Vietnam: The Australian War.
A thoughtful friend gave me this book for Christmas (2007) and for the two days of hard reading I was transported back through 40 years to the red earth, the sticky humidity and green foliage of South Vietnam.
The sixties and seventies were a time of massive societal upheaval in Australia, as they were in America. Vietnam became the catalyst that saw the austere, gerontocracies that had dominated society since the Great Depression cast aside by the more hedonistic Baby Boomers, who had developed a different view of life. Having lived through this era, and having served in Vietnam as a National Serviceman (conscripted 1967-1968) it was often difficult for me to see the inter-relatedness of the changes and events. Paul Ham has done an excellent job in putting together most of the pieces of the jigsaw that describe Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War in this divisive and highly emotive period of Australia's modernisation.
The difficulty for any author with such a complex topic is the question of what to use, and what to leave out. And then, where to insert parts of the story that don't actually fit the chronological recount. Using a scaffold employed in documentary film, Ham tells the main story and inserts the stand-alone pieces that help break up the linear presentation.
The strongest chapters in the book are those that relate to the battle at Long Tan. The author has described for the first time the use of SIGINT and the role of 547 Signal Troop in the lead-up to the battle. Of real interest was the lack of decisiveness of the upper echelons of the Task Force to extract D/6RAR from its life threatening situation. Without the astute leadership of Harry Smith and the brilliant F.O. Morrie Stanley, we would have experienced another military disaster. Long Tan, like so many of our battles in Vietnam was characterised by poor planning and a gung-ho attitude that was only turned around by the resolve of the troops on the ground, fighting for their lives. Of real concern was the role of Sgt Bob Buick (see note 48, page 703) and his decision to shoot a "hopelessly wounded" Viet Cong the morning after the battle (page 244). While such actions may be understandable during the heat of battle, in the cold light of the next day such an event appears barbaric and un-Australian, and if true, showed a true lack of discipline in the post-battle cleanup. We must always present as honourable soldiers.
The descriptions of the battles for the Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral in May 1968 get a brief but useful review. The author did not directly point out that poor planning almost made Coral Australia's biggest military disaster in the war, apart from Stuart Graham's ill-conceived minefield. Coral on the first night (May 13th, 1968) was a close run event. The gun battery at Coral (102 Bty) was basically undefended because of the late arrival of the infantry. Three small bunds around the northern guns, and the mortar platoon were the sole defences. If the NVA had attacked from the rubber trees on the western side, the Battery would have been lost.
A strong feature of the book is the author's iconoclastic revelations about the staff officers who commanded the Task Force in Vietnam. In a rigidly stratified military society that aped English society, the officer class were gentlemen by definition. In civilian life at this time, the ABC and Malcolm Fraser, the future Prime Minister, still affected upper-class English accents. Recruits were told of their place in the Army structure: "At the top of the pile is the General, then there's the Brigadier, the Full Colonel, Lieutenant Colonel, Major, Captain, Full Lieutenant, Second Lieutenant, Warrant officers 1 and 2, Staff Sergeant, Sergeant, Corporal, Lance Corporal, and Private.... Then there are the rats and mice, blowflies and cockroaches. Then the are you f***ing recruits" (page 163). In the after battle distribution of meagre awards, the officer class usually did better than the troops. The exception was the NCOs of AATTVN, who were often recommended for awards by their American colleagues, who were not aware of the Australian practice of rationing decorations.
Post-traumatic stress disorder raises its ugly head in Chapter 47 but I am always reassured to read the story of Graham Edwards who lost both legs to a mine and then went on to become a Western Australian and Federal politician. The unacknowledged issue with PTSD is that society had changed before and during the Vietnam War, and had become softer. When recruits first entered the Army they were exposed to a training regime based on unsophisticated brutalisation. Recruit training was designed to break the raw recruit from the person that his family had created and rebuild him as an infantryman. In so doing, the Army created a straw-man who was far more psychologically vulnerable to the brutality and stress of war. The supermen that marched out of Puckapunyal and Singleton found the new, brittle personas shattered easily when the enemy shot first, and mates lay dying on that red earth.
The key role of Brigadier Ted Serong in the war was worth telling, and it is easy to see why he ran afoul of the conservative Army hierarchy in Australia. Ted Serong was a true Australian patriot and hero. He was a dedicated anti-communist and it took the Americans to acknowledge his unique expertise. The fact that he left the Australian Army in 1968 and worked for the South Vietnamese government until the end of the war is understandable. It was appropriate that he was first into Vietnam and the last to leave- that is true leadership.
Some of the minor problems that I have with the book are:
1. A problem with the index (viz., the references for Lex McAulay are partially correct, and "fragging" is omitted).
2. The inaccurate and clearly racist, stereotypical prose used to try and colour the background is problematic (viz., the African American troops at Ton Son Nhut who were described as "strangely sullen Negroes"; and "the hatred in the eyes of the hungry Vietnamese" (page 186). I served with African American soldiers (1/83rd and 2/35th) and this stereotype is clearly not true, and it is also unfair.
3. Uc Dai Loi (p. 559) is the correct spelling for Australian (as on page 228).
4. The author was of the opinion that all close air support for Australian troops was by Phantom fighter bombers, but this was not the case. Tactical air support in the early stages of the war (including 1968) was from the ancient workhorses, the F100 Super Sabres.
5. It seems in this book that everyone claimed to be fighting the North Vietnamese (PLA), because there was more credibility in explaining casualties than in battling the local VC battalions. The North Vietnamese forces didn't become significant in our TAOR until after Tet, in February 1968, and Coral was our first sustained battle against PLA main-force units.
6. The report that naval gunners opened up on the enemy charge at Coral (page 374) beggars belief as Coral was well inland from the South China Sea, NNE of Bien Hoa.
7. The positions of the Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral on map (p. xviii) are incorrect.
To conclude, Paul Ham is to be congratulated on this outstanding book. His journalist's eyes have exposed a different, more realistic view of the Vietnam War and its key players. It is not only a good read, but it brings all the parts of a complex stage of Australia's development together in a logical, balanced way that will appeal to all readers.