Think Piece: How to remember the Vietnam War?

Source: Brad West

Amongst the flurry of remembrance activity around the Centenary of the Anzac tradition, relatively little funding or media attention has been given to the Vietnam War. This is likely to shift later in the year with the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan, the best known of Australia’s military engagements in the Vietnam conflict.

However, how effective will be the official commemorations and what alternative ways might be found in remembering the campaign?

Finding a way to adequately remember the Vietnam War, of course, is a long standing dilemma. The ambiguity the public held for engaging in the conflict, particularly towards the end of the war, and the stigma assigned to returning soldiers meant that the war was not immediately cast within the Anzac remembrance tradition. With the 1987 Welcome Home Parade for Vietnam veterans and the corresponding establishment of Vietnam Veterans Day on the 18 August the Vietnam War has become more central within an enlarged Anzac tradition.

The question remains though, whether conventional Anzac remembrance traditions adequately give meaning and address the trauma experienced by Vietnam veterans?  In particular it is questionable whether the grandiose neo-classical memorial forms of the early twentieth century and veteran marches are fit for purpose.

Apart from the likelihood this year, of more popularly attended commemorative services in towns and cities across Australia this year for Vietnam Veterans Day, there will also be a ceremony at Long Tan itself. However, due to the political sensitivities surrounding this memorial within Vietnam and its isolated location on private land, it is unlikely we will see an emergence of the type of pilgrimage tradition we have seen at Gallipoli.

Tourism at war sites elsewhere in Vietnam provide Australian tourists and veterans with an alternative way to commemorate and remember the Vietnam War. The Cu Chi tunnels and the Demilitariszed Zone for example, are amongst the most visited tourist sites in the country. There is also an array of veteran tours orientated to allow ex-soldiers to visit places they were stationed during the war, and in some cases give back to the community through humanitarian work.

While the meaning that visitors take away from Vietnam is reliant on a number of factors, from my fieldwork research at many of these sites I can note a few clear ways that they promote a new understanding of the war.

One of the major surprises to visitors is that the Australian and American campaign is encapsulated by the Vietnamese as part of a broader post-colonial struggle beginning in 1945. Equally significant is that the war in Vietnam is remembered through a romantic narrative in which sacrifices resulted in a united and modern country.

Travellers are also often surprised by how little attention the Vietnamese pay to the war. While the war is a key part of Vietnamese national identity, rapid demographic and socio-economic change has also meant that for many locals, particularly youth, the war is seen as being in the distant past, rather than having an immediate contemporary relevance.

Such differences in the meaning of the war can provide Australian and American Vietnam veterans with a new way to remember their own experiences. Visiting the site of their military engagements, as well as through their travel experience of Vietnam generally, can have a therapeutic benefit.

A veteran on the US based Tours of Peace, for example, notes how he was prompted to visit Vietnam to address the way PTSD was destroying his life. He states of his recent experience in Vietnam that “I was empowered to turn the page, and get on with my life. I have come full circle. I am once again a whole person.”

The experience for tourists is obviously less significant and the portrayal of the conflict at popular tourist sites is often kitsch. However, the experience of being in tunnels and seeing the weaponry used by both sides in the war does provide tourists with a highly emotional and educative experience, one that differs from the official commemorations and media portrayals in Australia through an appreciation of the conditions experienced by both sides of the war.

As I have argued elsewhere in relation to Australians at Gallipoli, such travel can not only be significant in advancing new historical understandings, but the experience of battlefields by tourists can also prompt greater participation in official ceremonies. If so, the rise of tourism in Vietnam may facilitate Vietnam Veterans Day becoming more significant in Australia’s commemorative calendar while also potentially providing a new way for veterans to address the trauma from their military service in Vietnam.


Brad West is an Associate Professor of sociology in the School of Communication, International Studies and Languages at the University of South Australia. He primarily researches national identity through examining collective responses to crisis and the new ways we commemorate the past. This has included analysis of the rise of tourism at Gallipoli and the framing and charitable rites associated with the 2002 Bali bombing and 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Such studies can be found in his latest book Re-enchanting Nationalisms: New Rituals and Remembrances (2015, Springer). Brad is also the co-editor (with Steve Matthewman) of the forthcoming 2016 special issue of the Journal of Sociology on the theme of ‘War, the Military and Civil Society’ in which he mounts an argument for greater empirical attention by sociologists to the area. Along these lines his current research involves analysis of ex-soldiers returning to Vietnam, the role of simulation ‘play’ in military training and the use of Gallipoli in the advocacy for neo-Ottoman politics in Turkey.
Brad has also authored War Memory and Commemoration and Re-enchanting Nationalisms