“Conviction is the luxury of those on the sideline!” - Anonymous.
The only lottery I ever won (shared) was that conducted for National Service in the Australian Army in the mid-1960s. As my birthday fell in very early January 1965, I have the dubious distinction of being perhaps one of Australia’s oldest conscripts in the first group to fight in Vietnam. Perhaps this gives me some right to speak on behalf of the other 17 odd thousand younger ones who followed. Perhaps I assume too much. I’ll let them and you be the judges of that. Either way, I speak for myself.
The first intake was in July 1965. At age 20, I and all other conscripts at the time had no say in the matter. I am sufficiently cynical to believe that that age was deliberately chosen (by politicians in consultation with the military) as it offered them several advantages. At age 20 such conscripts could not vote initially, 21 being the legal age at that time. Also, conscripts were at or near their physical peaks, yet still psychologically and socially immature. Therefore, during that ‘pre-revolutionary’ era they were less likely to question established values and authority. Furthermore, and very conveniently, any political ramifications arising from ‘press-ganged’ teenagers (18-19) being KIA were thus avoided.
There were a number of options open to us as young men. We could have either: pursued tertiary studies and then could have extended them (as many did) by undertaking second degrees, honours, masters and doctorates; feigned homosexuality or ill-health; objected on religious grounds; travelled extensively taking refuge overseas, gained employment in an essential service; married; joined the CMF (Reserves); applied for an apprenticeship; gone to prison or simply ‘shot through’. Remember that this was an era before computers, ‘Big Brother’ and plastic ID cards. It was very easy to disappear, remain anonymous, assume another identity, or just lie low either at home or in the Australian Outback. Multiple bank accounts in assumed names could be opened without serious questioning. Some of those available options mentioned above favoured the wealthy or those with access to influence (such as sympathetic family doctors; political; financial or bureaucratic contacts).
A bias was in-built to the system so that the working class poor/uninfluential carried the greater burden. Apart from any oral history support for this contention (from those who should be in a position to know - that is: fellow conscripts) an examination of the social background summaries accompanying the photographs of all soldiers killed in Vietnam (see The Weekend Australian, October 3, 1992) clearly confirms it. The social background of each is on show! And it clearly indicates bias!
For the first intake there had been some pre-warning in that the general outline of the plan had been announced by Menzies in November 1964, some 3 months before the first registrations were due, 5 months before the medicals and some 7 months before actual induction into the army for those selected (1 July, 1965). Late applications for an apprenticeship or enrolment at university were possible as was the capacity to start developing an unfavourable medical history. A hurried marriage was even feasible. These exemptions only applied if one was enrolled/married etc. before call-up. For later intakes however, there was ample time for potential candidates, aware of the impending date as age 20 approached, to take up one or more of those options. How many did and how many others suffered or died in their place we will never know. That course of action is between them and their conscience. It would be interesting to examine statistics on the numbers enrolling for tertiary studies during the entire conscription era (1965-72). Also of interest would be the number of students staying on, extending courses or travelling overseas to further their studies at places like Oxford, as two of my cousins chose/were encouraged to do. In that era, those youths who had one or more parents from a British background were eligible to travel to, live in and work for extended periods of time in Britain. Of course, again, only the ‘well-heeled’ had access to such resources to take advantage of that ‘out’.
Furthermore, it has always struck me as unfair and paradoxical in that had one been an anti-social misfit (having a prison or police record for example) then one automatically side-stepped the ballot since these young men were exempt or rejected. If you were a law-abiding citizen, kept yourself reasonably fit and healthy, then you had a better chance of being ‘rewarded’ with a call-up notice.
Meanwhile, many others who did not slip through the net by those means outlined above, or were unable to obtain a ‘doctored’ medical, ‘miraculously’ managed to be assigned to some other army unit that was not ear-marked for Vietnam. They spent their 2 years in relative safety. A total of 63,000 young men in Australia were called up during that era (1965-1972) out of a possible 800,000 available and only 17,500 of these ended up in Vietnam. Also, even if one was sent overseas regardless, a less dangerous role could be arranged, with the right contacts. I clearly recall several conscripts and regulars being suddenly transferred from out of my battalion, just prior to embarkation.
