Scoop Review of Books

Ghosts of Wars Past

Grey Ghosts – New Zealand Vietnam vets talk about their war by Deborah Challinor
Harper Collins, $37. Reviewed by MARTIN CRAIG

The Vietnam War was a polarising event for a generation of New Zealanders, and it still has the power to raise debate. We had fought in similar military campaigns before, but our reaction to the war, and the men who fought it, was unprecedented.

Many of the returning soldiers were ordered to remove their uniforms and disappear into the night, and there was little formal acknowledgement of their service until 2008 when celebrating veterans was back in style.

Deborah Challinor interviewed 50 New Zealand Vietnam veterans in 1995 and 1996 for her PhD thesis. This oral history is the basis of Grey Ghosts. The first edition was published in 1998 and this year’s second edition contains one extra chapter updating the continuing campaign for compensation for veterans and their families, and includes the official recognition ceremonies of Tribute 08.

Challinor’s group is a small part of the 3368 New Zealanders who served in Vietnam, and it a self-selected sample. Some of her interview subjects are anonymous. Those who give names are dominated by servicemen with long careers – it would be interesting to hear from those veterans who left the army as soon as they could.

The book’s strengths are the first-person accounts of life and military activity in Vietnam. Again, these have been self-censored by the interviewees, but Challinor says little was changed from the initial interviews.

The interviews include the returning veterans’ readjustment to civilian society, and civilian society’s slower readjustment to them. The new chapter looks at the changing attitudes towards Vietnam service, changes that finally made it politically acceptable for official recognition from the Prime Minister. It also looks at the health record of veterans and their children.

The book offers a unique assessment of New Zealanders’ Vietnam War experience. It is more personal than an official history, and valuable for that. It is crying out for a companion volume from the protesters, because, on its own, Grey Ghosts can only tell us half of the story of how the war affected our country.

Grey Ghosts cannot explain why our national reaction to the war was so different to our reaction to previous wars. This Saturday we will (well, some of us will) stop to think about war and what it has done for New Zealand. Our collective response is respectful and distant – few of those at the ceremonies have been shot at, none faces the risk of conscription. War is treated as something from history, and perhaps this is an assumption every New Zealand generation makes.

Before Vietnam we were involved in three Asian wars, all undeclared, and all defending questionable regimes. Korea, Malaya and Borneo did not trigger popular protest then and do not trigger debate (or even books) today. So why was our reaction to the Vietnam War so unprecedented? Perhaps it was mass media coverage, perhaps it was the defoliants, or perhaps it was the international peace movement giving us permission to question our own political and military response.

Before the Vietnam War was broadcast on TV, New Zealanders’ biggest experience of war was that of our World War 2 veterans. I will not disparage their efforts – but I believe it is significant that most New Zealanders avoided the conflict’s most brutal behaviour. 2NZ Division did not liberate any concentration camps; it didn’t fight in the great urban battles like Warsaw or Berlin; our prisoners’ Geneva Convention rights were acknowledged; and it didn’t fight in Asia. Those experiences defined our collective impression of modern warfare.

But the Vietnam War wasn’t unique, and the tactics and weapons used were not unprecedented, with the notable exception of defoliants. United States bombers dropped napalm on civilians during World War 2, most notably the Operation Meetinghouse raid on Tokyo in February 1945, but also in Europe if they got in the way.

Second World War GIs called their Asian allies ‘slopies’ and cursed their lack of interest in liberating themselves, and the tactics used in the jungles and villages of Burma and the Philippines were the basis of the tactics used in Vietnam.

Each generation has reinvented the Anzac Day celebrations to suit its own needs. I believe it is no coincidence that the numbers attending Anzac celebrations started to increase as the last Great War veterans died. They were no longer around to correct our impressions, and those who were not at Gallipoli could reshape it to suit their own version of the story.

Perhaps the greatest message is that war teaches lessons we do not learn. We can’t have cut our apron strings in 1915, because in 1939 Labour Prime Minister MJ Savage declared: “We range ourselves without fear beside Britain. Where she goes we go.” We did not lose our innocence at Cassino, because we were shocked at war’s brutality again in the 1960s. If and when our military commitments shift from peace keeping, will be just as shocked and outraged again, and rightly so.

Points off for the cover photo of an Australian tank.


Martin Craig is a Wellington journalist. He has no military service and none of his family has served in the New Zealand armed forces.

1 comment:

  1. Hardie Martin, 9. March 2010, 8:06

    I was one of the 50 interviewed. We were NOT known as the Grey Ghosts! This is a complete fantasy on the part of one interviewee. There has been much discussion about this on Viet Nam Vets nets. The feeling is that this fantasy denigrates our contributions and belittles Deborahs effort.