22 06 08 The Third Chopstick
*Speakers: Stuart Baines (S), Frank Bongiorno (F), Biff Ward (B)
S: Tonight we look at a book that merges some of the key human experiences in and around the Vietnam war, specifically those of protestors and veterans, bringing them together and challenging what we think we know. In speaking with veterans our author tonight heard a common epiphany from many of those soldiers when they first arrived in Vietnam, a realisation that they shouldn’t be there. She then writes from her protestor’s perspective, we thought they shouldn’t be there too. If only we’d known we had this area of agreement, we might have made quite a stand against the government, the protestors and soldiers together. While such a powerful voice to government was never going to happen back then tonight Biff gives us a glimpse into the legacy of this war for veterans, those who stood against the war and for those whose lands were torn apart.
Good evening, everyone, welcome to the National Library of Australia and to this very special event with Biff Ward and Frank Bongiorno.
S: Thank you, you gave me time to turn the page, very convenient. My name is Stuart Baines and I am the Director of Community Engagement at the National Library. I’d like to acknowledge Australia’s first nations people as the traditional owners and custodians of this land and give my respect to their elders past and present and through them to all Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
We are thrilled to have you all here tonight for this conversation about The Third Chopstick, Tracks through the Vietnam War. Welcome too all the people watching on our stream or indeed tuning in through YouTube.
Described as a must-read for all Vietnam generation, their descendants and friends The Third Chopstick is the profoundly moving story of Biff Ward’s passion to bear witness to those involved in that tumultuous time. It transports us back to the days when the Vietnam war rocked Australia to its core. Biff seeks to understand the war from multiple angles, she balances the heartfelt motivations of the protest movement with candid accounts from veterans about what was happening for them in Vietnam and afterwards. A lyrical evocation of peaceful Vietnam, the people she meets and war sites she visits shows us a different Vietnam, one that we may not imagine.
Biff Ward is an author, activist and feminist. Writing has always been part of her life in addition to working in secondary education, equal opportunity, indigenous adult education, human resources development and mental illness education. Her poetry and essays have appeared in the anthologies in the 1980s and 1990s. Her memoir, In My Mother’s Hands, was published in 2014 and shortlisted for the New South Wales and WA Premier’s Literary Award and longlisted for the 2015 Stella Prize. Her novella, In 1974, was a winner of the Griffith Review Novella Competition in 2017. Biff is not busy at all.
With Biff we have Frank Bongiorno who teaches at the Australian National University. He was head of the School of History from July 2018 until June 2021. His books include The Sex Lives of Australians, A History and The Eighties, The Decade That Transformed Australia. He writes regularly for Inside Story and The Conversation and is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. Please join me in welcoming Biff Ward and Frank Bongiorno to discuss The Third Chopstick, Tracks through the Vietnam War.
F: Great well thanks, Stuart, and I’d also like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people and pay my respects to their elders past, present and emerging.
Biff, congratulations, we got to wave the book around at the beginning of these events, fantastic. Wonderful, another classic you’ve written. Could you tell us a little bit about its genesis, about its origins? In fact you tell us quite early in the book about your first recollection of learning about there being a place called Vietnam and there being a Vietnam war so where does the book come from?
B: Yes. When I first heard the word that I remember, heard the word Vietnam was 1964 and I was living in London and it was a – there was snow outside, I think and – but the sun was pouring in. I remember this room – I remember this moment very well and it’s probably because I’ve gone back over it a few times and solidified it as a memory. My daughter was a toddler playing on the floor, I was folding clothes and my father was visiting and he was sitting on a sofa reading The Times with his really smelly instant coffee and he said something like – I should read it, be more accurate but he said something like those bastards, they’re at it again. And I said who? And he said the yanks.
Having grown up on a background conversation of American imperialism I knew what that meant so I said what have they done? He said they say that the north Vietnam had attacked a destroyer. The poor bastards probably had nothing but a rowing boat. I remembered it very vividly, he had a turn of phrase as you can see but I had no idea – the conversation didn’t go any further and I had absolutely no idea at that moment that Vietnam would fill up so much of my life. But I have wondered, because I remember that moment so clearly if my subconscious knew, my unconscious knew that this was going to be something but for many of us and many veterans back then, manty young soldiers drafted and otherwise didn’t know where Vietnam was. It was not a country most of us had ever heard of so that’s a beginning.
