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Echoes of Vietnam: Media Perception and Veteran Treatment in the Afghanistan War

The Vietnam War was finally won by the North Vietnamese in 1975, marked by the images streamed around the world of their tanks smashing through the gates of South Vietnam’s Presidential Palace and the hasty evacuation in Saigon. However, one could argue that the United States and its allies, including Australia, effectively lost the Vietnam War during the 1968 Tet Offensive.


Despite the North Vietnamese being militarily defeated and suffering heavy losses, the war was lost at home in the West. As media broadcasts relayed the grim realities and relentless resolve of the Viet Cong attacks straight into the loungerooms of Americans and Australians, public support crumbled, and the perception of the war changed drastically. The conflict was no longer remote or abstract, and immense public opposition emerged, with hundreds of thousands protesting.


Together with the peaking of the 1960s counterculture and anti-establishment feelings, many of those returning from Vietnam received a hostile reception and struggled to reintegrate into society. In many cases, people back home focused their anger on the soldiers who took part, rather than the government who had sent them there.

This hostility was fed by events like the My Lai Massacre in 1968 which was widely reported. It caused many to assume that such occurrences must be commonplace. Regardless of the differences in experiences and objectives between Australian forces in Phuoc Tuy and American troops in other provinces, the broad brush tarred all.


In line with this, the portrayal of veterans in Hollywood and on TV shifted from the hero status of those defending freedom in the Second World War to that of traumatised, drug-addicted war criminals; “The Longest Day” became “Apocalypse Now” and this narrative spread, with the word ‘veteran’ became synonymous with being a PTSD-riddled agent of war. The consequence this has had on many Vietnam veterans’ mental health since the 1970s cannot be overstated.


Afghanistan


The Afghanistan War didn't spark the same heated opposition as the war in Vietnam. Instead of drafted soldiers, professional volunteer soldiers carried the weight. Most of the public, rather than rallying against it, quietly accepted the conflict and carried on with their lives. The public is mostly ignorant of the experience of those who served in Afghanistan and don’t differentiate between the allegations against a small number of special forces operators and the average ADF member.


In this vacuum of knowledge, negative narratives can quickly spread. As we look towards the 2030s, we face the chilling possibility that the very negative experiences of many in the 1970s could be revisited on those who serving now.


War Crimes


The media coverage of alleged war crimes has reached a fever pitch in the media. In some areas, it could generously be described as hysterical. Much like in Vietnam, the lack of informed reporting has meant that the allegation against a small number of elite soldiers is tarring all those who served in Afghanistan.

While the allegations are distressing, it is vital to acknowledge that the recent defamation trial was not a criminal trial, and the “balance of probability” standard of proof differs significantly from the "beyond reasonable doubt" standard.


While the civil finding is significant, it has not been tested to the standard demanded of criminal proceedings. This divergence is crucial and those seeking to demonise veterans and the ADF with clickbait headlines and salacious tales are culpable for risking the health and wellbeing of yet another generation of our brave and honourable servicemen and women.


Our society operates under the presumption of "innocent until proven guilty." Even as we handle these grave allegations with the seriousness they deserve, it's vital to safeguard the dignity of those who’ve served. We must remember to differentiate between proven facts and unsubstantiated allegations; to respect the nuanced differences between civil and criminal proceedings.


Nuance is not a strong point in a 24-hour news cycle. Still, it is a simple fact that the war in Afghanistan fought overwhelmingly honourably by Australian Special Forces in our longest war was vastly dissimilar to the operations conducted by our conventional forces from 2006 to 2021.


For example, in the region of Tarin Kowt, conventional ADF units were engaged in missions quite different from those conducted by the Special Operations Task Group. The work included training and mentoring Afghan forces, building vital infrastructures such as schools and hospitals, and enhancing local security against the Taliban insurgents. While engaging in combat when required, their primary focus was to bring stability and development to the region, a role distinctly different from the more combat-oriented tasks of the Special Operations Task Group.


Our society doesn’t understand this nuance, and the lack of military education is plain to see. This is hardly surprising with most Australians’ exposure to military service coming from grandparents rather than contemporary experience. For most, their understanding of service comes from war movies, video games, and YouTube videos. These sources, while entertaining, offer a limited and often simplified perspective on military engagements, making it easy to miss the subtleties of actual operations.


Consequently, media reports with a sensationalist slant can easily distort public perception and amplify misconceptions about military operations. It is crucial that time be taken to understand the multifaceted nature of these operations and the varied roles and tasks of different units to appreciate the complexity of military engagements.


This distorted perception is trickling down to interactions with veterans. A recent chat with a friend, whose understanding of military affairs primarily comes from playing Call of Duty and watching Funker360 clips, brought this home. He asked, "Did you ever see anything like what has been reported? Did you ever witness war crimes?" It underscored the challenges of communicating the realities of military service to those unfamiliar with its intricacies.


Indeed, the allegations regarding the events in Afghanistan starkly differ from my own experiences there. To me, they're almost inconceivable. I can't help but think this feeling would resonate with many others who were deployed there alongside me.


The Australian Defence Force, as I know it, is a morally righteous, upstanding, professional organisation, raised on all the best bits of the ANZAC legend. From the moment I joined, along with many others, we were imbued with a set of values that emphasised service, teamwork, courage, initiative, integrity, excellence, and respect. We were consistently encouraged to strive to be the best representations of our country. In my view, the vast majority have served with honour.


A Call for Truth and Fairness


Investigations into these allegations are vital, and maintaining our moral integrity in military conduct is equally crucial for Australia. However, there's a serious risk that ongoing, reckless, and misinformed commentary will tarnish the reputation of all those who served in Afghanistan and almost anyone connected with the ADF.


This is not to say that reporting on this issue shouldn’t occur. On the contrary, these matters require thorough examination and investigation. However, a moment of pause is necessary to establish the full context and nuance of the situation. This should not be a free-for-all to push agendas. From this point forward, maintaining a standard of accountable and informed reporting is of utmost importance.


Should the media frenzy continue on its current trajectory, it will destroy the lives of innocent people and drag many others down in the process. Australian veterans deserve better than that. For their sake, we must remember the lessons of the post-Vietnam era and avoid the dangers of half-truths, innuendo, and the bulk attribution of blame.


Sadly, many of our Vietnam veterans still carry the hurt from their treatment half a century ago. We must champion truth and fairness for our veterans to prevent history from repeating itself. They deserve nothing less.


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