The Motto of the VVAA

The motto of the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia is:

Honour the dead but fight like hell for the living

There has been considerable debate about the source of the motto, and the following research by Ron Briggs of South Australia comprises the latest information known.  If anyone can shed any further light on the motto, please contact the webmaster.

Investigations undertaken by Ron Briggs in mid-1999, revealed that the motto was first used in Australia by the NT branch of the Association and was subsequently adopted in the early nineties by the National Council to be used by the VVAA on an Australia-wide basis.

There was some evidence to indicate that the motto originated in the USA, with a small piece in the VVAA Queensland newsletter “O Group” suggesting the motto was first used in an article that appeared in the “National Geographic” of May 1985.

Further investigation revealed that the National Geographic article, which was part of a piece written for the dedication of the “Wall” in Washington, actually came from a book entitled “To Heal A Nation” by Jan Scruggs and Joel Swerdlow (Scruggs being one of the main movers behind the building of the Wall).  The authors refer to a sign that was thrust into the ground at the dedication ceremony.  The wording on the sign read: “Honour the dead, fight like hell for the living”.   At the time, Briggs wondered whether the words had been borrowed from some other source, and perhaps came from another war.

Later, the State Secretary of the Returned and Services League of Australia  in South   Australia, John Spencer, sent Ron Briggs a photocopy of an unsigned piece that appeared in an RSL journal in 1948, and which is very prominently entitled: “Honour the Dead, by Helping the Living”.   While not precisely the same words as the VVAA motto, one is struggling not to draw the conclusion that there may be a very strong connection.

Interestingly, although dated 1948 (at first sight, presenting a nexus with the Second World War), the piece is largely concerned with 5th November and the story behind Poppy Day, which obviously puts the sentiment in the era of the First World War.

Of particular interest however is a paragraph dealing with the formation of the British Legion, quote: “[T]he British Legion was formed to foster the interests of ex-servicemen, and the late Field-Marshall Earl Haig, the first Grand President, sought for a symbol which would (my parenthesis) ‘honour the dead and help the living’”   The penultimate paragraph again seems to paraphrase the motto, and ends with the observation that “by buying a poppy you are honouring the dead by helping the living”. The piece then goes on to speak of John McRae and quotes some verse from “In Flanders Fields”.

Has the VVAA inadvertently borrowed a sentiment from Field-Marshal Haig?  Does the motto have an earlier connection (pre-Vietnam and the Wall) to the Americans through John McRae and the Canadians at the time of the First World War?

In any event, it seems that this sentiment, so concisely put, and so appropriate to those who have survived warfare only to find the peace more deadly than the war, has been used before.  The Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia believes that it continues to be a succinct and utterly appropriate expression of the Association’s objects.