F: That is a beginning, yeah. The title’s intriguing, The Third Chopstick and I mean it is a really – as it turns out a very powerful metaphor, actually. Could you tell us a little bit about what it means?
B: I’ll tell you a few people over the years - ‘cause this book has been many years in gestation and birth but many people over the years have said you can’t call it that, that’s too whacky and some people have argued with me and said you can’t have three chopsticks, you only have two. But I knew long ago that that was the title. The title came from the night that I met Ray Fulton and Ray Fulton was a veteran who straddles the whole book, his story kind of bookends everything else I say here. The night I met Ray I actually didn’t want to meet him but he was there, I was with my friend, Graham, a veteran who’s here tonight who made all of this possible, really. Ray and I sort of ignored each other until Ray finished eating and then he put his chopsticks – we were in Chinatown – on his little white bowl and he said so you want to know about Vietnam? He knew I had been a protestor and this is 25 years ago and I said yes, I do, I do and he said well it fucked me up completely, that’s what Vietnam was, I’ll tell you all about it and proceeded to talk for some time about how damaged he'd been and things that had happened in his life and his alcoholism.
Then he picked up the two chopsticks and he said it’s like this and he laid them very precisely on the bowl about 2cm apart and he said in there, in the space he’d created between the chopsticks, he said in there, that’s where normal people live, they grow up, they get married, they have children, maybe they don’t, whatever, they work. That’s where they live. Then he took one of my chopsticks and he said and this, this is where the veteran lives and he placed that third chopstick an equal distance apart so there were two spaces and he said in here is where the veteran lives and he can see what’s going on over there in that other space but he can’t join in, he doesn’t know how anymore.
I still find this quite moving and that was the moment I went oh right, I get it. It opened the door to all – I had already had a couple of amazing conversations with veterans but it just created a space in which all the stories that I heard fitted and made sense and gradually what I was doing in sitting and listening because I was kind of trying to get under the or over the third chopstick myself.
F: Yeah, it’s a very evocative way of expressing what this book’s about as is the subtitle and I was privileged to read the book on the way through at which point it had a different subtitle.
B: It did.
F: The subtitle now of course is Tracks Through the Vietnam War so that’s come quite late in the piece.
B: It did.
F: Could you tell us again -
B: It came very late.
F: Yeah, tell us a bit about that.
B: I think when you read it, it said Voices from the Vietnam War which I knew was really boring but it just -
F: It was actually pretty good, really. This is better.
B: Well voices from, that’s been used a million times now and very late in the piece publishing was kind of starting. I met with my friend, I think she’s over here somewhere, Jackie, to help me think about promotion and she said oh fabulous cover but you can’t have voices, that’s dead boring and I said I know, I know but I can’t think what else. Right then and there at the Gang Gang Café in Downer we brainstormed, it only took three or four minutes and when one of us said the word tracks I went that’s it, that’s it, that’s it. It was only after that, I mean slow learner or I mean slow, I noticed that the epigraph is about path, a pathway.
The word tracks is in the first page of the prologue and all through the book there’s tracks and pathways and byways and desire-lines and this notion of all the different people and types of people, groups of people who made their way through the Vietnam war, is what the book is actually about and yet it was only that moment of going tracks. I also think even soldiers on patrol in Vietnam were often going along a track and even the friendly fire incidents, we were on this track and they were on this track and we weren’t meant to meet and something happened. Tracks just was right and I was thrilled.
F: Ho Chi Min Trail and so on.
B: That’s right.
F: You’re much better at titles than I am, I’m afraid. Now I mean as Stuart mentioned earlier I mean you wrote an acclaimed, award-winning memoir, In My Mother’s Hand, some years ago -
B: Didn’t win any awards.
F: Oh well, it deserved lots of awards. It should have won awards. Acclaimed, shortlisted and should have won awards memoir, it’s a wonderful book.
B: Thank you.
F: Again an incredibly powerful story. Simpleminded people like me would say well it’s trauma that brings the two books together. That book was about trauma, this one’s about trauma. It’s a kind of straight pathway. Is that kind of how it worked? I mean when you were writing – I mean obviously you just said this book had a long gestation. What’s the relationship between those two books? I guess your own personal experience as expressed in that early book and your experience here.