In his book A Real Mate, ABC journalist Geoffrey Simms describes (pp.112-114) in graphic detail how he manipulated not only his family doctor to support his medical claim of false disability but how he successfully convinced the examining doctor that he had a permanent limp (from a skiing accident), suffered a chronic skin disorder (after scratching himself raw) and had inferior eyesight (by wearing thick-lens glasses and by intentionally misreading the eye chart). Simms writes: “... armed with a certificate from a sympathetic local doctor I stumbled and limped ... peered over the bullet-proof lenses I’d borrowed ... [and] groaned when the gruff man pressed my ankle. I’d been to the loo and given my bum a top-up [of scratching] ... I could barely find it [the eye chart] and when I did I strained and squinted and got all the Os, Cs and Qs expertly mixed up and all the Ms, Ns and Zs arse-about-face.” Simms was rejected.
Simms adds insult to injury in his exaggerated description of his fellow candidates when he describes them as “... unappealing examples of mindless youth”, he by inference no doubt being the only one capable of thinking about the alternatives. What an assumption! Just because they had decided to comply, they were then mindless? What an affront and how typically egotistical of the draft-dodger. Perhaps the poor chap is endeavouring to justify his actions. Perhaps the thought of those who had to therefore take his place keeps him awake at night. Simms goes on to deride the other candidates’ physical appearances: “... these battered wrecks of youth ... with skin ... [either] .... boil-ridden ... scarred or tattooed ... the other nineteen [in the room] wouldn’t have had a complete set of teeth between them.” Well perhaps Simms was ignorant of the accepted facts in this pathetic attempt to be humorous. Not only were candidates rejected for poor dental health but there were only 63,000 odd selected from the available 800,000 20 year old males during the 1965-72 period. Those selected were the cream of Australia’s youth in terms of physical and mental well-being. If Simms’ description had been correct, God help Australia if the rejects were in a poorer state.
There were many instances at the time of unfair and hypocritical practices. The odd politician’s son who did get drafted conveniently avoided the most dangerous units (infantry). One son (a regular soldier) of a well-known politician quickly left the unit he was in as it (1RAR) was about to deploy for Vietnam in 1965. Also, a Young Liberal leader by the name of John Howard at the time (25 years of age) didn’t see the need to support his beloved party’s anti-Communist philosophy by volunteering for service himself. He, as an economics graduate remained in his cushy safe position whilst hypocritically supporting and indeed pushing his party’s policy. This involved the sending of other young men to fight and perhaps die for the sake of their (‘the Conservatives’) misguided agenda. Today, 50 years later, he still holds up his idol Robert Menzies as an Australian icon. Menzies was the man who avoided service himself during World War 1 and was later to be tagged ‘Pig Iron Bob’ for being instrumental in Japan obtaining Australian iron ore (’pig iron’) to manufacture instruments of war. Also, he promulgated the Communist bogey mentality of the 1950’s and 1960’s, culminating in our participation into an unjust war in Vietnam. Furthermore, he formulated and executed the initial plan for selective conscription. Interpretations of history can indeed get distorted by even those with the assumed intellect to know better!
Ironically (and incredibly and unjustly, if not hypocritically), Robert Wilton, the son of General Sir John Wilton (who was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time) publicly burnt his draft card in September 1969, apparently with the empathetic support of his father (see Edwards p. 213). Some 63,000 odd others chose to comply with the system and therefore must live with that decision. For me, at the time, in the absence of the real facts, it was ‘right’ and I must admit that my life would have been a shallow replica today had I chosen any other path. I don’t envy those who did choose that other path!
I have since listened to the arguments of those who chose a different course of action, many benefiting financially from it by furthering their careers. I have listened to the rhetoric and hypocrisy from politicians on both sides. I endured the ranting of ignorant and privileged students during my days at ANU and Sydney University, many garbed in their rebellious 'hippie' styles, or military greens, protesting at anything and everything? Today, many of the males among them, now clean-cut and conservative, wear pin-striped suits as businessmen, accountants, engineers, lawyers, doctors or politicians (the females’ equivalent is black or grey dress suits) … all now as apparent ‘respectable’ members of society. I’ve tolerated the ‘ho-dads’ who now claim they ‘regret’ having missed the opportunity of going to Vietnam, pathetically stating: “They wanted to go, but their number never came up!” or “They were born prior to 1945!” What a cheap bloody shout! If one missed the ballot what’s wrong with volunteering, if they were really that keen? I’ve listened in bewilderment sometimes to some ‘well-heeled’ conservative voters, concluding that the war they once so vehemently supported with votes and dollars, sanctioning the deaths of young men who were not their own sons, was now in hindsight to them a sad mistake. Miserable, sanctimonious, hypocritical, un-empathetic, self-serving wankers! … Each and every one of these ‘clowns’!
