Vietnam veterans on bus to Long Tan

Vietnam veterans on a bus to visit the Long Tan Cross

For those who despair at the way in which Australians commemorate the wars we have been involved in — evacuated of content, as if they were a more testing version of sport — the dust-up over the 50th anniversary of the battle of Long Tan gave some cause for hope. Denied access to the battlefield by a late reversal by the Vietnamese government, which had earlier given its permission, there was a certain amount of grousing and irritation.

“I am pretty well pissed off,” said one. “There are 3500 people who are booked in to go the Long Tan cross and that’s why they are not happy.”

News Corp jumped on it and tried to make something out of it, but there wasn’t a lot there — a lot less arrogance was displayed than has been directed in the past at the Turks, for example, around Gallipoli commemorations.

The nature of the Vietnam War, as an imperialist destruction of a Third World country engaged in a civil war, is widely understood in Australia, even among those supporting the veterans’ desire to visit the battlefield. Even the letters page of the Oz — one of the most sleazily biased parts of the newspaper — had a majority of letters suggesting that the Diggers might want to pull their heads in a bit, given the sufferings of the Vietnamese — and the appalling behaviour of some during a past commemoration.

The veterans’ disappointment is understandable, as is their desire to commemorate the last anniversaries, before death takes over, particularly given the complexities and politics behind the sudden withdrawal of permission — which appears to arise from a conflict between regional and national governments. But just because that desire is understandable doesn’t make it justifiable, or even particularly admirable. Sensitivity to the Vietnamese might not be enough; it’s worth asking whether there is any way to commemorate Long Tan on the battlefield itself that can be morally justified.

The 1966 battle of Long Tan has been gaining in profile and prestige since the 1980s, and especially after the end of the Cold War, when the politics of the war itself had started to fade. The bare story is simple enough. In 1966, the Australian Task Force in Vietnam was expanding its operations in the lower southern coastal region of Vietnam, in a province dominated by the Viet Cong.

One unit, D company, with 108 men, found themselves under assault by a much larger force of both Viet Cong and (North) Vietnamese army troops. D company held off the nationalist-Communist troops for most of a day, before relief arrived. The Australians lost 18; the Vietnamese 400-600. The victory was celebrated at the time in the US as much as in Australia, before losing profile in the ’70s, and then being revived.

The conflict is thus tailor-made to the “mateship” emphasis of Australian military mythologisation; forget the reasons for the conflict and focus on the pure act of solidarity. But Long Tan, unlike Gallipoli, has the added advantage that we won, and against huge odds. Plucky little Australia. Yeah, uh, not so fast. There might have been only D company on the ground, but they had extensive long-range artillery cover and air support. Amazingly, 108 Diggers didn’t kill 500 Vietnamese troops by sharp-shooting, in an Asian Alamo. The Vietnamese died as hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese died in those years: from the industrial firepower of the country’s invaders, i.e. us and the Yanks.

The obvious rhetorical strategy in celebrating Long Tan is to suggest that it expresses some essential Australian character, a sort of extreme tenacity in the face of imminent death. But the battle wasn’t like that at all. Like most of the war, it was an episode in which a poorly armed national army and insurgent force were faced with Western forces, which were already a vastly superior industrial meat grinder and would soon become an exterminatory attack against a peasant nation.

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Faced with massively superior firepower, the Vietnamese forces had no advantage other than greater numbers and their willingness to die for national liberation. The imbalance of death between Vietnamese and Australian forces wasn’t down to Australian grit; it was the standard death ratio in what was becoming a genocidal war against an Indochinese people.

This is really the crucial point in any argument around the war itself — no matter what one’s views of the politics. Politics-wise, I find it hard to see beyond the obvious: that the Vietnamese, denied their liberty in 1919, 1945 and 1954 were now fighting for it to the bitter end. Elections, proposed after the French had been thrown out, in 1954, would clearly have elected Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh to power, so the US partitioned the country and set up a puppet state, South Vietnam. The state never had any real legitimacy — when US-led forces departed in 1973, it collapsed within 18 months. The war against it was clearly one of national liberation.