B: I might start answering that by repeating it’s in the book for those who’ve read it, a little scene where Graham and I are just leaving Granville, the Vietnam Veterans’ Federation, where I spent a lot of time and he asked me what is it about the veterans that’s drawing you so? Why are you so interested? I remember I thought oh shit, I wasn’t ready to talk about myself but I eventually said well I had quite a traumatic childhood and I understand about sitting with your back to the wall, I always try and get the chair in the restaurant with the back to the wall. He said oh that’s it then, that’s your thing. But that didn’t stay with me as my thing as I was doing that early work with the veterans but I did eventually have to leave this book, put it aside for a while which those of you who’ve read will know why, because Ray dumped me and I then wrote In My Mother’s Hands, I went back to my trauma and worked through that and wrote that book.
Then – I thought the Vietnam book was finished but the moment I finished that book my feet went – took me to the boxes full of papers I had and I went back to this book. I don’t know if one’s caused the other or if there’s a connection but I do know all my life I have been interested in the dark like the things that aren’t said, I always want the light to come in in a whole range of issues that I’ve been involved in in my life and for the voiceless to have voice. So that might be part of it, because trauma lives in there.
F: Which is a story of writing too, isn’t it? I mean writing is something very important to you –
B: It is.
F: - and you move across different genres so readily and so well, memoir, history, fiction, poetry. Could you say a a little bit about that? I mean writing as -
B: Oh thank you for asking that. I love writing.
F: Is writing a way of bringing light? I mean is that how you see it?
B: It’s not how I see it but I think it’s what happens, that there’s something – well that novella that was mentioned, I mean that was absolutely a – event that I was kind of engaged in that happened a long time ago and I thought it needs to have light, people need to know about this. It was around the Royal Commission into sexual abuse and there was a particular aspect that I thought hadn’t come out so it is true I picked things and go give it light, let – I think the world is a better place where there aren’t dark secrets.
F: You’re also a political person in a lot of ways and the book is about a war that meant a lot to you in terms of your own political socialisation, I guess you’d call it, and mobilisation. Again how do you get from one place to another with that? I mean in what ways did your background in protesting against the Vietnam war here in Canberra and one of the wonderful things the book does, it takes us to places that we’re familiar with around Canberra as well as Sydney and elsewhere. But I just wondered how does your background in protesting against the Vietnam war shape your interactions with the veterans when you come to meet them later?
B: Ah well I was terrified. Luckily the first veteran I met was Graham whom I picked out as being a little bit different ‘cause I saw him speak and second guess the official war historian on that occasion whom I describe in the book I think as snuffling like an old war horse. Graham questioned him, disagreed with him so I thought I’ll go and talk to that man. Graham - eventually I said to him I want to know about veterans and he said do you? I said yes, I really do and that – I mean wanting to know that, I can’t really just explain it except that when the war ended I couldn’t let go. Something stayed inside me. I mean it wasn’t something I went ‘round talking about and badgering people but something happened in my protest times that just meant that this whole event was part of me and it was unfinished and I needed to finish it.
When I finally went to Vietnam in ’95 and started reading, discovered there was all this literature but all this literature was nearly veteran literature, American memoirs and things like that, I came back from that first trip very clear that where the interesting stories were and this whole huge part of the Vietnam war story that I didn’t know was the veterans’ experiences so I set out to find some and Graham introduced me, made it possible for me to go to Granville and meet people. But I remember that first time he took me there, I was like some of them are going to yell at me. Oh I should say before we went there Graham had got me to put an ad in their newsletter, the veterans’ newsletter saying I was a protestor and I want to hear stories.
F: In boxing they call that leading with one’s chin, I think but -
B: It was the early days of computers when we used to boot up and I booted up one day and I didn’t even know the ad had gone in the newsletter and there was – there were several emails of incredible abuse, abusing me for being a traitor and scum and all sorts of things. I think I say in the book I yelped and turned the computer off and went and made three curries. So I knew that opinion was out there but I continued and as I say met Graham and actually went to Granville and I remember, he kept saying oh you’ll be fine, you’ll be fine and just moving around the building and introducing me and – but I kept expecting someone to leap out of a corner and yell, she shouldn’t be here, get her out of here or she’s one of them. but none of that happened in that place. What was your question?