Furthermore, I (and many others of course) have endured ‘wanna-be vets’ (civilian psychotics posing as ‘Vietnam veterans’) weirdly obsessed in satisfying some frustrated fantasy. Some high profile so-called ‘personalities’ in the U.S. have already been publicly exposed for pretending to be veterans. These include the actor Brian Dennehy (of Rambo fame), along with 1,500 other known cases investigated so far and exposed in B.G. Burkett’s book Stolen Valor. ‘Wanna-be vets’ have also emerged following other wars of course. For example, Lyndon Johnson and Senator Joe McCarthy both embellished their war service records to gain election to the U.S. Senate. But the ‘wanna-be’ Vietnam vet flourished in the post war stereo-typing period and once the lies were started, each was maintained and even expanded with time. Currently, a program of exposure in Australia is being vigorously pursued. (Check links: www.cpmh.net; www.anzmi.net/cases.html).
The list of high profile public officials who avoided service in Vietnam is prolific. George Bush Jr., Clinton, Rumsfeld, and Trump from the U.S. and Alexander Downer and Senator Hill from Australia are but a few of the prime examples.
Meanwhile, most have remained silent as many so-called ‘volunteer’ Vietnam veterans have ridden the recent (post 1987 ‘Welcome Home Parade’) public sympathy wave. By their silence they have conveniently not acknowledged that their particular role as regular soldiers was part of a fulfilment of their contract with the Australian Government to participate in overseas service, if and when it was required, in return for a career. This is clearly distinct from the role of the conscript, later dumped without retirement or ‘super’ benefits. Others (even high rankers) now ride the anti-Vietnam War wagon, yet managed to see fit to have remained in the Armed Services, obtaining an extended career long after their return. Some of these, and others long out of the Services, suddenly at retirement age in their subsequent civilian occupations, as each superannuation falls due, join the long list of ‘disabled’, seeking war pensions to supplement their often huge ‘super’ pay-outs from post-service employment.
Furthermore, regulars and conscripts were equally well trained (at equivalent levels) and served in an equal capacity (at the lower and more dangerous levels) and suffered and died together in equal proportions. Yet, many conscripts have at times endured the slur of being referred to as ‘just a Nasho’ as if that was some inferior role. In fact, the only inferior status was their unfair, discriminatory selection and their post war treatment. In recent years, I have ‘almost tolerantly’ worked alongside a number of U.S. draft dodgers who sat out the war in high paying NSW Public Service positions and who abruptly resigned and returned to their homeland immediately after 30 April 1975, at the war’s end. No doubt there were equivalent Australians but the case of the Americans was made all the more blatant and irksome because of their accents and conspicuous post-war exodus. Many others of course returned to their homeland after having fled to Europe and Canada (and other places no doubt).
One aspect of the aftermath of war that had plagued my thoughts for many years finally became a reality. I refer to visits I have made to the parents of mates conscripted and killed in action. The loss of a son or daughter (or spouse or sibling) must be devastating under any circumstances. Such a loss in a war fighting an enemy threatening one’s country, although still traumatic, would have at least some (though perhaps minimal) comforting aspects (pride, honour, acceptance). However, being killed in a war in which one is conscripted to fight, where there was no danger to one’s country, provides no comfort at all to family members. Then, to add insult to injury, to be told that it was all a tragic mistake anyway (with involvement having been based on a mix of deceit, lies, ambition, incompetence and unwarranted phobias) must be a nightmare unimaginably difficult through which to live. Perhaps some relatives of 5,000 odd dead allied soldiers in Iraq are now suffering similarly.
