Australian Fiction and the Vietnam War

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The Vietnam War is sometimes termed a forgotten war. Neglected by Australian literature until relatively recently, it seems it was the war that most of us wanted to forget. The last and most prolonged proxy battle of the Cold War, it saw Australians become increasingly divided. Should the country be at war at all, or had it been manipulated into involvement by its political leaders? Did people have the right to take to the streets and protest about the war? And just how far was the security intelligence organization prepared to go to silence the protesters?

These issues offer endless possibilities for writers of fiction and yet they have been little used. I searched online for and found the following listing on many Australian bookstores’ websites (I randomly chose Booktopia to illustrate): http://www.booktopia.com.au/books-online/fiction/action-adventure/war-combat-fiction/vietnam-war-fiction/cFJMV-p1.html

You will see that these novels are largely by American male writers. However, recently a few Australian writers have set novels in which the Vietnam War plays an important role. For example, three Australian novels, set partially or fully against the background of the Vietnam War, are After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, by Evie Wyld; A Distant Land, by Alison Booth; and Summer's Gone, by Charles Hall. None of these three novels can be found when searching the website for “Australian Fiction and the Vietnam War.”

I find this puzzling. After all, the 1960s to early 1970s were a dramatic period in terms not only of peace marches and civil rights movement, but also of internal and external security, and security-agency monitoring of the general population. These issues resonate today. Australia is involved in what many see as a prolonged and probably unwinnable war, this time in the Middle East. Globally, people have since the Arab Spring taken to the streets to protest, sometimes with disastrous consequences. And there remain – over forty years after our withdrawal from Vietnam – those trade-offs between surveillance and security on the one hand, and personal liberty on the other, that Australians are battling with today.

Perhaps it will take more time before novelists find the Vietnam War period appealing. Perhaps it will also take time before publishers do as well. Maybe too many people remember that period with distaste, and we will have to wait until the next generation wants to read historical fiction in which the Vietnam War features before we will see much Australian literature dealing with it. And when that time comes, there is a terrific history that is invaluable for research of that period. It is the volume by Paul Ham, entitled Vietnam: The Australian War.

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