F: Well it’s just – I think you’ve answered it, I mean it was really how does your earlier time in protest affect the way that you interact with the men?
B: What I found – all the veterans that I talked to, but clearly there was some filter on that and so on, were just incredibly open and generous and most of them I talked to for between an hour-and-a-half and two hours, it seemed to have a natural span and - but in the book as those who’ve read it will know I actually just pull out pieces from each man, each story, pieces that see to me to be the strongest and most meaningful part of that particular man’s story and managed to organise them into chapters that illustrates certain things about what it’s like to be in combat. That became my goal, I wanted to know as a middleclass white woman who’s never been anywhere near a war, I wanted to know what it was actually like to be in combat, to be there being driven insane by the noise and fear and I wanted to understand.
F: The social historian’s impulse amongst other things, I think.
B: I’m not a historian.
F: You come from a family of them.
B: I do – I sort of understand it slightly as a need to understand what it is you’re against, I think it was part of it.
F: It’s kind of interesting, I mean we have two – I think two kind of almost stereotypes of the returned soldier, the veteran, not just Vietnam but I think more generally and one of them is they’ve very taciturn, they won’t talk, all those stories that we have of Anzacs coming back from the first world war and you never mention – you wouldn’t talk about it but then there’s another one, isn’t there? Of the soldier’s tale, the soldier’s story about the yarn, I suppose and the impression I get is that you do get elements of both in the world you move in amongst these veterans, that there is a reluctance to talk but there’s also a desire to talk and I’m interested in that and -
B: Well I think it’s a story of trauma too, the need to talk so yes, the masculine oppression that makes – shut down and - but in fact the need to talk which probably is what Anzac Day is actually about and the Welcome Home March, anyone else who watched that, just these men finally I can talk.
F: Having a permission almost to tell their stories publicly which – I mean it’s interesting you mention masculinity there ‘cause that sort of is my next question. You point out musically, I thought, in the book at one stage that Granville, the Veterans’ Association, reminded you a little bit of the women’s shelters that you’ve worked in over the years, something that the men themselves probably wouldn’t be very comfortable if you were to put out but could you tell us what did you have in mind? I mean what made you -
B: Well every time I went to Granville, I’d go many years later at once, it just was very like the refuges I worked in in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. I haven’t been in refuges in recent years, they’re probably purpose-built and very different, I don’t know but back then they were like Granville, they were furnished with the crappiest second-hand throwaway furniture you’ve ever seen, desperately needed a paint job, dirty carpets. One time I went out to the back room where the appeals were which was where the only paid staff were and arguably should have been slightly posher and - wasn’t – and I saw a bloke come in, one of the blokes and even I could almost tell when they came in for the first time so nervous and sort of freaked out. He sat in this sort of executive – very old executive chair and it did a buck and chucked him out. That’s how down to earth it was.
Then the people, full of people who were quietly just doing things, business. The ones who’d trained and become counsellors sitting, they’re talking to one of these incredibly nervous new men and guys in corners, little groups having coffee and chatting to each other. The sense of self-help, peer support was just palpable. It was very moving.
F: Graham Walker who as you mentioned is here with us tonight, former officer, one of the central figures in the book, talks about combat as a betrayal. I wondered what he meant by that.
B: Well apologies to Graham, I’m saying what I think, what I understand that meant and our conversations about that were based partly around a wonderful book called Achilles in Vietnam which – by Jonathan Shay who’s an American psychiatrist. My understanding of combat as betrayal is that for somebody to be in the situation of combat where you’re being shot at, you’re shooting, you’re trying to keep yourself alive, you’re trying to keep your mates alive, it’s a kind of form of torture, insanity that the psyche feels betrayed. Even after all the training the psyche goes how could anyone do this to me? That – I mean I could go on and link that to PTSD but it’s pretty obvious. So yeah, I don’t want to say more. That’s my understanding, betrayal is its - absolutely shouldn’t happen to anyone.
F: When I read that in the book I mean on the one hand it’s kind of – there’s a reassurance in it, that it speaks to our humanity, doesn’t it? That it’s – we don’t want to kill, that it goes against the grain for us to kill other people but it also as you point out, I mean it kind of accentuates that sense of dislocation and trauma involved in combat.
