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"VIETNAM, THE AUSTRALIAN WAR"

Author: Paul Ham

Review by David Wilkins (with input from Tim Britten)


Cover of "Vietnam, The Australian War"“Vietnam, The Australian War” is an epic account of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War and to date is the only single-volume history of its kind available. It draws upon hundreds of unpublished sources and interviews with soldiers, politicians, medical practitioners, aid providers, entertainers and the Vietnamese people to reconstruct the history of a conflict that divided the world, nations, families and friends. Paul Ham sourced military records and histories of the allies and spent months in Vietnam obtaining new material, including from their unit histories and by speaking with many Vietnamese commanders and soldiers. This use of enemy records provides a real strength to the book.

Ham paints a telling historical background to Vietnam from which our commanders would have learnt much of the enemy we faced. For example, as early as 1425 AD it was written by a Vietnamese leader that it was “better to conquer the hearts than the citadels.” It seems the American strategists (and the French before that) either did not hear this or if they did, they ignored it, whereas the Australians seemed more aware with their different tactical approach.

Another historical lesson could have been learnt from the Chinese Manchu dynasty experience in 1789 when that invading force was surprised by an audacious midnight attack during Tet, the New Year holiday, which was normally a Buddhist time of peace and goodwill in both China and Vietnam. This violation of Tet was repeated 179 years later when the Americans and the South Vietnamese allies were also caught off guard by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong Tet offensive of 1968.

The author reveals the relationship between the nationwide strategy of the war and the battles involving Australian troops in Phuoc Tuy and neighbouring provinces. The insight into enemy planning and its implementation as told in their unit histories gives the reader a better understanding of that bigger picture, a picture that was rarely understood at platoon and company levels in Nui Dat.

One of the more interesting aspects of the book is its assessment of the different ways the American and Australian forces fought the war in Vietnam. The Americans’ war was one of attrition, utilizing its tactic of massive prophylactic firepower, and the results of its engagements judged by the ratio of enemy to own-force kills. Whilst the Australians were also required to report “body count” they used quite different counter-revolutionary warfare tactics where stealth and ambush were predominant, a predatory method of seeking the enemy. This stealthy approach was learned by Australian forces in the Malayan emergency and fine-tuned at the Canungra Jungle Training Centre. They used tactics which one VC commander described to the author as “Your (Australian) tactics matched ours.” Indeed, another VC commander is reported as saying “I fought against Thais, Koreans, and Americans but mainly Australians. The Australians defeated the Vietnamese in Vietnam. They were very skilled. The people didn’t hate them. The Australians left some good feelings here.”

Ham concluded that the Australians actually tried to protect civilian life, a fact lost on many of the Australian public because our soldiers were lumped together with the Americans, and when the American massacre at My Lai was revealed the Australians were incorrectly and unfairly tainted.

Generally speaking I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which from my point of view, contains only a few disappointments. Firstly, after a fairly comprehensive coverage of the main battles involving Australians up to 1968 the author then gives just a short summary of the Australian Task Force activities for the period 1969 to 1971 (which he said included “routine boredom and horror, learning the same lessons, patrolling the same areas, ...”) and fails to cover major events, with the exception of the Battle of Binh Ba in June 1969, which is allocated a chapter. In 1969, for example, both 5RAR and 6RAR were involved in significant encounters such as the 5th Battalion’s near-capture of MR7, the North Vietnamese Army Divisional Headquarters, in April 1969, and its later ferocious battles in the Hat Dich Secret Zone in July and August when large numbers of North Vietnamese Army enemy were killed and wounded and over a thousand of their bunkers destroyed. These are just two of several significant experiences in that period which Ham does not mention. This omission is regrettable as both these battalions experienced major successes well beyond the “routine boredom and horror” referred to by Ham. Associated with this omission is the fact that the chapter on morale fails to recognize the excellent morale of, at least, 5RAR and 6RAR in 1969-70 (I am unable to speak for the other battalions).

It is this chapter on morale that provides my second misgiving about the book. It is quite a disturbing chapter that makes a good comparison of the morale in the American and Australian forces. Ham highlights the poor discipline in American units where at times the officers were too afraid of their troops to properly lead them, whereas the Australians (and New Zealanders) generally maintained a high level of discipline (with occasional lapses, as one would expect). But then the author describes a series of alleged American atrocities, which Ham acknowledges are probably just myths sensationalized by the anti-war movement. As unsubstantiated rumours they have no place in this history and detract from it.

Thirdly, in my view the author places too great an emphasis on the work done by the SAS patrols, with their alleged “psychological domination of the province” and large-scale combat successes against the enemy (both of which statements are questionable), whilst not detailing the huge tallies attributable to the Australian battalions of 1ATF.

The author generally provides however, a very balanced, analytical approach to most controversial issues (such as the Australian minefield, the water torture incident, conscription and the anti-war movement) and the book is animated by an elegant style and an even-handed disdain. As “The Bulletin” reported Ham also assails the vicious, ideologically driven policies of the North Vietnamese whose worst atrocities (thousands of intellectuals were killed in Hue as were scores of thousands in villages across the south) went largely unreported by an indolent press and a self-preening protest movement.

One of the book’s final chapters provides a good summary of the effects of the defoliation sprays used in South Vietnam (Agent Orange and others), the constant denials by the Australian government that its veterans were exposed to them (before then admitting it), and the white-wash of the Evatt Royal Commission’s findings. The author points to more recent scientific revelations and evidence that have gone a long way to rectifying the deep flaws in the Evatt methodology and have now righted the wrong by establishing the clear link between herbicides and cancer.

In his discussion of military honours and awards Paul Ham confirms what most soldiers already knew: that the Australian system was illogically bound by a bizarre and inflexible quota system (said to be 1 decoration per 150 persons per 6 months). The inequity of the system is particularly revealed when comparing the ratio of decorations awarded to the different Australian services in South Vietnam: 1 in every 17 RAAF persons, 1 in every 38 for the RAN and 1 in every 61 Army persons. Therefore, in essentially an infantryman’s war, the Army is the least distinguished of the three services. The author correctly concludes that something is clearly wrong with our system.

If veterans fighting in South Vietnam felt bitter about the anti-war movement in Australia (remember the diggers’ slogans of “punch a Postie” and “wallop a wharfie”?), and also bitter at the lack of government support for us as we returned home, then that bitterness would have been rightly increased by the American betrayal of the South Vietnamese. During the negotiations of the 1973 “peace with honour” the USA coerced a reluctant South Vietnamese participation to the peace talks with promises of American support if the North Vietnamese breached the treaty. Yet within months of signing the Paris Accord the USA had cut all funding to Saigon whilst Hanoi openly rebuilt its forces and began swarming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail in readiness for its final offensive in 1975. Saigon’s allies, including the Whitlam government, turned their backs and chose not see this “most murderous truce” of the century.

Paul Ham's “Vietnam, The Australian War” is currently in hardback, it contains 49 chapters, is 746 pages long and retails for $55 (but is available in discount stores for about $35). A paperback edition is expected.


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