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