Consequently, I am now at times haunted by the images of these old men and women. They still today openly weep on frequent occasions as the memory of their incomprehensible loss continues to dominate their thoughts. They spend countless hours, even 30-40-50 odd years later, mulling over the few old letters and photographs of their young dead sons. I’ve heard their stories of how they avoid strolling past the cemeteries in the small country towns in which they live and in which their sons were interred all those years ago. They stay cooped-up indoors each ANZAC Day rather than suffer the heart-wrenching reminders that such events create for them. When I ponder at their futile sacrifice and their subsequent neglect, I can’t help but feel saddened, embarrassed and ashamed.
One of the more vivid memories of my early days of National Service was the impression that the majority of conscripts around me were poorly to moderately educated, most having left school by 15, coming from working class or non-influential backgrounds. I am referring here of course to lack of extended formal education ... not lack of I.Q. Higher education prior to 1972 was the prerogative of the wealthy and influential and as already outlined above, the sons of this class were conspicuous by their ‘low attendance’ in Vietnam. There were, of course, the few exceptions but they were quickly snapped up by the army to be trained as officers with the short-term commission of Second Lieutenant. Where then were all those other senior high school students? There were 250 in my final 2 years at school (1962) yet I saw none of them in my call-up group. I was 1 out of that 250 ... from a dirt-poor sole parent family.
I don’t recall encountering any sons of doctors, lawyers, politicians or the ‘well-heeled’, serving as lowly army ‘grunts’. Personally, I had originally come from ‘wealthy stock’ who lived on the ‘right’ side of town, but due to my parents’ divorce (a socially ‘shocking’ state of affairs in 1950), I too grew up in a working class area in Sydney’s western suburbs, in near poverty conditions. My father died from World War 2-related illness soon afterwards. My mother scrimped and saved as she struggled through the Menzies’ era, looking after three boys aged 3, 5 (me) and 7 on her own until they were all adults. As children, we remained ignorant of the poverty around us and therefore consciously suffered not under these conditions. However, I can clearly recall marvelling at the opulence of my more fortunate cousins (whose parents were not divorced) on the rare occasions when we were invited to ‘that side of town’. Two of those ‘eligible’ (for call-up) cousins spent the war years in England.
In 1963 I followed my eldest brother Tim into Sydney University (both of us having attained a scholarship) for no other good reason than to do the same as he had done, the differences between us resulting in his choice of Law and my choice of Science. However, our boyhood fantasies of adventure led him into joining the infantry at Holsworthy. Two years later when I was conscripted, the army grabbed this so-called ‘educated’ raw recruit with plans of sending me to the officer training school at Scheyville, west of Sydney.
Yet, at the compulsory interview, I objected. I had other plans. My ‘big brother’ was stationed at Holsworthy and that’s where I was determined to go. Unhesitatingly, I have few regrets in that regard. Officers (with exceptions of course) remained aloof from the troops and from each other (in part by necessity, image, protocol and circumstance no doubt), to the extent that they rarely got to form the really close friendship bonds (certainly not in groups at least) such as those created amongst the lower ranks. These remain part of my few prized possessions today and I am thankful I had the chance to experience them, in spite of the tragedy that created them.
After 13 gruelling weeks of basic training at Puckapunyal (Victoria), we were each assigned for the remainder of our two years to a corps (like Infantry, Engineers, Artillery, Ordinance, Medical, Armoured etc.). Each of these units was separately located in various places around Australia. There were 20 odd platoons, each with 48 recruits, going through the training centres at any one time. Towards the end of this initial training period we had been ordered to submit our choice of three corps in order of personal preference. I chose Infantry Corps first and left the other spaces blank. Five others in my group also made Infantry their choice, for reasons known only to them. Another 30 were allocated to that corps (much to their dismay) whilst the remaining 12 were distributed as: 4 each to Engineers, Armoured and Artillery. I, for one, was delighted! If they were going to send me off to Vietnam, O.K., but at least I’d be going with my ‘big brother’. Ironically, 6 months later his three-year stint was up and he decided not to re-new it at that stage. However, within 12 months he re-joined and served with 2 RAR and 7RAR in Vietnam after I had returned home. Meanwhile, I was on my own.