B: One of the things I found most reassuring over these years was that – how in spite of all the training, and I’m fairly convinced from all the reading I’ve done that Australians were much better trained than Americans, and they’re trained to act the way you need to act in combat and not let your feelings get in the way. I mean that’s what all the training is for and yet even so soldiers will shoot to miss, they’ll not shoot. The innate kind of horror, desire not to do this is just enormous. There’s a lovely – there’s a story in the book Bob Halls who lives here in Canberra and wrote a book where you can read his story but I also interviewed him and the incident that happened there was the platoon was just about to move out and they heard people coming down the creek so they hid and there’s three Viet Kong walking down the creek so there’s no footprints or anything, walking in the water with their guns slung, completely relaxed and all these Australians hiding in the bush. I think he says 10m away like really quite close.
When they do what they have to do and kill these people afterwards they find 70 bullets were fired and only four hit. It was broad daylight and the people were not fighting back and were only 10m away so those sorts of stories, some horrifically are very reassuring.
F: Ray’s a central figure in the book, you’ve already mentioned him once. Can you tell us about him and your conversations with him? There’s a photograph of him at the end of the book, very -
B: The only photo in the book -
F: Sorry? The only photo -
B: - is Ray.
F: It’s very striking. So can you tell us a bit about Ray?
B: Ray’s the most I guess unique character, Ray, even I feel like I’ve ever known who’s incredibly intelligent, incredibly charismatic, incredibly volatile. He – everyone – Graham and Annie who’s married to him are here, can tell many more stories than I can. The thing about Ray was you never knew what you were going to get, or I didn’t in my relationship with him so he’d ring me or I’d ring him and I’d have no idea. I’d ring him planning to talk about X and he’d go bang and say something completely different and that was then the conversation. He thought always or pretty perpetually until he discovered his horses and became a horse – a brilliant horseman about PTSD and what had happened to him and how to help other veterans constantly and thought at a very deep level and a very practical level. He – Graham tells me he – when none of us really knew about computers and Ray certainly didn’t, he said okay, if we've got to have computers we’ll have computers and he found a set of old computers and set them all up at Granville or whatever, I don’t know what he did but he created their computer system. He could take on almost anything.
He became kind of my muse because he wouldn’t do an interview with me, he said no, no, I don’t know what you’ll do with it and I couldn’t tell him no, I can’t do that, I’m too close to the edge but he would just talk and talk and talk in these wild unexpected ways from which I always learnt something and every conversation, I’d come away with a little more insight, a little more understanding. So he was very powerful.
In the years I new him there were pretty frequent stories about I used to go to AA there but they were fuckwits so then I had to go somewhere else and then they turned out to be idiots and I had to go somewhere else. So there was quite a history of cutting people out of his life. I became scared he would do that to me and eventually of course he did and that was part of his volatility and his pain, his pain.
F: You’ve travelled frequently to Vietnam, you mention from the mid’90s. That’s an important part of the book, actually, the connections that you make there. Could you say a little bit about I guess the – what Vietnam means to you and what – the importance of those connections? I mean I found your account - something I’d never read anything about before, you account of the veterans, Australian veterans who’ve made lives in Vietnam quite extraordinary, I’d never heard anything about that before. But just generally I mean you’ve been there very often now so what’s that all mean?
B: Well I’ll just go back to our first question, word Vietnam because many of you in this audience, protestors and veterans, know that what we lived through back then was encapsulated in that word, the word Vietnam became the war even though of course you all would know the Vietnamese call it the American war obviously but for us it stood for the war, it stood for the country, it stood for the cultural revolution that happened around that, the counterculture views and music and clothing and everything, sex. That was helped by the pill but all of that was – could be held in that one word, Vietnam. That’s true for me like all of that is in that word.
During the war, during my protest times, and I talk about this in the book, I had this desire which I felt like no-one else did that I actually wanted to go there, I wanted to see it, I wanted to smell it, I wanted to feel it, I wanted to know and we saw it every night but it was images of war and I knew there must be a world behind that and I wanted to see it. When I first went I still saw the war, I talk about I had this double vision going on but I just was excited, I was excited off my face, so excited I would burst into tears to be there in this word. So it just seems as though it’s been a particular thing in my life that hooked into me in the way different from and maybe more strongly than some others who – I’m thinking particularly protestors that I – the power of – the passion I felt to end the war and how terribly wrong it was meant that I wanted to fill out the picture. It was so big in my life. It was a personal passion, I don't know what else to say.
