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A 'kick in the guts'?

By Willy Bach - posted Thursday, 25 August 2016

I am happy to say there are others who agree with me on the question of the Long Tan commemoration. Mike Carlton tweeted, "What would we think if thousands of Japanese wanted to descend on Darwin to celebrate the [19 February 1942] bombing of Darwin?". We should reflect on that hypothetical question. The Vietnam government had decided to grant access to the Long Tan cross to small groups of Australians, but reversed the decision when it was realised how big the throng was and how much world media the event was generating.

Australia’s Minister for Veterans Affairs, Dan Tehan, made an unfortunate choice of words when he called the reversal of this decision a ‘kick in the guts’ – no doubt Chinese energy suppliers seeking a slice of the NSW power industry have a word for this too. But Australia applies different standards to people who can be harangued, especially onmatters ANZAC.

There are 1,000 veterans in Vietnam plus their families, possibly as many as 3,000 Australians in Vietnam at this time. The organisers wanted to parade with uniforms and medals, make speeches; display banners and flags, and play the Last Post. Then there was to be a banquet dinner at $100 a ticket, including alcohol at the five-star Pullman Hotel, Vung Tau with a performance by former teen singer, Little Pattie. That element alone has a festive flavour to it and looks like a celebratory knees-up.


The commemoration programme would have appeared to the Vietnamese like a victory parade, which would not have been granted to US military veterans. That prospect was all too confronting for the Vietnamese, many who still survive live with painful memories of the war and its horrors, and who had far more soldiers killed at Long Tan than did the Australians. It is also of some significance that 3,000 people would trample a farmer’s corn crop into the ground.

In an ABC RN interview, Dr. John Blaxland, a Senior Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU, he stated that said that the Australians found 245 Vietnamese bodies, but there were probably many more. Superior weapons and the New Zealand artillery more than made up for the Australians of 6RAR being outnumbered. The Australian narrative should not de-emphasise the role of artillery, which the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops lacked.

The Vietnamese have declared Long Tan as a win for their side, perhaps understandably, since they won the war and unified their country. The war narrative for them has already been established. The Australian commemoration disrupts this probable Vietnamese exaggeration, but perhaps there is no particular right to impose the version Australians prefer. With the help of the unwanted world media attention, the Australian narrative would carry to distant parts and many Vietnamese will be very upset by this.

This incident reflects on Australia's insensitivity to the culture and feelings of Asians and on our lingering white swagger. Blaxland described this politely as Australians ‘not being good at reading the tea leaves’. Remember the insult felt by Indonesians, Malaysians, Filipinos and Thais when John Howard agreed with an interviewer that we are ‘the US' Deputy Sheriff in the Pacific’ – the offence was palpable. Now that Pauline Hanson has been elected, our neighbours are asking themselves whether they will feel safe when they visit Australia. I have heard the question and it saddens me greatly.

It is not through the fault of the Vietnamese that the Australian vets were not treated like heroes on their return to civilian life in Australia. The Vietnamese should not be expected to bear the pain the Australians felt. We should be more respectful and not be expecting to be treated like lords when visiting Asia, as if reliving Britain's colonial dominance.

Veteran, Robert Buick made thoughtful comments when stated that, “the 40th anniversary in 2006 would have been a shock when a group of Vietnam veterans from South Australia "behaved in a disgraceful manner at the cross that could have influenced the limiting of numbers visiting the site”. Some of the other comments from some of the other veterans show how little they understood about the war and the people of Vietnam. We can accept that they had waited fifty years and had saved up all their money to return to the battlefield. They are getting old and some have health issues. They were on a bus én-route to the Long Tan cross when they received the news that they would not be allowed onto the site.


They had begun the process of exchanging gifts with former Viet Cong soldiers who were invited to the dinner. Some complained that the Vietnamese government was "duplicitous"; that we should recall the Australian Ambassador and thought we should lecture the Vietnamese government if they want to continue receiving Australian aid. Fortunately there are calmer heads at DFAT and Julie Bishop won’t do any of this. Some veterans claimed they had fought cleanly as professional soldiers and had nothing against their Vietnamese counterparts. This may well be the case. As Blaxland said, the Vietnamese don't do memorials of battles and the Americans had no memorials in Vietnam - only Australia did this.

On this last point, regular soldiers Australian probably did fight cleanly (if there is such a thing), but beyond what they saw of the war, it was a brutally and ferociously fought dirty war where Geneva Conventions were vanquished into the oblivion of another universe. The war I have been studying includes the Phoenix Program, which caused the murder of up to 30,000 Vietnamese VC ‘suspects’. It has no memorials, no ANZAC legends and emphatically no heroes.

While my partner and I were in Laos in 2007-8, she felt swept up with remorse for what had been done to that country by the CIA and by US bombing. She asked our Lao language teacher how she could apologise. Our teacher was shocked and told my partner she must never do that. No apology would bring back the million people they had lost. Nothing would compensate for fifty years of impoverishment of areas that still contain UXO and cluster munitions.

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About the Author

Willy Bach has a BA in Peace and Conflict Studies, UQ and has submitted his thesis for a Masters at UQ School of History. He was also the Greens candidate for Griffith in 2007.

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