No Dead Certainties

Reviewed by Peter Edwards

The Nashos’ War: Australia’s national servicemen and Vietnam by Mark Dapin Viking, $39.99 hb, 470 pp. 9780670077052   In late April, the commemorations of the centenary of the Gallipoli landing will inevitably overshadow another significant anniversary in Australia’s military, political, and social history. On 29 April 1965, fifty years to the week after the landing at Anzac Cove, the Menzies government announced the commitment of an Australian infantry battalion to the growing conflict in Vietnam. That announcement led to Australia’s longest and third-largest military commitment of the twentieth century, surpassed only by the two world wars. While its political and social impacts on Australia did not match those of World War I, they should not be overlooked. The controversies surrounding Vietnam, and all that it was taken to symbolise, have given rise to numerous myths, many still current and influencing the way Australia looks at our past, present, and potential future military commitments. Many of the myths are associated with the fact that the Australian task force in Vietnam included thousands of national servicemen, conscripted under a highly selective ballot. The ‘lottery of death’, as its opponents dubbed it, was based on young men’s twentieth birthdays, at a time when the minimum voting age was twenty-one. Ever since national service was announced on Remembrance Day 1964, myths about the scheme, and the experience of the ‘nashos’ in Vietnam, have flourished. Like many historical myths, some contain an element of truth, while others are almost totally misconceived. In The Nashos’ War, Mark Dapin challenges many of the most common and influential myths surrounding the experience of those national servicemen who served in Vietnam. Dapin is a talented journalist and novelist who has also edited the Penguin Book of Australian War Writing (2011). He knows good writing and can turn an excellent phrase, but he does not sacrifice accuracy in the pursuit of colour and emotion. His aim is not to create or embellish myths, but to examine them rigorously. Dapin provides a brilliant portrait of the extraordinary variety of the nashos’ experience. As an important start, he puts the experience of the nashos into a wider context. Between 1965 and 1972, 63,740 young Australian men were called up, of whom fewer than one in four – 15,381 to be precise – served in Vietnam. Consequently, there were 15,381 different stories of what it was like to be a nasho in Vietnam, and three times as many different experiences of what it was like to be a nasho who did not serve there. Many served in Malaysia, Singapore, or New Guinea; far more never left Australia. Since 1964 there have been numerous myths, what Dapin calls ‘a treasury of fool’s gold’, about the national service scheme. One, which recurs throughout the book, is that national service was deeply unpopular. In fact the public in 1964 welcomed a scheme which, they thought, would straighten out delinquent young men. That was never the intention of either the politicians or the army. Instead, national service was introduced to raise the quality, not merely the numbers, of the army’s recruits. Much of the popularity of the scheme remained, encouraged by many in the media, even after casualties began to rise. At the time, and ever since, much has been made of an Australian tradition of opposition to compulsory service overseas. That principle was written into the 1903 Defence Act and underpinned the divisive controversies of 1916 and 1917. But it competed for Australian hearts and minds with another tradition, one of deep respect for military service. In the 1960s many young Australians wanted to prove themselves worthy of the reputation gained by forebears who had fought in the great citizen armies of the world wars. Some, no doubt, had in mind the material rewards for overseas service. Even in the early 1970s, in the era of Moratorium marches and worldwide protests, many more young Australians volunteered for national service than refused to register or to accept the call-up. Dapin also challenges the idea, which appears to have developed after the war, that there was an ongoing conflict between soldiers, whether national servicemen or regulars, and protesters. A corollary was the assertion that troops were flown back to Australia at night, smuggled in to avoid airport protests. The reality was both more complex and more interesting. Protests were fewer and less well attended than many accounts suggest. Protesters, for the most part, were careful to aim their criticisms not at the soldiers themselves but at the government that had committed them to the war. Nearly every battalion in the task force received a ‘welcome home’ parade, where large crowds cheered and threw confetti. The well-known protest by a lone woman at the first such parade was not emulated in later marches. The timing of the flights by chartered Qantas aircraft, which brought some servicemen home, was based on commercial requirements. Arrival at night allowed Qantas to reconfigure the aircraft for commercial use the following morning. There is little reliable evidence of airport protests. The real conflict occurred not between stereotypical groups of protesters and soldiers but within individuals, as those whose birthdays were drawn from the barrel addressed their own consciences. As Dapin shows, the contention that all nashos who served in Vietnam were, in effect, volunteers is as inaccurate as the contrary view that all were profoundly opposed. Dapin not only demolishes the rumours that the ballot was rigged to provide the army with the skills it needed, but also explains the changing nature of the intakes. University students were allowed to defer their service until the completion of their course. Thus there were no graduates in the first intakes. The schoolteachers turned up in force after two years, always in the January intakes after university and school commitments had ended. Medicos took several more years. Were star footballers and other sportsmen given special treatment, as many alleged? Again, the story is complex. Depending on their state of origin and preferred code, readers will relish the stories of Harry Neasham, Graham Cornes, Bobby Fulton, and a cohort of Essendon footballers. Test cricketer Doug Walters was one of many national servicemen only required to serve in Australia. As Dapin notes, the celebrated batsman became batman, or orderly, to another nasho, one of those who graduated from the officer training school at Scheyville for national servicemen. Walters knew his officer as Skip; millions of Australians came to know him as Tim Fischer, later deputy prime minister. Australians have, it seems, an insatiable appetite for books on the experience of war. While this book is concerned only with the nashos in Vietnam and only with certain elements of their experience, it gives vivid, authentic, and diverse answers to the perennial question: ‘What was it like?’ Dapin’s overriding theme is that the truth is always more subtle than the myths. The conclusion to one chapter serves as an epitaph to the book: ‘There are no dead certainties in Australia’s Vietnam War – it’s always prudent to lay a bet both ways.’
Peter Edwards, the official historian of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War and other Southeast Asian conflicts, is the author of Australia and the Vietnam War (2014).