F: I guess is that sense of place important to you in your life?
B: Yeah, it is definitely my other place. I’ve reached the age and stage where I’m going maybe I’ll never go overseas again but I know if I did, would almost certainly be Vietnam again, the 16th time.
F: Well I think we’ve probably reached the moment where we should open things up for questions, Stuart, if -
B: And can I say comments?
F: And comments and recollections, yeah.
S: Thank you, Frank, that’s amazing and particularly to hear about feelings and trauma and understanding what it felt like to be in combat instead of thinking about what unit moved here and it’s really interesting.
We’ve got some microphones on either side of the room. Can you please put your hand up if you have a question? Given that we are streaming and recording this we need people at home and watching on YouTube to be able to hear your question so if you have a question put your hand up and the mic will come to you.
A: I won’t stand up. My name’s Liz O’Brien. I won’t stand up ‘cause it’ll take me a while. If it was – you’ll know – 50 years ago today that that photograph of the children running from that napalm, remember the – of course you do. So one of the things that was very critical to me in your book and in our experience as protestors of the war was that the use of Agent Orange, napalm, was such a colossal war crime that I was so – I was very touched of course by that part of your book where you go to see the people who were crippled by it but one of the things that intrigues me and I wondered if this was universal of those situations, is there didn’t seem to be any feeling from the Vietnamese people that terrible things had been done to them for – ‘cause they never understood, they didn’t understand why the Americans [unclear] 38:50. My intrigue after 1975, I guess, when we got invited to the North Vietnam Embassy, was always that people were so forgiving. I couldn’t understand that. It’s a comment and a question and a carryon, really.
B: Thanks Liz. Yes, there’s two chapters on Agent Orange in the book, smallish chapters. When you go to Vietnam, if you're prepared to see – go to the places – you can be a tourist there and not have any idea about the aftermath of Agent Orange but if you're prepared to see, it’s everywhere and continuing and horrific. It is – it was a war crime completely. Even in terms of the allied soldiers, they weren’t told like the guys – I guess they were guys – people who first developed this in England in the ‘30s used those big gloves and had the stuff inside. They knew it was incredibly dangerous but by the time it got to Vietnam, people weren’t told anything, even the people administering it, spraying it, they weren’t told anything and it was being used – what do I say in the book? I think it’s up to 55 times’ agricultural use and yet it was developed agricultural use to destroy crops, that was the agriculture. So yes, it’s a huge, huge thing.
The other part of your question about the Vietnamese ability to forgive is totally extraordinary. I’ve been with American veterans as you might have read and Australian vet – no, I haven’t been there with Australian veterans but I’ve been there with – discussing the war often and there appears to be no animosity. My guess, and I’m just guessing, is that the Vietnamese form of Buddhism is absolutely kind of based in forgiveness. What I understand of their culture is they have a very, very forward-looking view. There’s no point carrying on with what – about what wasn’t alright, we want to look to the future, we want to be happy together, we want to build a good life. I’ve seen them say we don’t blame the Australian soldiers, we don’t blame the American soldiers. We blame their government a bit, we understand it was the government who sent them there but it’s not individual people’s fault that these things are done. It’s extraordinary.
S: Any more questions? Don’t be shy.
B: It’s Sandy.
A: Biff, Sandy Gordon. Thanks for the book and this evening, it’s fantastic. My question is to both you and Frank in a way, just looking around the room tonight we’re pretty much all of the Vietnam generation which I have to say again looking at myself is a generation which is passing. I just wonder if the impetus for the book is to try and embed this in Australian history a little bit. When I ask this question I’m thinking particularly of the screen behind you which talks about the Ngunnawal and I'm thinking about my own involvement as a demonstrator and protestor and at the same time as all this was going on the freedom rides were happening but I knew nothing about that, I was totally taken up in Vietnam and the Vietnam war and it impressed itself on an entire generation, a generation which is now passing. We’ve got other wars, other considerations so I just wonder whether this book is a timely way to look at what this meant in terms of the progress or otherwise of Australia’s history, a sort of deeper question either to yourself or to Frank and where it fits in.
