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Sunday, August 6th, 2006

Time Event
The Battle of Long Tan - 40 years on

Checking through my old pre-blog writings I found a 28 June 1996 note that I had seen a letter in The Australian newspaper from a federal member of Parliament Mr Wilson “iron bar” Tuckey saying he would lobby the Vietnamese Ambassador regarding a war memorial to Australian soldiers killed in the so called “Battle of Long Tan” thirty years previously.

As a former soldier who was serving with a Signals unit in the Australian Army at Vung Tau in 1966 when the Long Tan event occurred, I recorded I could understand why the Australian soldiers who survived wished to pay homage to their mates, and I sympathised with their emotions.

However, I also mentioned to myself that I understood that the Vietnamese peoples suffered much greater losses, both in that particular event and in many other incidents, and that the traumatic legacy of the war was still very much being felt. I thought Mr Tuckey had overlooked this in his zeal to bolster the mythology of glorious military heroism.

I felt annoyed he had not paused to consider more carefully the grief and trauma of Vietnamese families who lost so many loved ones during engagements with Australians. I still do not believe these should be easily brushed aside.

Ten years on, the fortieth anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan is approaching. The actual day will be on 18 August. This weekend there have been several articles in The Australian, including in the colour magazine supplement. They all focus on the perceived lack of sufficient Australian recognition of the heroism of Australian survivors, and the way in which the event was represented in Vietnamese history as a victory.

I found the magazine article "The ghosts of Long Tan" by journalist Cameron Stewart somewhat pathetic because it seems these two matters have been gnawing away at a couple of veterans who are the subject of the article. The two men had made a pilgrimage to the site of the battle and even managed to have a meeting with two former Viet Cong commanders.

As the article represents the meeting, the two Australian ex-servicemen appear to have determined to ungraciously extract an admission from their Vietnamese hosts that they lost the battle. The concluding paragraphs contains a quote from one of the Australians afterwards, "The enemy have finally admitted that we did actually kick their arse." (p.23)

For me, this scornful attitude after 40 years is surprising. I clearly remember the day of that battle from the not so distant Signals unit I was in. It was pretty clear to us on the day that the Australians had been very lucky not to have all been wiped out. I particularly remember hearing that artillery shells had been called to be lobbed in very close proximity to them as some sort of desperate measure. Suspecting there was going to be a bad outcome, I even took a photo from our hilltop in the general direction of where the engagement was still going on as a sort of futile memorial gesture of my own.

But the reality was that while the incident was of great significance to the men directly involved, for the rest of us on the next day life pretty well went on as normal. Perhaps the importance was clouded by the fact that the Americans and South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) were having much heavier engagements elsewhere in the country?

A few days later, I heard unconfirmed anecdotes that in the aftermath of the battle there were atrocities involving wounded Vietnamese and armoured personnel carriers. The stories tended to dampen allusions to heroism. I don't believe I actually heard the words, "Battle of Long Tan" when I was in Vietnam.

Apparently the Australian survivors of the battle have been for some time endeavouring to have their hero status officially elevated from what was decided forty years ago. At least that is the theme of the current crop of newspaper articles. At the moment the government seems disinclined to satisfy their egos.

The problem I see with acceding to their wishes at this late stage is that would obscure the contributions of all other Australian service personnel in that war. There were other courageous acts which didn't get any official recognition.

© MMVI Paul R. Weaver.

About the writer

Check out each month's subject index on the Calendar Page for my "common-man" monologues about survival in 21st century Australia – plus a little history occasionally. An original essay is added most days as part of an undertaking to write a million words.

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