18 August 2006

Lest we forget

Forty years ago today, 108 Australian soldiers were ambushed by about 2500 VietCong near the village of Long Tan, Vietnam.

John Howard was happy to apologise for the way Vietnam veterans had been treated (no cost to him; no political consequences as Liberals broadly agree, including those gutless ones who played down the war and its participants in the face of the Whitlam juggernaut). Howard did not, however, address the issue that Long Tan veterans were not rewarded adequately by officialdom. He did so in a particularly weaselly way and it robbed his "apology" of any moral force.

The shabby way Vietnam veterans were treated is also an indictment on Whitlam's legacy. A man with classic education should know that those who return from the battlefield should be honoured and put on a sound economic footing for the sake of the state. After all this time he should be able to transcend the long-haired activists of old who burnish his legend and recognise that Vietnam veterans did important and often exemplary work under impossible circumstances.

Any culture where moral greatness is not rewarded and moral failure unpunished is doomed to mediocrity, and the Australian military is no exception. Yes, it's hard work, with a bureaucratic storm ahead and probably a lot of long-buried private pain which will get wrenched into the public domain. With Imperial honours, the Australian Government will have to go cap-in-hand to the Poms in a way that it no longer has to do in any other area of policy. However, it is worth doing. It will give substantive justice to a section of the community long wronged (including other veterans, not just from Long Tan, similarly overlooked and fobbed off).

To re-examine aspects of our military history would spur the very sort of study of key events on Australian history that the recent history summit would have young people do. No amount of windy rhetoric would have this motivating force. It also adds another dimension to Australian history: whatever you might think of Australia getting drawn into Anglo-American wars, there are significant achievements by Australians worthy of recognition and respect.

Appropriate recognition of our brave and clever service personnel will make it easier to reform the appalling failure of military justice for serving personnel. If you can go back through the records of those whose careers are over, it will make it easier to embellish or eviscerate those currently in uniform. This failed system, which ensnares good and bad equally, makes the profession of arms profoundly unappealling in a time of low unemployment. The fantasy of those supporting the status quo is that effective warriors are potentially denied to the military, when a properly-functioning justice system bids good riddance to bad rubbish. It ultimately hinders our military capabilities and adds to cost.

Accountability is a joke while layers of crusty cover-ups clog this vital organ of state. We can neither criticise the Japanese over Yasukuni or "comfort women", not the US military over Hicks - even if we wanted to.

It is very important to revisit the honours given to Australian servicemen, and Howard's inaction hurts us on so many levels.

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