By Major-General Alan Stretton AO CBE (ret.)
The Honour Roll in the opening pages of Paul La Forest’s book 'Flashbacks Through a Tiger’s Eyes', showing the faces of the 500 odd young Australians killed during the Vietnam War, cannot but leave readers in a state of sadness, pondering the useless, futile waste of life in all wars. Paul’s book provides a unique opportunity to experience Australia’s participation in the Vietnam War through the eyes of a soldier ‘on the ground’. These pages of poetry are an excellent way of informing readers of the details of service life in Vietnam and of the feelings of anguish of those who took part. No section of this book could at all be regarded as monotonous, since the poetry maintains the reader’s attention with emotional involvement in a soldier’s experiences.
Paul La Forest was an infantry soldier in 5RAR (the ‘Tiger Battalion’). He was in the first wave of soldiers to patrol and clear the surrounds and help set up the defences at Nui Dat, the operational base for the Australian Task Force, 1966-1971. Paul was an active participant in many combat operations throughout that year. In 'Flashbacks Through a Tiger’s Eyes', Paul presents a critical view of many aspects of army life. This indeed is not an unusual situation historically for some soldiers after any war.
I was rather surprised when Paul invited me to provide a Foreword for this book, given that we two had such different roles in the Vietnam War, in time, location and rank. As such, I found 'Flashbacks Through a Tiger’s Eyes' of considerable interest, albeit that I, as a senior commander, naturally view some aspects rather differently. In this book Paul criticises, amongst many other things: some senior ‘brass’; obsolescence of some weapons; some tactics used; the unfairness of the administration of the National Service Act and the attitude of some who regarded National Service conscripts as being ‘inferior’ to their Regular Army counterparts, referring to them as mere ‘Nashos’. It is useful to have a record of these views, although of course they naturally only cover a microcosm of the worldwide strategic and political ramifications of our involvement in Vietnam .
As in all wars, there were mistakes by senior commanders during the Vietnam War and so much of Paul’s criticism is justified. For example: the laying of some 23,000 or more mines across Phuoc Tuy Province without protection to prevent their removal by the enemy was a tragic blunder. Thousands of these mines were lifted by the Viet Cong and used against the Australian Forces causing more casualties to Australians in life and limb than any other single cause. Paul is also right to criticise the mass evacuation of villages, which alienated any local support the Australians may have had or wished to achieve.
The author’s comments on the Owen machine gun not having a killing power at long range are also correct. As pointed out by Paul, the Owen Gun was not designed for long range, being excellent for close quarter fighting, as was the case in World War 2. From what Paul says, that wasn’t often the case in Vietnam. Some of the criticism of Australian tactics nevertheless I feel still gives sufficient credit to such practices. For example, silent movement through the jungle for prolonged periods. These tactics were far superior to the noisy search and destroy tactics used by the Americans and others.
I have to admit that I am one of the ‘top brass’ so severely criticised by Paul, particularly as I was the Australian Chief of Staff based in Saigon (1969-70) when over 8,000 servicemen were serving in Vietnam at any one time. In my defence, however, I can claim to have some knowledge of combat at the fighting level, as I had joined the Army as a private soldier on my 18th birthday in 1940. Later, as a platoon commander I spent the last 18 months of World War 2 in the 2/9th Infantry Battalion. This culminated in amphibious landings at Balikpapan in Borneo against the Japanese, where over 300 Australian lives were lost. After commanding 2RAR in Malaya in 1961/63, I was posted to Canberra as Director of Army Organisation.
At that time the Australian Army was running down in numbers and finding difficulty in meeting commitments, particularly for the approaching conflict coming out of Vietnam. I was given the task of developing a National Service Scheme which would enable the call-up of a limited number of civilians and which would generally be acceptable to the Australian public. As a key member of the planning staff, I feel that I cannot let Paul’s criticism of the Selective Service Act and its administration go undefended. Many (including the RSL) wanted everyone of certain ages who met the medical and other Service standards to be called up. The setting up of the required massive training organisation for so many was well beyond the resources and needs of the Regular Army at the time. Hence the introduction of the ballot and the selection of birth dates to keep the numbers down. No doubt there were cases (as pointed out) where medical officers were deceived about fitness of the potential conscript. I am sure Paul is also right in his view that some pulled strings for service to be deferred or to be posted to non-combatant units unlikely to be required to serve in Vietnam. Yet, in my view, I think that the system overall worked well.
Paul claims that conscripts as a group during and after the Vietnam War were referred to by some in derogatory terms as being ‘Just a Nasho’. The term ‘Nasho’ is in common use and not just confined to those who took part in the Vietnam War. In my view, their performance could not be distinguished from that of the Regulars, who in the main held them in the highest regard. Although Paul and I come from opposite ends of the Army spectrum, we have much in common … mainly the belief in the futility of war. War is a senseless waste of lives, which achieves nothing!
I enjoyed reading 'Flashbacks Through a Tiger’s Eyes' and recommend it to readers interested in the perspective of an active participant during that tragic war in Vietnam.