NOEL TURNBULL. They did what they were trained to

They did what they were trained to do, a friend and fellow Vietnam veteran said about the new film, Danger Close, when we caught up this week. This was not to denigrate in any way the sacrifice and bravery of 108 infantrymen with supporting artillery, helicopters and ultimately Armoured Personnel Carriers. Rather he meant to emphasise that the Australian Army trained, trained and trained its members to confront exactly that sort of situation and worked to inculcate a culture and camaraderie which produced professionalism, resilience and bravery.

He was commenting on the new film, Danger Close, about the 1996 battle of Long Tan involving Australian troops confronted by Viet Cong and D445 Battalion NVA regulars.

As Tom Sear of the Australian Defence Force Academy UNSW wrote in The Conversation (15 August 2019): “Long Tan deserves a place in the pantheon of Anzac history. It is a tale of extraordinary bravery, fortitude and coolness under pressure and a phalanx of strong personalities.”

On the other hand, he argues, “Danger Close might also be an apt way to describe what is not only one of the most controversial Australian military battles of the 20th century, but also the perils of producing films about events that are still in living memory.”

Now we all know that, according to some Hollywood versions, the Green Berets actually almost won the Vietnam War with a bit of support from other US military outfits; that like the Germans in WW1 they were actually stabbed in the back but this time by US hippies and commies; the supposed outcome is just another bit of fake news; and that it would have been over a lot quicker if a young Donald Trump had been able to throw off life-threatening injuries and get there.

But in the real world in Australia, as Sear argues, the struggle between a nation divided over an unpopular war and the seeming “reluctance of our official culture to recognise their professionalism and bravery” has meant that Company Commander Major Harry Smith and Platoon Sergeant Bob Buick have fought for more than 50 years for more official recognition of the bravery of those involved including the posthumous award of a Victoria Cross to the 6RAR CSM and the upgrading of some awards already given. While they have been successful with some of their pleas others have been turned down after official reviews.

That Vietnam era conflict over the war, combined with the current militarisation of Australian history and the promotion of Anzackery, have added more complications to how we see all military events – including Long Tan.

We know for certain that the 108 Australians involved lost 17 killed in battle and 25 wounded – one of whom subsequently died. That the battle went on under torrential rain. But we don’t know for certain how many Vietnamese troops there were; and, what was the nature of the Vietnamese tactics – was it a heavy duty contact, an intended attack on the Nui Dat base, or an effort to inflict a strategic propaganda defeat on the Australians? We do know the film’s depiction of Vietnamese mass attacks were not about Asian suicide missions but rather a considered tactic to get so close to the opposition troops as to make artillery support difficult. We also know that it didn’t work as the Artillery Forward Observer effectively called in rounds on their own position.

Neither of us expressed any desire to see the film believing such films can never be truthful however much they move their audiences. Nevertheless, the Army must think they are useful because the cadets in officer training at Scheyville, were shown the film Zulu, presumably to encourage us to develop the stiff upper lip British courage of Stanley Baker and Michael Caine, but the real idea might have been to teach you that however terrified you were you just had to try to act the part of calm, brave and decisive chaps. On the other hand the film provided confirmation of the author’s father’s (who ended up being RSM of a CMF Regiment after returning from New Guinea as a Sapper) advice to trust and rely on your NCOs.

The friend who talked about being trained to do things was a regular soldier Platoon Commander in Vietnam and the author had the good fortune to be an Artillery Officer in a command post in that relative post-Tet offensive quiet before the ultimate push which brought about Vietnamese victory. But war films are not our thing and neither of us has seen the only other notable Australian Vietnam War film – the Odd Angry Shot.

Both of us share concerns about Anzackery. Partly because it glorifies war and distorts the significance of our military history in Australia’s total history. And partly because of the absolute hypocrisy of Australian Governments who can spend hundreds of millions on ‘commemoration’ while practising penny-pinching meanness in implementing veterans’ benefits. For instance the June 2019 edition of the Royal Australian Regiment Association (the regiment of which D company was part) reports that the Australian Tax Office secretly changed the law to gouge tax from medically discharged veterans.

These veterans, including those with mental health wounds and at risk of self-harm, can receive an Invalidity Benefit from their superannuation scheme but the ATO taxes these variable payments as ordinary income rather than at the lower rates that can be applied to superannuation fund disability benefits. The situation is analogous to the horror perpetrated on the unemployed who get occasional work and then are chased for robo-debts assumed to be incurred by that occasional work being treated the same as full time annual work.

In 2018 veterans had the AAT consider the matter but the ATO sought an adjournment to ‘consult’ about the situation. Needless to say this consultation was not done with veterans but to arrange backdated legal changes to fix the ATO’s shoddy arrangements. This could not be overruled before the recent election. As the RAR newsletter said: “Politicians should not let faceless bureaucrats change the law to beat wounded veterans in court, and no Australian should be at risk of having the law changed and backdated in the middle of their court case.”

So next time you see or hear a politician who has never seen combat enthusing about Danger Close and the men at Long Tan, or engaging in yearlong Anzackery, just remember the depths to which they will sink to rob veterans of a few dollars.

Noel Turnbull is retired and blogs at: http://noelturnbull.com/blog/

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