Living In Vietnam
August 18, 2006
VIETNAM veteran Keith Masson lives just 45 minutes from the rubber plantation at Long Tan where Australians fought 40 years ago today in their most famous action of the divisive war.
He has driven to the past two anniversary ceremonies from his home in nearby Vung Tau. But unlike his friend Jeff Carr, he won't be joining the hundreds of fellow veterans for a reunion at Long Tan cross this afternoon.
Nor will he be in the Vung Tau greyhound stadium tonight to hear John Schumann sing what has become the Vietnam veterans' anthem - I was only 19.
Masson says he now finds the ceremonies too distressing. And in any event, he has finally found respite from 40 years of trauma not by reliving his haunted past, but by moving to a very different Vietnam - the new Vietnam, where his greatest joy is helping eager children learn English.
He and Carr, from Adelaide, are among 16 Australian veterans who recently made Vung Tau, the town nearest the Long Tan battlefield east of Ho Chi Minh City, their home.
They could not find any peace in Australia, where the scars of the nation's involvement in the war remain raw.
In parliament yesterday, an emotional Kim Beazley choked back tears as he read a letter in which Labor MP Graham Edwards, who lost both legs in Vietnam, forgave those who once abused him for serving in the foreign war.
On the other side of the house, John Howard agreed to reconsider the issue of bravery medals for the soldiers who fought in the rubber plantations at Long Tan - a battle in which 18 Australians died.
Bemoaning the nation's "collective failure" to honour the service of its 50,000 Vietnam veterans, the Prime Minister said: "They did what their country lawfully asked them to do at the time."
Masson was indeed only 19 when he was drafted. He was one of many veterans who cast their eyes down as Schumann's song, prefixed by the ominous throbbing of Iroquois helicopter blades, punctuated the banter earlier this week in the Ned Kelly Eureka Bar in Vung Tau, run by jovial Alan Davis, the last governor of Melbourne's Jika Jika jail.
Masson, now 59, was in Vietnam between 1967 and 1969, supplying the troops across the country. He returned to South Australia after the war, becoming a court registrar.
He cobbled together a coherent life - marrying, having children. But then "the scars opened up, the nightmares came".
"I could smell the napalm burning bodies, hear the screaming children and women," he says. "After that, I threw myself into my work, I became isolated. I went fishing most weekends, on the tidal flats out of Port Pirie, just with a little radio to hear the footy. I got divorced, had other relationships that never worked out. My children haven't spoken to me for years."
He then joined a "wonderful brotherhood" of veterans who met regularly at Repatriation General Hospital in Adelaide, and heard about a tour back to Vietnam. "I needed to get rid of those skeletons in the cupboard," he says.
Today, Masson lives in a three-storey Vietnamese house at the end of a narrow hem, or neighbourhood. "Everyone there knows I'm a vet," he says. "Many of them were Viet Cong.
"But they treat me with respect. They are the most enterprising, tenacious and strong-spirited people. They just want to forget about wars, which no one really wins."
Masson has been absorbed into the extended family of his Vietnamese partner, Thanh Nguyen. Her sister is soon to marry another Australian veteran living in Vung Tau. He rates "the pinnacle of my stay" volunteering to help the children at an academy run by a charismatic, disabled teacher, Han Nguyen, who describes Masson as his brother. Masson says "teaching half a dozen hours a week is my therapy".
Also living in Vung Tua is Carr, who arrived in 2003 and has since married a Vietnamese woman, Sang. For the past month, another veteran, Gordon Meers, from Hobart has been staying with Masson. Meers returned 40 years after serving in the supply lines.
Meers says he has not kept a job for more than 18 months. "I was living on my nerve ends," he says. "Vietnam has rescued me. I've got my self-respect back."
Masson and Meers say they concealed their war experience back in Australia. But in Vietnam it is not an issue.
Graeme "Breaker" Cusack is another veteran, a former major, who has made Vung Tau home. He dispatched ammunition for the soldiers who fought at Long Tan. He is married to Ha, whose family "were all VCs".
At a gathering, an uncle of Ha lined Cusack up in imaginary sights and said he had seen him before down a gun barrel. They embraced, blaming the politicians.
Phan Chien, the director of the regional Vietnamese Veterans Association, the equivalent of the RSL, fought Australians, though he fought the French and the Americans far more, he adds.
He was seven when French troops burned his home and killed his mother. At 12 he joined the Viet Cong, and fought for 40 years, becoming a captain and being shot seven times.
Ho Chi Minh's portrait still hangs in the living room of his home where he plays with the two youngest of eight grandchildren.