“Dapin has an ear for emotional effects, and he intelligently devotes his opening chapter to Errol Noack, the first conscript killed in Vietnam, whose father subsequently wrote letters of condolence to the parents of all the conscript dead. From there on, for purposes of range as much as variety, the book oscillates between the soldiers on operations in the bush, at the support and recreation base at Vung Tau, and in Saigon (but not, oddly, on R&R from Vietnam). It also swings back regularly to the home front. For if Dapin wants to give us a colourful, readable account of nasho life, he is also a zealot, intent on making one point. This is to explode what he believes is a multi-headed myth – that the Vietnam veterans were never welcomed home until 1987, that the nation was generally opposed to the Vietnam involvement, and that the moratoriums and other protests were the great public manifestations of feeling about the war. None of it true, says Dapin, and he makes a convincing case.”
The Sydney Morning Herald  

“This fine book is not the one Dapin initially thought he would write. When he first became fascinated by the national service scheme, he believed much he has since determined to be false. In particular, he wrongly assumed that most of the national servicemen made a ­deliberate choice between the army and conscientious objection and that most resented being sent to war. As this carefully researched book demonstrates, throughout the Vietnam War most Australians, including those in the military, were conservative, patriotic and law-abiding. In contrast, anti-war protesters were a distinct and often unpopular minority even at their peak.”
The Australian
Read the full review HERE.


“A bloody good read!!”
1731036 John Robbins, Long Tan veteran, SVN June-September 1966

“A page turner, that HAD to be written for history, masterly executed and wonderfully honest Nasho comments. Only a man who has been under fire could make such insightful comments. I’m talking it up far and wide in ADL and want every Viet Vet to read it. I learned things I had never heard before, and I had cared for the LTan boys in the 36th Evac in Aug 66. I will never forget that night, they were different from any other wounded I had so far, or ever, seen. Stunned, emotionless faces. Dear Jack Kirby, the lovable bear of a man… I know so many of the interviewees. Well done Mark.”
Jean Debelle Lamensdorf Matthews, Australian Red Cross Vung Tau 1966-67

“An excellent book which provides a more balanced perspective on conscription and the Vietnam War as it affected Australia – soldiers’ experiences and the impacts these had on them, the reception given to returning servicemen, and the significance or otherwise of protests, the moratoriums, and objectors amongst the conscripts. The book brings some balance to myths and exaggerations that have arisen and have, for many, become the accepted wisdom. At the same time Dapin acknowledges (and reflects through the many personal stories within the book) that the experience was inevitably different for each individual who served, and no single ‘truth’ can embrace the collective experience. I’ve read Paul Ham’s Vietnam: The Australian War which, while a great and well researched book, paints a darker picture of objections to the war at home and associated treatment of returning servicemen. The Nashos’ War offers a different, more nuanced view, which is perhaps closer to the actual experience of many veterans of the time, myself included.”
2785972 John Quilty, SVN May-December 1968

