United States authorities allowed camera crews to go out on missions with American troops and, consequently, there were few harrowing scenes that did not fill our living rooms within hours of them occurring.
In a way, we were there, ringside, when General Loan executed a captured Viet Cong during the Tet offensive and also when the little naked girl was running for her life from the My Lai massacre. The Vietnam War left few people unscathed whether they were dodging punji sticks on the battlefield or holed up, horrified, in their suburban cottages.
My cohort of Baby Boomers was unique. Because of the national service ballot system, half our number were liable for call-up and half were not. How many actually ended up in Vietnam I have no idea, which says much about a school year that keeps otherwise comprehensive records about its members after leaving school. (One, we do know about — being one of three Australian officers ‘fragged’ by soldiers in their units. And it was with some astonishment when 20 years later I worked with a compositor who, as a nasho, was commanded by the officer concerned. He knew well the fellow charged with the offence, whose conviction was subsequently overturned on appeal.)
Like a lot of those who were either not called up or were balloted out, not going to Vietnam was, I believe, a mixed blessing. Certainly, you were spared the rendezvous with extreme danger and also spared the disruption to your subsequent life. And, particularly, you were spared the life-long trauma of having witnessed so much that no normal 20-year-old, anywhere, should have to witness. But, at the same time, part of the legacy of those years for some, was a nagging question as to how I might have fared had I been challenged in the ultimate test, as happened to so many young blokes not much younger than me.
The closest I came to the Vietnam War occurred in 1970 when I travelled through rural Thailand during an unstable period when Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were expanding the war into neighbouring countries to get an edge at the bargaining table when they eventually sat down opposite the North Vietnamese. Thailand was in turmoil. Our train was stopped somewhere north of Songkhla; a squad of soldiers then came on board and after announcing there had been a coup, proceeded to beat to pulp anyone who looked remotely like a hippie.
Later, when I reached northern Thailand I was amazed by the number a fighter jets parked alongside roadways, the number of drug-fuelled American deserters roaming about the towns and villages, and how much stolen US military materiel was brazenly being sold in open-air markets. A very nice American flak-jacket caught my eye and for a pittance it became mine. What a mistake.
The next day, I decided to travel from the regional hub of Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai on the Mekong River; as the only means of transport was in a private ute, I was seated in the back. The ghastly truth dawned at once — here was a white youth, wearing US Army gear parked in the open like a sitting duck. Passing through a heavily forested area, which was the domain of the Thai Patriotic Front, the local allies of the Viet Minh and Viet Cong. How stupid could you get.
Well, the guerrillas must have been sleeping it off because I made it to Chiang Rai, whereupon a motorised canoe voyage down the historic Mekong seemed worthwhile. But they didn’t say how swift was the current in the gorges of the upper reaches, nor how many treacherous sandbars were thrown up at will. Unfortunately, a canoe travelling upstream clipped us in the boiling swell and turned over, throwing 40 or more passengers into the torrent.
We pulled into the closest sandbar and your correspondent, with a couple of other passengers, raced along the shoreline, dodging quicksand, hoping to rescue at least some of the poor souls whose lives, literally, had been turned upside down. A fruitless search; whereupon our skipper pulled into the nearest Laotian town to report the disaster.
“So this is Laos,” I mused curiously.
I wandered off along a jungle track, oblivious to the possibility of encountering a tiger, in situ, until I came to a clearing. There, like an apparition from Beau Geste was a perfectly formed fort, complete with battlements and the legend Légion étrangère printed in bold lettering above the entrance portal. And inside? A battery of surface to air missiles. Did I look like a spying Soviet military adviser to the Laotian sergeant screaming at me? I didn’t wait around to find out: I’d had enough of the Vietnam War by then.
Years later, I interviewed a ‘Carleton-Brown of the FO’ type, elegantly tailored, perfectly groomed, plummy accent, about some exploit or event I cannot recall. Taking note of my age, he asked whether I had been called up for Vietnam. No, I replied, mumbling that I did go to Laos during the fighting there. “Ah,” he smiled, “funny business, eh?” To which I responded with an ambiguous smile. What is it the Americans always say: “We can neither confirm nor deny …”