Now 66, he says he would love to visit Australia to meet veterans there. "The hurt and the fighting is in the past, after 35 years of war, Phan says.
"We were enemies before, but now we are building a new life."
Survival Means Victory
By HAMZA HENDAWI, Associated Press Writer
Sunday, July 123, 2003
BEIRUT, Lebanon - Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah acknowledges that Israeli troops can sweep across south Lebanon. But if he and his militants can survive and keep fighting, he will cement his image as the unlikely new hero of Arab nationalism.
Israeli troops backed by tanks fought their way into southern Lebanon Saturday at the start of a ground assault to drive the Islamic guerrilla group away from the border and put Israeli cities beyond the reach of its rockets.
"I don't want to raise expectations. I never said that the Israelis cannot reach any place in southern Lebanon," says Nasrallah, a black-turbaned Shiite cleric whom Israel has tried repeatedly to kill.
"Our dogma and strategy is when the Israelis come, they must pay a high price. This is what we promise and this is what we will achieve, God willing."
The fighting was sparked by Hezbollah's July 12 capture of two Israeli soldiers and the killing of eight others in a cross-border raid. A massive Israeli offensive followed and Hezbollah responded by firing hundreds of rockets at Israel.
More than 370 people have been killed in Lebanon over the past 11 days, authorities said. In Israel, 34 have died.
Anticipating the ground assault, Nasrallah sought to ensure his group's survival and safeguard its widening base of support in Lebanon and abroad by lowering the bar for what would constitute victory.
In a television interview broadcast Friday, he defined victory as a successful defense.
And he acknowledges the gravity of defeat.
"A defeat in Lebanon will end the region's resistance movements, the Palestinian cause and impose Israel's conditions for a settlement," he warned.
His previous warnings were even more dire.
"If Israel is able to defeat the resistance in Palestine and Lebanon, God forbid, then the Arab world, governments and peoples will drown in eternal humiliation from which they will have no way out."
Hezbollah's chances of victory lie as much in its guerrilla capability as in Nasrallah's leadership. He has led the group since 1992, taking over after his predecessor was killed in an Israeli helicopter attack.
A fiery orator who deftly mixes threats with lighthearted comments, Nasrallah lost his 18-year-old son, Hadi, during a fight with Israeli troops in 1997. He refused to receive mourners, praised God's "ultimate grace and kindness" for choosing a family member as a martyr and allowed another son, Jawad, to join the guerrillas.
"We love martyrdom," he said on Friday. "But we take precautions to deny the enemy an easy victory."
On paper, Hezbollah's chances of surviving a military setback and regrouping to fight again are good. Most of its estimated 5,000-6,000 fighters are hardened by years of combat against Israel during its 18-year control of a border strip in southern Lebanon.
The Iranian- and Syrian-backed organization, listed as a terrorist group by the United States, has a typical guerrilla arsenal that includes assault rifles, mines, light artillery, mortars and — most importantly — missiles with ranges of up to 45 miles.
It enjoys popular support in southern and eastern Lebanon.
Victory or defeat, Nasrallah already has a place in the hearts of millions of Arabs angered and ashamed by their governments' perceived acquiescence to Israeli and U.S. policies.
A defeat on the battlefield is unlikely to change that so long as Hezbollah is seen to have put up a good fight. In fact, it could give the 46-year-old, mid-ranking cleric hero status.
Nasrallah's rise to Arab stardom, said Ibrahim Bayram of Beirut's respected An-Nahar daily, was owed in part to his tireless attempts to rise above the Shiite-Sunni divide by forging close ties with Sunni Muslims — who are the overwhelming majority of the world's Arabs.
"He has ambitions to become a leader of the Muslim world," said Bayram.
Charismatic, sharp and media savvy, Nasrallah seems aware of respect and admiration he and his organization enjoy. He speaks with a confidence that sometimes borders on arrogance.
He also taunts his critics in the Arab world, led by key U.S. allies Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.
"I say to Arab leaders: I don't want your swords and I don't want your hearts ... Leave us alone."
Such undiplomatic talk resonates with many Arabs. His fiery rhetoric harkens back to Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Egypt's late president who led his nation to disastrous military defeat by Israel in 1967. But Nasser's political resilience and charisma made him a respected Arab nationalist leader until his death in 1970.
"Nasrallah is doing what Arab governments are unwilling or incapable of doing — fighting Israel. He is embarrassing them," said Vali Nasr, an expert on Shiites who lectures on national security affairs at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, Calif.
"Many people in the Middle East reward courage, not wisdom," said Nasr.