Kill by kill, name by name
March 24, 2012 12:00AM
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.
The authors’ obligation was to provide a day-by-day account of operations: their customary tedium, punctuated by sporadically intense danger. So we move through this book, acronym by acronym (this is the army, after all), kill by kill and name by name. Particular scrupulousness is observed in the last matter. Hundreds of men are listed by name and for the parts they played, sometimes fatally, in the war.
This is an emphatically democratic as well as an official history. The point of view is not Olympian. Most often we are at the ground level of operations: “scrub bashing”, mine-clearing, mounting ambushes, assaulting bunkers, besides the civic responsibilities of the Australian Task Force towards the South Vietnamese civilians.
Yet as well as this grainy but never tedious detail, Fighting to the Finish recognises, and ably discharges, two other official duties. It establishes a public record of the final seven years of the Vietnam War and becomesone more memorial to the war, taking its place with the Australian Vietnam Forces National Memorial on Anzac Parade in Canberra.
On April 9, 1968, the San Francisco Examiner declared that “the Vietnamese hate the Americans. The Americans hate the Vietnamese. Americans hate other Americans. The local Chinese are hated by both the Vietnamese and the Americans. The Australians hate everybody.” In so far as there was any warrant for this bleak jocularity, it must lie in the soldiers’ material circumstances and in their morale. Of a one-year tour of duty, 300 days were commonly spent outside base on patrol and ambush. Malaria was rife. Spiders, scorpions and fungal rot added to the danger and discomfort. This was a war of small, patient engagements, where gains were little by little and never enough. Besides combat, there was the difficulty of winning the other war, the battle for the people in the villages, especially when these had been infiltrated by VC cadres.
Soldiers were killed by their own mines and by so-called friendly fire. The first national serviceman to die, on May 24, 1966, private Errol Noack of Kangaroo Island, was accidentally shot by his own men. Alcohol abuse was prevalent. If these particular matters were not trying enough, Ekins writes, “the task force success was qualified. Any lasting effect was dependent on the Australians remaining.” By December 1972, however, the last Australian troops had left Vietnam.
Fighting to the Finish tells their story in plain and eloquent prose. There is no drum-beating in this fine and sober work of scholarship. Its balanced final assessments put the lie to various hardy and misleading stories of the Australian involvement in Vietnam. If they gained the ascendancy for several years in their sphere of operations in Phuoc Thuy province, troop reductions, notably the signal given by the wholesale American withdrawals, meant that this could not be sustained.
Thus there was no victory, compromised or otherwise. Nor was there general obloquy when troops returned home. Far from being spirited back singly at night and derided by civilians, most participated in welcome home marches with their units. The misremembering of Vietnam is one of its most curious cultural features. This massively detailed book, beautifully and durably made, ought to undo some of the misapprehensions.
Besides the text and photographs (many with a decidedly staged air), there are maps, lists of casualties and honours, summaries of operations, statistical diagrams, six pages of abbreviations. This is the vivid record of a small part of a long and terrible war in which allied battle deaths neared one-third of a million, that of the North Vietnamese and VC about one million. Twice as many civilians died. No doubt Ekins and McNeill would be happy to allow this epitaph on the war, from North Vietnamese soldier and historian, General Cao Van Vien, who described his triumphant, stricken country as “an immense expanse of ruin and misery”.
Peter Pierce is co-author of Vietnam Days: Australia and the Impact of Vietnam.
Fighting to the Finish: The Australian Army and the Vietnam War 1968-75
By Ashley Ekins with Ian McNeill
Allen & Unwin, 1139pp, $100 (HB)