This schol­arly, sober yet vis­ceral his­tory should van­quish many mis­ap­pre­hen­sions about Australia’s in­volve­ment in the Viet­nam War, writes Peter Pierce

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

IS there an Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture of the Viet­nam War? Well, it de­pends where you look. There was a hand­ful of nov­els in the 1960s and 70s, notably Count Your Dead (1968) by a for­mer army in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer, John Rowe. Con­demn­ing the vac­il­la­tions and com­pla­cency of Aus­tralian pol­i­tics and for­eign re­la­tions, our de­pen­dence on ‘‘ great and pow­er­ful friends’’, the book ended Rowe’s mil­i­tary ca­reer. Wil­liam Na­gle’s The Odd An­gry Shot (1979) was later filmed. Sev­eral tele­vi­sion minis­eries were made.

There was plenty of anti-war verse, which has been branded ‘‘ po­emic’’ (po­etry meets polemic), but lit­tle of qual­ity be­sides Bruce Dawe’s Home­com­ing (‘‘All day, day af­ter day, they’re bring­ing them home’’) and A. D. Hope’s An In­scrip­tion for Any War: ‘‘ Go tell those old men, safe in bed,/ We took their or­ders and are dead’’. Asia was re­dis­cov­ered by Aus­tralian nov­el­ists from the 60s, but very lit­tle of this fic­tion was set in Viet­nam. Thus the war was elided, for a time, from pop­u­lar re­mem­brance.

Much non­fic­tion, how­ever, has ap­peared. There has been a steady, if now di­min­ish­ing, sup­ply of am­ply il­lus­trated unit his­to­ries (usu­ally sold by sub­scrip­tion). There have been mem­oirs, of­ten re­sent­ful, re­crim­i­na­tory and still bel­liger­ent, such as All Guts and No Glory (2000) by Brian Buick, a veteran of the Bat­tle of Long Tan. (One of his gripes was of how few medals were awarded af­ter that ac­tion be­cause of the hide­bound Aus­tralian army quota sys­tem.) Both these kinds of work served sim­i­lar func­tions: vin­di­ca­tion of the Aus­tralian role in the war by those who felt that this had been slighted, and me­mo­rial for those who had served.

On a much greater scale, and the work of decades, is the The Of­fi­cial His­tory of Australia’s In­volve­ment in South­east Asian Con­flict, 1948-1975, un­der the gen­eral ed­i­tor­ship of Peter Ed­wards, of which the book un­der re­view is the ninth and final vol­ume. Pre­vi­ous vol­umes cov­ered di­plo­macy, medicine, the RAAF and the RAN, the home front, combat. One vol­ume — Emer­gency and Con­fronta­tion, by Peter Den­nis and Jef­frey Grey — deals with Aus­tralian mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions in Malaya and Bor­neo from 1950 to 1966 (two nearly for­got­ten con­flicts).

The his­tory of war his­to­ries in Australia be­gins with the 12 vol­umes of The Of­fi­cial His­tory of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, edited by C. E. W. Bean as a mon­u­ment to the men of the First AIF. Be­gun in 1921, it was not com­pleted un­til 1942, half­way through World War II. Bean was the prime cre­ator of the mar­tial leg­end of An­zac, with its cen­tral no­tion that val­ues of mate­ship, wry hu­mour, re­silience and con­tempt for au­thor­ity, learned in the bush, were trans­lated into the fig­ure of the Aus­tralian Dig­ger.

Gavin Long edited the 18-vol­ume his­tory of Australia in the War of 1939-45. The Korean War re­ceived a sep­a­rate and much shorter treat­ment than the South­east Asian Con­flict se­ries, which reaches its con­clu­sion with the third combat vol­ume, Fight­ing to the Fin­ish: The Aus­tralian Army and the Viet­nam War 1968-1975, writ­ten by Ash­ley Ekins with Ian Mcneill. (Dis­clo­sure: Mcneill, who served with the Aus­tralian Army Train­ing Team Viet­nam and wrote its his­tory, and who died in 1998, was a friend.) This vol­ume be­gins in July 1968. Australia’s most fa­mous bat­tles of the Viet­nam War have been fought al­ready: Long Tan in Au­gust 1966, fire bases Coral and Bal­moral in May 1968. The lat­ter year would be the costli­est for Australia dur­ing the war with 107 men dead, more than one-fifth of the to­tal. The au­thors be­gin their 1139-page book at a cru­cial point in the war, when its out­come seemed un­cer­tain: By the mid­dle of 1968, the Viet­nam War had reached a wa­ter­shed. Viet Cong forces had suf­fered dev­as­tat­ing losses in the com­mu­nist Tet Of­fen­sive of Jan­uary/ Fe­bru­ary and their Sec­ond Gen­eral Of­fen­sive in May — in­creas­ingly, the bur­den of fight­ing would now fall on the North Viet­namese Army (NVA).

Mean­while, in Washington, the per­verse re­sult of the mil­i­tary fail­ure of Tet — a pro­pa­ganda vic­tory for North Viet­nam — meant the US re­solved ‘‘ to cease es­ca­la­tion of the war and to seek a ne­go­ti­ated set­tle­ment’’. There­after, Amer­i­can and other al­lied forces were made in­creas­ingly un­sure of how long their com­mit­ment would con­tinue and to what ends.

What makes a his­tory of­fi­cial? Es­sen­tially this in­volves op­por­tu­nity and obli­ga­tion. The au­thors (prin­ci­pally Ekins, who was re­spon­si­ble for the bulk of this book af­ter Mcneill’s death) based their work on ‘‘ un­re­stricted ac­cess to all rel­e­vant his­tor­i­cal records’’, in­clud­ing those closed or re­stricted due to se­cu­rity clas­si­fi­ca­tions. This was ‘‘ in keep­ing with the cus­tom­ary in­de­pen­dence of Aus­tralian of­fi­cial his­to­ries’’, and it gave un­ri­valled ac­cess to how hour-by-hour as well as strate­gic plan­ning de­ci­sions were made.

There was, how­ever, no con­straint on crit­i­cism of blun­ders in the field (most no­to­ri­ously, the ‘‘ bar­rier mine­field’’ around the Aus­tralians’ Nui Dat base. Tens of thou­sands of mines were up­rooted and re­lo­cated by the Vi­et­cong. More than 100 Aus­tralians died in di­rect con­se­quence) or of po­lit­i­cal dis­agree­ments at home, for in­stance, the cir­cum­stances that ended the prime min­is­ter­ship of John Gor­ton in 1971.

Nor were the au­thors tac­itly bid­den to take a party line. In­ter­pre­ta­tions — and they are many, if of­ten sub­tle — are their own.

Aus­tralian sol­diers in Nui Dat await­ing he­li­copter sup­port for Op­er­a­tion Puck­a­pun­yal

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