War, memory and a forgotten history

war vetrans

Vietnamese veterans marching on Anzac Day in Melbourne, 25 April 2011.            Photo: Keith Broad


Volumes have been written on the American, Australian and North Vietnamese soldiers who were involved in the Vietnam War. But the veterans from the South Vietnamese army, the losing side in the controversial conflict, have slipped from sight.

Monash University historian Associate Professor Nathalie Nguyen is helping to fill this gap in the record through the collection and study of oral histories of Vietnamese veterans in Australia. The significance of her work is acknowledged by a Future Fellowship award from the Australian Research Council.

The Australian Vietnamese community consists of about 200,000 people; Associate Professor Nguyen estimates about 15,000 of them were in the military during the 1955-75 war.

Although a significant proportion of the community, they have been little studied.

“Australia has recognised these men, in the sense that Vietnamese vets have marched on Anzac Day since 1981,” Associate Professor Nguyen said.

But in Vietnam itself, their history has been repressed by the Communist regime that assumed power after the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975.

More than two million people fled in the following decades, and the veterans Associate Professor Nguyen is studying, all arrived in Australia as refugees.

As such, they fit into her broad research interests in migration and memory: she is fascinated by questions like how refugees remember the past, and why they need to recall childhood and youth, war years and resettlement, in particular ways.

Her earlier work, including published books Memory is Another Country: Women of the Vietnamese Diaspora (2009) and Voyage of Hope: Vietnamese Australian Women’s Narratives (2005) focused on the experiences of women, and though her focus has shifted to men, the themes hold true.

But her current project has an additional sense of urgency.

“Many of these men have lived very hard lives,” Associate Professor Nguyen said. “A lot of them were wounded during the war, a lot of them were imprisoned in so-called re-education camps after the war – and then they became refugees.

“They’ve experienced extraordinary stress and trauma throughout their lives. It’s important to gather their histories now because once they’ve gone, the histories will disappear with them.” 

Saving some from this fate is one of the goals of her Future Fellowship research. In it, she has the support of the National Library of Australia, which will hold in perpetuity the oral histories of Vietnamese veterans that Associate Professor Nguyen collects.