The Vietnam War didn’t get nearly as much play in Australian media as it did in American, but those occasions when it did come up tended to pack a punch.
That’s what gives “I Was Only 19” its place here. Along with “Khe Sanh” it’s one of the few Australian songs to tackle what it means to be a veteran of that war. But where Jimmy Barnes’ detached delivery only hints at the depths of anger and confusion that lie within, John Schumann’s laconic verses are counterpointed by the emotional outbursts of his choruses. He neither hides his pain nor wallows in it – he simply demands the answer he feels he is entitled to. The answer to the question, “Why?”
In 1914, Australians went to fight because the mother country called on them to do so. in 1939, we fought from a simplistic (though far from wrong) ideal of good versus evil. But in 1965, we fought from a bitterness and confusion that were only enhanced by the actual experience of war. If the First World War was Australia’s ‘baptism of fire’, then surely the Vietnam War can be seen as a stormy passage from naive adolescence to regretful maturity on the part of our nation.
The palpable anguish that leaks through every line of the song speaks to – and from – that part of the Australian psyche that is ever belittled by the politicians of enemy and allied nations. (To say nothing of the politicians of our own.) That does not understand realpolitik or its continuation by other means. That understands only that it is called upon to sacrifice and suffer yet again, in the name of a bipartisan foreign policy that appears to consist almost entirely of finding suit-clad rich men with English or American accents to say “Yes, sir!” to.
What could be more Australian than that?