I suppose all this is a round-about way of trying to explain how I ended up as a rifleman in the Fifth Battalion 5RAR (a.k.a. ‘The Tigers’) on one of the first ‘choppers’ into Nui Dat on ‘Cracker Night’, 24 May 1966, home for 40,000 odd Australians over the next 6 years. There, I came to experience a war alongside some of the best people I have ever known and with whom I will always remain proud to have been associated. From that first night when a mate (Errol Noack, the first conscript to be killed in Vietnam) was shot dead nearby, to the last days of my tour when my platoon commander (2Lt. Kerry Rinkin) was blown apart mere metres to my front, a fraction of my total life-span was indelibly imprinted onto my psyche. It assumed a dominating influence on the rest of my life to such a degree, that I (and others) find it difficult to rationalise. My story here is in part, an attempt to do just that.
* * *
The Vietnam War is well documented in many fine (and many not so fine) publications dealing with military history. Therefore, it is not my intention to go over areas covered by others in a purist fashion. I leave that to those who have done the hard grind of meticulous research. I was not privy to the decision-making processes of the politicians and military hierarchy and therefore my story is largely and unapologetically based on my own experiences and observations during that war and introspections since it ended. My thoughts of course have unavoidably been influenced and re-shaped from a wide variety of selected readings, films, discussions, debates, studies, interviews and revelations that have since come to light. My 5 return visits to Vietnam (1995, 1997, 2008, 2010 and 2016), accompanied on two occasions by ex-members of my old platoon, have also been influential.
A full generation has now well passed since my return from that war and it seemed to me that there existed a paucity of written work which captured the true emotions and experiences from the viewpoint of the ordinary soldier. Many films have tried, but in my opinion, to date most have failed miserably. The official views were often written by academics, journalists, and non-combatants or by officers (ex-officers). The latter, by nature of the very role they played, were often too far removed from the men below them in rank, so their perspective was not, and never could be, that of the 72% rankless majority. My story attempts to partially fill this void. One such acclaimed text, edited by a university academic, has lost its credibility in that he, the editor, has now been exposed as a ‘wannabe’. Another anthology of veterans’ experiences was written/edited by a journalist who compiled sensationalised anecdotes (mostly drivel) from anonymous sources.
* * *
Apart from the rights or wrongs concerning Australia’s involvement, irrespective of one’s leanings, let the record be quite clear at this point: the non-Vietnamese allied troops did not lose the military war in Vietnam! What they lost was the chance to win that aspect of it! The military war was lost after the allies had withdrawn. It was the politicians and senior influential bureaucrats, who had instigated our involvement initially, then in concert with the military hierarchy (rear-echelon ... Saigon and Canberra ‘wallahs’), controlled and constrained the execution of it. In so doing that, they botched the outcome! Nevertheless it must be readily conceded that the allies did lose the political war, convincingly. This left the ARVN troops isolated and alone to succumb to the military defeat.
Australia, N.Z., the U.S., South Korea and others, pulled their troops out of Vietnam because their leaders and people back home were tired and uncommitted. Factors such as: lack of support, misconceptions regarding the Asian psyche, the West’s obsession with a monolithic concept of world communism, along with fear of widening Russian and Chinese involvement, all combined to drag out the war. This prevented an outright allied military victory or at least a Korean War style draw.
Initially, support had shown up in the ballot boxes but these voters proved to be the ‘silent majority’. The ‘noisy minority’ (growing in numbers), as usual, grabbed the politicians’ attention. This was materialised for the troops in the form of adverse and sensational media coverage, union hostility (refusal to load supplies or deliver mail for our troops), apathy from some organisations (the ‘old guard’ RSL), and showy demonstrations from radical student groups, elements within Monash University in particular. The latter, in actively procuring aid for the enemy displayed treasonous behaviour which wouldn’t have been tolerated during any other war. For that they are forever shamed!
The actions of these radical students (and their mindless urgers) and the lack of suitable firm responses from our government and the Australian people generally, did not go unnoticed by the troops. Many of these troops were daily risking their lives under atrocious conditions for the very people they then saw as having betrayed them. On the one hand, they perceived the politicians as having sent them there to do their dirty work, yet wouldn’t back them. On the other hand, they saw the students/protesters as representing members of an elitist group that were actively working for the enemy, some of whom had shirked their own responsibilities by getting others to take their place in the Draft. Morale was not improved by such news reaching Nui Dat. Furthermore, one can imagine the messages this was sending to Hanoi, its representatives in Paris and it’s troops in the South: ... “Hang in there comrades! Keep stalling on the battlefields and around the peace conferences! Discontent in their homeland will eventually force these imperialists to withdraw!”
