Stories of New Zealand’s Vietnam War: part two – No front line: inside stories of New Zealand’s Vietnam War

The cover of No front line

The cover of No front line

Over the last seven years historian Claire Hall has been working on the Vietnam War Oral History Project, run by Manatū Taonga, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, to collect the stories of New Zealand’s Vietnam War veterans and their families. Using these oral histories, Claire then wrote the book No front line: inside stories of New Zealand’s Vietnam War, which has been recently published. In part one of this two-part series, Claire writes about being part of this important oral history project. In part two she reflects on her book and the importance of sharing the veterans’ stories.

Over the last few months I’ve been travelling the country for a series of regional launches for No front line: inside stories of New Zealand’s Vietnam War, the book I wrote using material collected as part of the Vietnam War Oral History Project.

The main launch at Parliament on 18 August coincided with the anniversary of the 1966 Battle of Long Tan, which is also Vietnam Veterans’ Day in New Zealand and Australia. A gathering at the Auckland War Memorial Museum on 2 September fell on the anniversary of the death of New Zealand’s first infantryman killed in action in 1967, Victor Company’s Morrie Manton. The final event in Christchurch marked the anniversary of the declaration of the Second World War on 3 September 1939.

New Zealand history is peppered with anniversaries that recall the beginning and end of conflicts, and the losses we’ve suffered as a nation at war. More than just providing a spark for nostalgic reflection, these dates should pull our focus onto the impact that war continues to have on the generations that follow in its wake.

June 2014 marked the 50th anniversary of the New Zealand’s first military deployment to Vietnam in the form of a team of non-combatant engineers. Last year it was 50 years since the civilian surgical team was dispatched in 1963. Next year will be a half-century since the first Kiwi gunners left home to bolster allied forces in the escalating conflict.

Through the lens of the stories in No front line, these anniversaries won’t just be remembered for the campaigns or military operations that took place. They force us to judge the Vietnam War on more than just territory gained or lost, or individual operational campaigns won.

No front line was a year in the writing, but the history therein has been shaped, crafted, worked and reworked over a decade. It all began with Rob Rabel’s 2005 New Zealand and the Vietnam War: politics and diplomacy. Ian McGibbon’s official history, New Zealand’s Vietnam War: a history of combat, commitment and controversy, added a military perspective to our understanding in 2010. No front line is the final edition in the trilogy. It adds first-hand accounts to Rabel and McGibbon’s analysis of the war’s place in history. (Disclaimer: these stories are not an official perspective on the Vietnam War. They purposefully challenge established narratives and reveal new truths.)

I am proud of what we have achieved and feel certain of the value of the public history I’ve been part of creating. In no small part because the oral history research on which No Front Line is based was completed shoulder to shoulder with veterans themselves. It’s much more than a war book based on oral histories – it’s a waka huia (treasure box), a vessel in which veterans’ stories can take their rightful place alongside official history, with due respect.

New Zealand Vietnam War veterans and their families at the launch of No front line

New Zealand Vietnam War veterans and their families at the launch of No front line

I am also proud of the trust I was able to build up with the veterans. As one said:

Working within the [Vietnam veteran] community is not an easy thing to do, as you would have found out. We are an entrenched group of people. I am giving you this permission to write my story because of the trust and empathy you have among the Vietnam Veteran community.

I recall this concession as it emphasises a critical fact about the publication of No front line: that without reciprocal trust, without true relationships, the depths this book goes to simply would not have been possible. Many veterans left our interview sessions surprised by what they’d put on record, but certain they wanted their stories shared for others to learn from. That’s how they came to make history in No front line.

A final quote from another veteran:

The oral history interview was an emotional experience for me. For many weeks afterwards I was still shaking from shock. On one hand, I wanted to keep my own experiences to myself and take them to my grave. On the other hand, I had to find the courage to talk about it so future generations could understand the trauma and emotional stress conflicts cause. These stories need to be told in their entirety. They are a legacy which I hope will benefit many generations to come.

Kia tau te rangimarie.

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