F: Oh no –
A: I apologise for that question.
F: Well I'm afraid I’m post-Vietnam, really. I was born in 1969 so I have no recollection –
A: Oh my god.
F: Sorry. I do feel old myself. So what can I say? I mean the book is in many ways a testament, isn’t it? As you’ve already said, Biff, just the importance of Vietnam and the war as an experience. I mean I’ve always thought – in a way it’s been probably less culturally and politically dislocating I think in Australia than say the United States where it destroyed presidencies and so on – or a presidency but I mean is that one of the things you had in mind when you were doing it, I guess?
B: I was a bit thrown by Sandy. As you’ve answered I’ve thought of something I want to say –
F: Go for it.
B: I say somewhere in the book that I think partly why Vietnam hit the western world so enormously was that we were the generation, protestors and the soldiers were the world war 2 children, baby boomers so we were brought up on films and novels and comics and a whole lot of heroism. We had right on our side, we won the war, it was the right thing to do to kill Germans and Japanese, there was no question, we were it and it was glorious. Then they gave us Vietnam and I think Vietnam helped a kind of depth of questioning the status quo, of raising issues. I mean you know just distrusting authority and all those sit-ins in universities in America, realising the chemical companies were creating all this damage. Things were questioned that it seemed had never been questioned before and that led to the freedom rides and gay liberation and women’s liberation, the whole lot. So I do think it’s connected, very much.
F: And a rethinking in a way of earlier wars too, I mean B grade British movies of the ‘50s that presented world war 2 as unambiguously the good war but of course once you get to the ‘60s you’re getting different readings on – talking Bomber Harris and you think of A J P Taylor giving much more ambivalent sort of understanding and of course in Australia I suppose also a reappraisal of Anzac sort of came with all this more generally, didn’t it?
B: That’s a historian. Just one other thing which is that I think that breaking open of and questioning also was part of – I think, it’s just – might get shouted at – what enabled the veterans to go on and on talking about it’s not – we’re not alright which their fathers and grandfathers didn’t do, they kept silent but that atmosphere that maybe the protest movement had created, you can question anything, you can say what you want, you have rights as a minority to speak. I do think that might have been part of – which I don’t know that they’d accept but part of their – what they did, they just went on and on talking and they wouldn’t shut up. They gave us the understanding of PTSD, it’s fantastic.
A: John Murphy, if we’re identifying ourselves. I wanted to come back to trauma because for Vietnamese society the American war was what, the last 13 years of 30 years of war from ’45 onwards and this is not meant to be putting thoughts into your head but I wonder whether your interest in Vietnam is that it’s actually a society that’s been fundamentally traumatised and survived quite well. Is that –
B: I think that’s a comment. We’re Tony Jones, I’ll take that as comment.
F: I’ll take that as a comment.
B: No, it’s lovely, John, that’s lovely. One of my favourite bits of the book at least now is right near the end and the story of the young woman, Lee, who makes me have dinner with her and where that leads, that she’s doing the Vietnamese thing of living a good life and getting ahead and yet just behind her are all these dead people in the family. To go back to Liz’s question, they don’t throw that at you, they don’t carry on about it, they – but yes, a really traumatised society. There are several stories about Vietnamese people that I encounter with Vietnamese that I had to leave out and I think about them a lot and sort of think I wish that I could have snuck them in somehow because so many people just sitting next to someone on the plane and if they've got English and getting into conversations, there’s always – of course for every one of them there’s a war story. Yet I mean they say that their soldiers don’t have PTSD. I’ve seen a couple I think have a bit, very – well only once really, a violent man in the street being violent to some children but I mean I do think there’s a world of difference in fighting in your own country, you know the Ukrainians. They're the Viet Kong. There's a world of difference there and going to another country and fighting for you’re not sure what.
S: There’s stories –
B: Which is again part of – sorry?
F: Those extra stories are book 2, aren’t they?
B: It’s not going to happen.
S: I think we have time for one more question.
