John Hargreaves

TBS Boomers: The Great Vietnam War Con That Got Me

Every generation gets fooled by an idea that turns out to be a con. For me, it was the war in Vietnam.


We all get conned every now and then. Sometimes it is a tiddly little con meant in jest and we all get a good laugh. Sometimes it is a money-related con and hopefully we don’t fall for the trap. But there was one bloody beauty of a con perpetrated on my generation as young men.

In the flower of my Baby Boomer youth, I was treated to an all expenses paid trip to Malaysia as a dependent of my Air Force father. Off young John went to Penang Island to terrorize (different meaning then) the service families and natives alike. Great time was had by all.

My sire was part of the Australian deployment in the face of the Indonesian insurgency and the potential threat to Malaysia from those dreaded commies who were coming down the Indochinese Peninsula to eventually open Chinese communist restaurants in good old Oz. With all the hysteria and the smoke and mirrors around the domino theory, I was sucked in. But I had my priorities right. Girls, smokes, booze, and partying. So much for the seminary I was bound for before leaving Oz!

But this indoctrination was in my blood. On coming back to Oz, we settled in Canberra and I jumped ship and left school and went to work. Never have men’s undies been sold with so much passion and aplomb!

I was in the National Service draft. My number was not drawn. My mate had a birthday a day after mine and we were the same age. We had arguments because he was convinced that the Vietnam War was the wrong thing. He thought that it was none of our business and that we were just American lackeys. I argued that we were lucky not to be called to defend our country because, as sure as chow mein is Chinese, we were in for invasion.

For the past 40 years, I have felt guilt over my willingness to go to strange places, meet strange people, and kill them. Guilt over seeing my friends suffering. Guilt for getting it so horribly wrong, for being duped.

Well, young blokes are full of bravado and fertilizer. I was called all sorts of names, none of which my parents bestowed upon me. I took umbrage at the slight and the challenge that “if you think it is the right thing to do, why don’t you go into Nasho?”

I’d never shirked a dare in my life and wasn’t going to start then. So I volunteered to go into National Service for two years’ full time Army service. (A slight on that old bloke, the sire, because he had a couple of years in the Royal Navy and heaps in the RAAF. Young John would go into the Army, eh?)

While waiting for the day to go to Yass for that pleasurable train journey to Wagga, I met and fell in love. My timing has always been suss! We married on the Saturday and I went into the Army the following Wednesday. Great start to married life! Not!

I tried my best to get posted to Vietnam, to no avail. The best I could do was to get into a unit destined to go but the Army changed its mind and we didn’t get out of Albury/Wodonga. The Battle for Wodonga Water Tower and the Siege of Russell Hill would just have to do me for war service.

Then with an inevitable change of spouse and more time on my hands I went to uni, by remote control, and did a BA in Defense and Strategic Studies. I found out the truth of the Vietnam War. My mates had been right all this time. It was a con! It was a deadly and unholy con!

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So, for the past 40 years, I have felt guilt over my willingness to go to strange places, meet strange people, and kill them. I felt guilt over seeing my friends suffering from going there. PTSD is something which takes a strong man and kills him from inside and no one, no one ever, can feel the despair that these guys feel. And I thought it all that heroic, all that gung-ho and righteous!

Now I feel guilt for not going there and sharing their experiences. I still feel the diminishment for getting it so horribly wrong, for being duped, for being emotionally and intellectually violated, that I can’t do many of the ANZAC and November things we all do with such emotion and pride.

John Milton, the poet, said once: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” This is the salve for those Nashos who were duped and did not go. It is the salve for those Nashos who feel it is wrong to march with their former comrades because they don’t have the medallions to show they are returned vets. It is the salve that we have to ease a conscience.




John Hargreaves

John Hargreaves was a Labor MP from 1998-2012 and is a lifetime member of the Labor Party. In a storied career, he was Government Whip as well as the Minister for Disability and Housing, Multicultural Affairs, Industrial Relations, Corrections, and Industrial Relations among others.

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