“A rich and profound narrative emerges from this history of national service in Australia. “I have concentrated on the way national servicemen viewed the army, rather than how the army, as an institution, experienced the national service scheme,” Dapin says in his introduction, and from this personal approach flows a history that is close to the bone. It makes for an emotional experience for the reader as Dapin draws extraordinary stories from his subjects, though there is no romancing of war, and no nostalgia for the Age of Aquarius (as older readers might remember the sixties and early seventies). Dapin weaves his history around a diverse selection of former nashos. We hear from those keen on soldiering and those not so keen, and from those who loathed it and fought their own war to get out of it. What makes this history a pleasure to read is the comfortable presence of likeable characters and individual personalities that resonate throughout, revealed very openly through the words of the nashos themselves. Dapin quotes them often, and broadly. But there is much added by the astute words of Dapin himself, a writer who never overdresses language, and who uncovers the genuine article with empathy and, always, respect. Always, too, you can feel him probing for the authentic story of the Vietnam War years, which he warns us from the outset is shrouded by myth. Dapin opens his book with the words: This is not the book I thought I would write. He says he believed a number of things that have turned out to be false, and a major focus running through The Nashos’ War is the mythology that has evolved since the boys came home. Four chapters are specifically devoted to myths: The Myths and Meaning of National Service, The Myth of the Sixties, The Myth of the Moratorium, The Myth of the Volunteer. Much of it reads like a correction of the record, and perhaps it is timely to correct it. Dapin found little evidence to support widely held views that Conscription and Australian involvement in the Vietnam War were controversial, that the topic was fiercely debated, or that the protest movement was a force to be reckoned with, eventually triumphant, pressuring the government to withdraw troops from Vietnam. It seems these views did not stand up when Dapin went looking for the evidence. There was protest and resistance, sure, but it’s been blown out of all proportion. And the greatest myth of all seems to be that soldiers were poorly treated when they returned from Vietnam. Dapin could not come up with sufficient evidence to support such a view. On the contrary, returning battalions were welcomed by applauding crowds lining the streets, the protesters virtually invisible in all the adulation. The Nashos’ War revisits prominent battles such as Long Tan, Bribie, Coral and the mine incident in the Light Green on the day Armstrong stepped on the moon, all of which have been documented in detail in several memoirs and historical works such Paul Ham’s Vietnam: The Australian War, and the very comprehensive Fighting to the Finish by Ashley Ekins of the Australian War Memorial and his colleague Ian McNeill. What makes Dapin’s treatment of these conflicts and incidents different is that they are largely revealed through the words of nashos who were there, and it is this personal experience, powerfully told, both raw and moving, that hits the reader with the shocking, horrendous and tragic reality of war. Operation Bribie so well conveys the utter chaos of it; the tragedy in the Light Green the utter futility. Long Tan reveals the unpredictability of outcomes, the randomness of events, and, for the men caught in it, the luck or not that fell their way.
There are moving stories, too, from nashos who didn’t see action with the Viet Cong, but who had confrontations within the system that took a toll on the soldier of a different kind. Along with the serious outlook, there’s humour in this book, much of it stemming from the contradictions in the way that incongruity amuses us for its absurdity. There’s many a wry comment from a nasho soldier that could only come from an Aussie digger, and Dapin can’t help a whimsical dig himself when the subject is ripe for a joke – The army finally moved into the 1960s in October 1970 when the military board decided soldiers could grow their sideburns two-and-a-half centimetres longer. Some of the disciplinary actions of the army play out like a Monty Python skit. A soldier who had been granted a leave pass but forgot to take it with him and returned to collect it was arrested by MPs, charged and locked up. The penalty? In some circumstances, you can be shot, the adjutant told him, but instead, he was given five days CB. In full battle dress, he was made to dig a trench through solid rock with a little entrenching tool, and on the fourth day he looked up to find a blond-haired hippy in turban, kaftan and sandals who pulled a joint out of his knapsack and stuck it in the nasho’s mouth and lit up. Confusion abounds in all wars, fueled by misinformation, rumour and sometimes just plain lies. Dapin shows that the government and the press were party to considerable deceit during the Vietnam War, most of it done in the belief it was in the best interests of all concerned. Confusion and contradiction resound in all the players in this history of The Nashos’ War, most of all in the men who were conscripted and given the weapons to score the points that were supposed to determine the final outcome. We are left with a feeling of uncertainty about those times, yet this history is all the more genuine for it. Ultimately, reality and history is the experience (or the memory of it) of events and subjects in a certain time and place, and, like the experience of the nashos, contradiction and uncertainly are all part of it.”
2791566 Des Sloman, SVN May-December 1970