Meanwhile, since Australia had first sent troops to Vietnam in 1962, its citizens had had ample opportunity to change to a government with alternative foreign policies. They chose not to do that in the 1964, 1966 and 1969 federal elections and maintained their support for the Conservatives at the state level under the iron fists of Premiers Bob (‘run the bastards over’) Askin (NSW), Charles Court (WA), Henry Bolte (Vic) and Joe Bjelke-Petersen (Qld).
Like today, foreign policy dominated politics during that era, and the Australian public sanctioned the ‘hawks’ to hold onto power and continue the war, our commitment doubling from 4,500 to 8,300 in 1967. By January 1973 the Allies (U.S., Australia, N.Z., South Korea, The Philippines and Thailand) had left the war in the hands of the often incompetent and corrupt hierarchy of the ARVN forces, with promises from the U.S. Administration, to maintain adequate supplies for them. Also, South Vietnam was guaranteed direct military support if North Vietnam violated the cease-fire Paris Agreements of 1973. When that violation took place soon afterwards, those promises were not honoured. The Allies had turned their back on President Thieu and the people of South Vietnam, leaving them with their sinking ship. Divisions of North Vietnam’s forces swept over the border and in concert with other NVA and VC units already in the south moving beyond their cease-fire lines, rapidly overwhelmed the ARVN troops. The latter at times surrendered without much resistance and at other times fought valiantly, though tragically, losing tens of thousands. The war was militarily lost between 1973-1975, not by U.S., Australian and other allied (non-Vietnamese) troops as has so often incorrectly been implied, if not directly stated. Politically, however, it was lost from Day 1.
* * *
Whether ‘body-count’ or territorial gain is the yardstick for success in any war, then by no stretch of the imagination could it be claimed that the Viet Cong or NVA were ahead on any of those points at the time of the Australian withdrawal in 1971-2. In fact, in Phuoc Tuy Province where the Australians mainly operated, military control had shifted clearly from VC domination in 1966 to government control in 1971. The local VC forces by then were in a poor state, remnant units suffering severely from sickness and disease, desertion and low morale. Main force troops had left the province. Militarily, the Australian troops were very successful. Yet, they may have subdued the ‘body’, but not the ‘mind’. Politically, by carrying out the policies of High Command (dictated to by Canberra and Washington) to ‘win the hearts and minds’ of the peasants, we like the Americans, failed dismally.
Political failure came about through a complex variety of factors to which we consistently paid little heed. Australia’s presence as foreign troops was always resented, disrupting the peasants’ way of life by frequent village searches, road-blocks, curfews and impositions of restricted zones. Australians sometimes violated (either unintentionally or by unavoidably bombing/shelling/patrolling) ancestral grave sites, so sacred to Vietnamese custom and religion. Many Australians, then in authority, failed to appreciate, or ignored the fact that many peasants, if not actively supporting the VC directly, had relatives and friends doing just that. Everyone knew the Australians would one day leave Vietnam.
The allies failed to appreciate fully the ramifications of their re-settlement strategies. With a policy of destroying selected crops and villages and moving the inhabitants off their ancestral land, they (Australians, U.S. and ARVN) took away the peasants’ most precious possession, their bond with the land upon which they were born, where they lived and toiled and within which their ancestors were buried. They were denied their ‘sense of place’ as John Murphy so clearly outlines in his Harvest of Fear (1993). That was definitely no way to ‘win their hearts and minds’!
Furthermore, Australians were perceived as pawns of the U.S. and of a cruel discriminatory and inept Saigon government. The latter was a military regime in all but name under Diem and openly so after the 1963 coup d’ état. It was unstable and riddled with nepotism and blatantly corrupt practices. The various South Vietnamese governments between 1963-1975 failed to introduce land reform to counter the exploitation of the peasants that had become endemic during colonial days under the French and that had continued during Diem’s rule. Religious repression of the majority (Buddhists) by a pro-Catholic despot up until the end of 1963, at a time when alliances were being formed, resulted in permanent distrust of and antagonism towards the central government.
