Mines are terrible weapons. They can still blow the leg off an innocent trespasser years after a conflict has ended. Dan Tehan, the Minister for Veterans Affairs demonstrated that, figuratively speaking, last month when he snarled at the Vietnamese that their cancelling the 50th anniversary service for the battle of Long Tan was “no way to treat mates”.
The Vietnamese were ruthless, competent and game enemies but we’re now all mates?Mind you, the Vietnamese were initially respectful of the Australian commitment to the dead and even recovered the Long Tan Cross for us from would-be souvenir hunters from Hanoi. Perhaps the Vietnamese thought these annual services would die off as people involved became too old to travel. But that didn’t happen and the appearance of “3000 veterans” must have unravelled whatever agreement had been struck with the local community.
I once suggested to a senior minister in the Howard government, himself a Vietnam veteran, that the only way this annual commemoration could continue was for it to become a joint commemoration of both the Vietnamese and Australian soldiers who died in the battle. The Vietnamese would be in it immediately, he surmised, but the Australian veterans would hit the roof; Aussies only need apply and white ones at that. The wisdom of leaving the issue unresolved – that silent mine – is now in question.
Vietnamese who were more perceptive or who knew us well probably sensed this would not end well. A low point came in 2009 when the Sunrise program proposed a midnight march from Nui Dat (which was the Australian taskforce base in the province) to Long Tan led by the formidable Bronwyn Bishop. Happily, we never had the opportunity to see this train wreck: the sun in Vietnam stubbornly refused to rise early enough to make a live link.
Veterans’ opinion is certainly not united either on the spectacle of “3000” Australians trudging around what was Phuoc Tuy province last month “looking for closure”. Who were these people? I mean, do the maths. There were about 120 people in a rifle company at the time and if you include A company, which came to their assistance in armoured personnel carriers, the APC crews, the helicopter crews who dropped crates of ammunition out of the doors in driving rain, the gunners, the medical staff and so on, you still come up with around 400 soldiers. Throw in spouses as well and you’re still a long way short of the 3000 souls reportedly looking for closure last month.
Could we have yet another venue for military tourism with extras on the way here? Another Gallipoli where the annual service can dissolve into a “simple but moving rock concert” where some attendees end up getting pissed? Ominously, does anyone much care what the Vietnamese think?Just ask yourselves, would German troops occupying France in World War II be welcomed back to stage a “simple but moving” reunion on French soil? Would we be rolling out the red carpet for former Japanese naval pilots returning for a knees-up reunion in Darwin to mark their successful bombing raids there?
There are yet further questions. Have you heard the one about our very own mines that the Vietnamese used against us so effectively and what about the Australian sacrifice at the hard fought battles of Binh Ba, Coral, Balmoral, not to mention Nui Le – potentially the most ruinous battle for us of all? There were many other occasions of Australian death and suffering. Long Tan tested us severely but it was not the only time, not by a long way.
I’m fairly sure it was not cold-hearted mandarins in Hanoi that stopped the full ceremony from taking place at Long Tan but the People’s Committee of Baria-Vung Tau province (Phuoc Tuy was renamed by the North Vietnamese after 1975).
The officials in Hanoi live in a world of endless blandishments and pressure from foreign governments while the people of Baria-Vung Tau were just getting sick of the mournful crowd of Australians looking for closure, whatever that is, each year. We are the people, after all, who killed their brothers, fathers, cousins and sons. Why should they be expected to welcome us back?Let’s just leave the Vietnamese to enjoy their peace. And the gains of that peace are not slight. The Baria market, which used to be the model of a Third World fleapit, is now flanked by a supermarket that would do IGA proud. The Vietnamese of the old Phuoc Tuy province have become the richer and more comfortable Vietnamese of the newer Baria-Vung Tau province. Why can’t we just share that with them as ordinary tourists?
But for those who do want to remember the Diggers who died at Long Tan, the best option is to attend a memorial service at home, at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. That’s what it’s there for.
So, to the hangers-on looking for this thing called closure, understand that many real veterans don’t support you at all. Not one bit. And if you are still looking for closure, there’s the door. And mind your fingers.
Greg Dodds, a graduate from Duntroon, was an Australian Taskforce intelligence officer at Nui Dat in 1971. This article was first published in the AFR on 23 September 2016.