But it was also a war fought by a Communist leadership of extreme ruthlessness — necessary to a degree, but also political. Playing devil’s advocate, one could accept the “arguability” of the South Vietnamese/US side, knowing what was in store in that period. But however arguable that might — might — be for a certain level of military involvement, it does not embrace what the war had rapidly become by the 1960s.

By the middle of the decade it had become clear to the US that it was a people’s war, with millions willing to fight against the invaders. The only way such a people could be defeated was by high technology. Vietnam (and Laos, and later Cambodia) became the wars in which the US simply took up where it had left off at the end of World War II, when mass bombing had been used to pound Germany into submission.

The B-52, bombing out of range of ground fire, napalm designed to cover vast areas and leave living corpses, Agent Orange and other defoliants intended to destroy the agricultural supply of whole regions — all were committed to the war with total disregard for the people they were purporting to “save from communism”. The war was racist and genocidal at its essence — it could only be continued by dehumanising the Vietnamese as “yellow gooks”. More than a million were directly killed in the war itself. Another 2 to 4 million died from injuries and deprivation in the aftermath. The war from the US side is morally indefensible, a decade-long atrocity exhibition.

Those who fought at Long Tan and elsewhere can reasonably say that they were not aware of the character of the war, or of its corrupted motivations, or the falsity of the propaganda around it. But now that the character of the war is clear, they cannot disregard it. In such circumstances the traditional Australian process of ignoring any and all content of the actual conflict cannot pass muster.

Previous Australian wars may have had an imperialist dimension, but none — save the homegrown frontier wars themselves — had the exterminatory character of Vietnam. The whole way in which a war is commemorated cannot be separated from its character. Some claim for post-war reciprocity — for a mutual recognition of honour and sacrifice — has to assume some sort of balance of forces, some sort of “fair fight”, some claim to morality of means.

The Vietnamese have, over the years, been reasonably generous in recognising Australian and American desire to commemorate their dead. The question is whether they should have to do so — whether such forces commemorating the battle at the site itself is a moral act at all. That is not a universal moral right. British veterans of World War II get to mark their moments in Europe in an official fashion. Germans don’t. No amount of valour, mercy and honour by any individual unit trumps the evil ends to which such virtues were applied. That may be unfair, but that’s how it is.

In some respects — some — US and Australian troops were playing a role akin to the Wehrmacht in Indochina in that war. Far from making a fuss about the vagaries of the Vietnamese government, the Long Tan veterans should be renouncing their desire to go there. Guilt may not attach to individual soldiers, but a certain shame does — the shame of having been used to deny a people their freedom, of having been part of an enterprise of death on a near-unimaginable scale.

For Westerners, the lesson has to be learned — the history of the second half of the 20th century is not about you. It is the story of the south and the east and its liberation from imperialism, at a near-unimaginable cost. Last week, various people critical of the Long Tan commemoration asked how we would feel if the Japanese wanted to commemorate the bombing of Darwin. Such comparisons fall short. There is nothing on the non-indigenous side of Australian history that can compare to the Vietnamese experience: whole villages in bomb shelters wiped out with a single bomb, a whole generation eviscerated, no family untouched.

To ask a people to annually bear such a parade, with not only the veterans but now their children and grandchildren striding over the crops to remember the time they called in an airstrike to kill their cousins is a bit much. Something more than a bit much; it is a negation of your hosts’ humanity. Veterans should honour their dead; the impulse to do so where they fell is understandable. Which makes the morally necessary renunciation of it all the more honourable. The widespread disquiet about the way we remember Vietnam suggests we may be part of the way there on that one.

It shows once again, the bizarre paradox of Australian war remembrance. The key honourable and defining moment of our military history — the sacrifice for national survival at Kokoda — remains buried, half-regarded, and no book, film, event seems capable of bringing it to the centre of our culture. We prefer wars whose aims were irrelevant to us, or futile, and celebrate them like they were particularly bloody Grand Finals. Why? The answer is obvious. We do not want to be reminded that the one war for national survival on our own soil was fought against whites, not by them.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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