All these factors caused resentment and played into the hands of the VC cadre who exploited it to their advantage. In the final analysis, any short-term benefits the peasants may have received arising from our attempts at civil aid were negated by our strategies if not our mere presence as foreign troops. With the ‘aid’ of many incompetents in ARVN Command and many corrupt Vietnamese government officials, the VC were able to stay ahead psychologically. They had time on their side, a luxury the allies, who had placed great emphasis on the ‘body-count’, could not afford. Aware of this, the VC/NVA exaggerated allied losses and played down their own through propaganda and by taking every precaution to hide the bodies of their dead comrades. Furthermore, the VC/NVA from their viewpoint placed little significance on the ‘body-count’ factor, other than to attempt to negate it (by hiding bodies). The basis of their ideology was that the individual was expendable for the sake of the ‘common good’, hence their seemingly suicidal wave-like attacks during some battles.
With air domination against them, the VC/NVA countered by maximising use of the dense jungles as hides and by going underground in their vast systems of tunnels and caves, many of which had initially been constructed during their fight against the French (1946-54). They travelled under the cover of darkness and effectively used it for many of their attacks. This created a phantom effect and, together with widespread use of booby-traps and mines, turned the fight into a battle of wits. A side which couldn’t counter the psychological stress and frustration generated by such tactics, which couldn’t sustain a mounting death toll indefinitely and which had an impatient and non-supportive home-front would be at an extreme disadvantage, irrespective of the weaponry available to it. The Allies basically relied upon a combination of firepower and superior numbers to win militarily and ‘gifts’ to the peasants (providing civil aid such as medical assistance and undertaking construction projects) to win psychologically. Strategically, they blundered badly in not having their troops occupy territory that had been gained in battle. Upon withdrawal, the VC (even if defeated temporarily) moved back in. Realistically of course the areas in question were largely inhospitable jungle wastelands and so would have tied up vast numbers of allied soldiers as occupation troops.
Phuoc Tuy was only a microcosm of the war. It was only one of 44 provinces in South Vietnam and Australia’s performance in the ‘big picture’ was completely dependent on the performance of her main allies (ARVN and U.S. troops). The ARVN forces had peculiar handicaps such as endemic corruption, poor training, ineptitude and lack of commitment due to cultural and family ties with the enemy. Also, they had no long term tradition as a fighting force. South Vietnam being such a young country (1954) had no entrenched national pride.
Meanwhile, the U.S. was obsessed with large scale battle tactics, inappropriate for guerrilla warfare. They (like us) were generally ignorant of and non-empathetic towards Vietnamese culture and history. America had no territory or resources to gain when she entered the quagmire of Vietnam but did so on a wave of misguided and naïve idealism: to contain what she saw as the scourge of Communism. The policies adopted in the 1960’s were partly inherited from post-World War 2 administrations (Truman/Eisenhower-Dulles) but further developed by ambitious, arrogant, deceitful, misguided and at times ignorant civilian and military advisers in Washington and Saigon. Clear-cut goals were never set out and the allied population was never sufficiently supportive. Australian politicians - advisers (Menzies - Spender/ Holt - Hasluck) tied themselves to the coat-tails of the Americans and in hindsight, hoping for victory in Vietnam was really like ‘pissing into the wind’.
* * *
During my ten years as a high school teacher, it became quite obvious to me that our teenagers were eager to study the Vietnam War. Yet, at the time there was little available Australian literature for a concise understanding of what the war was actually like. It occurred to me that an ordinary combat soldier’s ‘tour of duty’ put to poetry might better capture some of the emotions of the war, depict a feel for the land and its people and paint some of the images of hardship facing the troops. I felt that this could be better achieved (hopefully) in the concentrated fashion that is unique to poetry. In 1998 I embarked on this 20 year journey. I trust that fellow veterans will be able to relate to some of the mental images I have here attempted to paint and that perhaps some students and others may gain a better insight into a subject that none of us even today fully understands.
* * *
The poetry in this book is a compressed expression of my personal emotions and viewpoints on some aspects on the Vietnam War and its aftermath. The war was experienced differently by those with different rank, by those from different units, by those serving in different areas and at different times and even differently by those individuals of the same rank, serving in the same unit at the same time. Reason and tolerance clearly acknowledges that we are all indeed different as individuals, coming from different social, economic, educational, religious and cultural backgrounds. We are not all clones possessing identical views of the world around us. I therefore can make no apology to those who may have different interpretations of the Vietnam War to those I harbour and have here attempted to express.