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Hueys: a classic image of troop-carrying ‘slicks’.

“…NEITHER SIDE DESERVED TO WIN THE WAR.”

Australian patrol leading away a captured woman suspected of being a Vietcong leader after interrogating her with the ‘waterprobe’ technique, October 1966.

MH: I was pretty insensitive. I always try and be truthful about these things. I was 24 when I first went to Vietnam and I always thought it was absolutely wonderful that someone was willing to pay me to fly around new helicopters and go up to Hong Kong once a month for R + R. One is ashamed of how insensitive one then was and maybe what one then tries to do when one writes a book all these years late is, hopefully one’s done a little bit of growing up. GTR: I think this is a magnificent book. The Vietnam War, I guess Max, for a generation, although it crossed generations, this was the most visualized and polarizing event of the late 20th century. What do you feel about your part in that? MH: I was a bit player. I was about the youngest and stupidest correspondent in the Vietnam in those days. But I can’t say more than, you look back, we all do our best as journalists when you’re out there, but very often I’m afraid, we are pretty naïve because we are so overwhelmingly influenced by what we can see, for good or ill; and we are incredibly bad as a trade and that’s still as true now as it ever was. Thinking about what’s going on that we can’t see, and that I think is the big problem, and I don’t have an answer to it, but I do believe that every responsible journalist should be aware of that reality. GTR: It became a war that we felt we had to stop, I guess through media and protest etc. But as you said earlier, the Americans had turned it into a war of their own, against themselves in some ways and it destroyed three presidents, Nixon was on the road to destruction through Vietnam also. How can that be, that a country will flagellate itself so much? MH: We still find it very difficult. I’m afraid one sees it ... There’s a very telling phrase which I quote; Jack Kennedy said, a few months before he was assassinated, he said to JK Galbraith, his economic advisor, he knew in his heart that Vietnam was unwinnable and that it was a mistake to be there, but he said very tellingly to Galbraith “There’s just so many concessions that we can make to the communists in any one year and ask the American people to re-elect me in ‘63.” And it’s still the same. You see all the stuff now, all the agony we’re going through with Brexit. An awful lot of it derives from the fact that our politicians are so unwilling to tell electorates things they don’t wanna hear. It is, to Vietnam 2nd plates AUS.indd 9

26/07/2018 17:29

me, the mark of supreme courage in a leader, is a willingness to tell voters, to tell the public, the stuff they don’t wanna hear; unwelcome realities, and not many have got the guts to do it. GTR: This is such a throwback to the sixties, and I commend you for mentioning it, because we look at latter day people like Trudeau etc, and we look at Pierre and Whitlam in Australia etc. There is a need to inform the public and to be honest because you know the public will respect that. But I think during Vietnam, things got a bit lost. There was a feeling that everyone knew that it was a war that was unwinnable, and yet the politicians themselves were unwilling to admit that. Had you met Robert Kennedy? MH: I did meet Robert Kennedy, but that was when I was a young journalist reporting on the particular election campaign. It’s always a mistake to look back at the past with nostalgia and say, “Oh they were giants then” and so on; but actually a lot of them were giants. Even if I look at the British politicians that I knew 20, 30, 40 years ago; a lot of them were big people compared with what we get now, and I’m not sure why that is. But one thing I disagree with you about just then, when you said the public will appreciate being told the truth; what is scary is that the public, often does not appreciate being told the truth. This is the hard part. That’s what makes it courageous to be willing to tell them stuff they don’t wanna hear. GTR: And I think that’s where the extra strength comes into politicians that are willing to tell the truth. Why is that so hard to find these days? MH: Because we all want to believe there’s a soft option. I mean, I wrote an article for The Times a few weeks ago, I said “The only thing you can be sure about, as a voter with politicians, anybody who says that there is an easy answer to a difficult problem is lying”, because most problems, whether it’s in Vietnam or in our own lives today, in Australia or in Britain; most problems are pretty complicated, and there is no choice between good and evil. In the end it’s always a marginal call between what’s the least bad choice; but that’s a hard thing to say. And people’s willingness to believe that there’s an easy answer is really scary and you have to, it’s a matter of growing up. Of course, what we all need is to try and get politics out of the nursery, which is I’m afraid where they are; I think down your way as much as ours. GTR: Do you think there’s ever been a war in the history of mankind, that has polarized the social feelings of the time, in the Western world at least, with what was viewed through the television? It became more than a war, it became music and protests etc. MH: Yeah, you’re absolutely rightly. It was the most, partly it went on so long. Electorates tend to have very short attention spans, and LBJ’s very smart advisor, George Ball, who is Under Secretary of State; and he very smartly told LBJ, he was one of the dissenters, he thought it was a huge mistake to escalate in Vietnam. And he said “Mr. President, if I thought we could get this over in a year, then I would say let’s do it.” But he said, “I believe this will go on for many years” and he said, “I think that the American people are gonna turn sour on this.” This conversation about 1966; and of course, he was spot right. And generally speaking, I’ve always thought the one reason the Falklands War has always been so popular in Britain was it was really short and we won; and it wasn’t really. In some ways, the Falklands War was a very silly war. I mean, the idea of fighting for this meaningless bit of real estate in 1982, it was absurd. The fact is, the British people think it was a good war because it was over quickly. And that’s another problem, certainly that the fact that Vietnam went on and on and on, that electorates do not have much patience. GTR: Thanks for your time Max. It’s a subject we could spend a lot longer on. MH: It’s been my pleasure, Greg. Very nice to talk to you all through The Last Post.  n

THE LAST POST – 2019 ANZAC DAY EDITION  57  

Profile for The Last Post Magazine

The Last Post Magazine Anzac Day 2019  

In 2019 TLP editor Greg T Ross visited Japan under the Japan-Australia Grassroots Exchange Programme. To commemorate the visit and the prog...

The Last Post Magazine Anzac Day 2019  

In 2019 TLP editor Greg T Ross visited Japan under the Japan-Australia Grassroots Exchange Programme. To commemorate the visit and the prog...

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