A: Hi, I’m Eileen. I was really struck by your observations of the trauma and your ability to – even though you say they talked openly and I’m sure they willingly told you things but are you able to kind of get inside that trauma that they’d experienced and help them to open up about it and really talk quite freely about it? ‘Cause I was curious like I think that’s a particular type of trauma like war is a specific type of trauma which fortunately most of us don’t have to experience but it also helps – I thought it was really interesting from the larger question of trauma and how it impacts on people’s lives and that’s what I was really interested in and I thought was interesting you said earlier that this was the war that people protested and said you have a right to speak about it so I kind of thought this is an ongoing conversation, isn’t it? About our culture and how we live and how we try to suppress all the hurt and the pain that people go through. So yeah, I thought it was wonderful that you’d opened that up and it was an opening for me to look more deeply at what that is and how that - experience it.
The other curious thing I was very curious about was you mentioned – you were talking to one of the veterans and you were talking about anger and I think you said something about – correct me if I’m wrong but you said something about – was it being an illusion?
B: There’s no such thing as anger.
A: There’s no such thing.
B: Well mostly.
A: Yeah so I’m curious about that comment and if you could - are you able to elaborate that a bit more?
B: Okay, I want to answer the first part of what you said first. I’ll try and remember both which I'm not good at anymore. Just what you’re saying about trauma in general and ongoing conversations. I do – I want to say actually in answer to an earlier question, much earlier question that when I really started listening to the veterans I didn’t know, I wondered if my protestor stance would be altered as I went into the their world. What I found – I mean I didn’t think it would be, it was so strong but I wondered like it’s a bit funny. In fact what I heard so filled me with rage and grief that it just became seamless with my protestor stance. This is more stuff that should never have happened so they became the same thing and in that sense I really liked your comment about an ongoing conversation. What was the last bit? Oh anger.
F: Whether anger is real.
B: Oh it’s a whole thing. Look, I’ll just try and summarise. I used to run whole workshops on it. The theory is that a lot of what we call anger is frustration, irritation, it’s small, it’s what we do when we’re feeling uncomfortable or – small things, road rage or sort of snap, snap, snap. But real anger, real anger is rage and it’s always about injustice, it’s always about something being really wrong, morally wrong, that’s the essence of the theory.
S: Oh well thank you, everybody, for sharing your questions and comments and can you all join me in thanking Biff and Frank?
B: Can I just say thank you all for coming?
S: Biff has very kindly offered to sign copies of her book in the foyer after this if you’d like to make your way up there. I don’t know think she knew how cold it was going to be before she volunteered. If you haven’t yet had a chance to buy a copy of the book of course we have a bookshop here at the National Library that you can purchase that. But if you are out there watching the stream and in Melbourne, Readings in Carlton have the book as well as Imprints in Adelaide but don’t despair if you’re not in either of those places because the National Library has an online bookstore where you can buy the book, not that I’m self-interested at all. So thank you again for all of you for coming along and thank you once again, Frank and Biff.
B: Thank you, Stuart.
End of recording
In a discussion facilitated by Frank Bongiorno, Biff Ward will be talking about her most recent book, The Third Chopstick: Tracks through the Vietnam War.
Described as a ‘must-read’ for all the Vietnam generation, their descendants and friends, The Third Chopstick is the profoundly moving story of one woman's passion to bear tender witness to those involved in that tumultuous time.
About the Book
The Vietnam War rocked Australia to its core. The Third Chopstick transports us back to those days.
In starkly beautiful prose Biff Ward seeks to understand the war from multiple angles. She balances the heart‑felt motivations of the protest movement with candid accounts from veterans about what was happening for them in Vietnam and afterwards. Her lyrical evocation of peaceful Vietnam, the people she meets and war sites she visits render the war in a new light.
The Third Chopstick is the moving story of one woman’s passion to bear tender witness to those involved in that tumultuous time.
About Biff Ward
Biff Ward is an author, activist and feminist. Writing has always been part of her life, in addition to working in secondary education, as an Equal Opportunity Officer and then Director of a consultancy firm providing training in harassment prevention, equity and diversity. Her poetry and essays appeared in anthologies in the 1980s and 90s. Her memoir, In My Mother's Hands, about her family's experience of her mother's mental illness was published in 2014. Biff has 3 children and 4 grandchildren.
About Frank Bongiorno
Frank Bongiorno teaches at the Australian National University where he was Head of the School of History from July 2018 until June 2021. His books include The Sex Lives of Australians: A History (2012) and The Eighties: The Decade That Transformed Australia (2015). He writes regularly for Inside Story and The Conversation, and is a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia.