- Book reviewer
- Book reviews, History - post WWII
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2012 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Vietnam: The Complete Story of the Australian War. By Bruce Davies with Gary McKay. Published by Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2012. Hardback, 690 pages with photographs. rrp $55.
‘You never defeated us on the battlefield’.
Colonel Summers (US)
‘That may be so but it is also irrelevant’.
Colonel Tu (Vietnam)
This exchange took place in Hanoi in 1975. Perhaps this poignant interchange may summarise the enigma of the Vietnam War. This was a war in which Australia was deeply involved as an ally of the US from 1962 to the withdrawal of the Australian combat forces in December 1971 and the recall of the AATV in December 1972. During this time more than 50,000 Australian personnel served in Vietnam, 2,398 were wounded and 521 Australians were killed.
Finally on 30 April 1975, the North Vietnam Army and the National Liberation Front captured Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. This event marked the end of the Vietnam War and a communist state emerged, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. However, the North and the South were incongruent societies and this new state was hardly a ‘reunified’ country. But the major domino had finally fallen. We can but wonder about the value of the contribution and sacrifices made in the war by the US, Australia and their allies to try to prevent the march of communism in Vietnam and South East Asia.
In this year, which marks the fiftieth anniversary of Australia’s first contribution to the Vietnam conflict, it is fitting that this book has been published. Both of the authors are extraordinarily well qualified to produce this iconic work. Bruce Davies saw operational service in South Vietnam between 1965 and 1970, serving with 1RAR and as an advisor with ARVN. He was mentioned in dispatches, received a commendation for distinguished service and was appointed MBE. He is now a PhD candidate at Monash University. Gary McKay was a National Serviceman who served in South Vietnam as a rifle platoon commander with 4RAR in 1971. In the last major engagement by Australians he was seriously wounded and was awarded the Military Cross for Gallantry. He subsequently served as a career Army officer for 30 years. Their book stands as a landmark study of this Australian War.
The book is meticulously researched and documented and provides deep knowledge of the places and locations of the War. Added advantages in this book are the many contributions taken from the documents and publications of the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong. This enemy evidence is not always in accord with Australian information about battalions or groups with whom we thought we were fighting. Further, our enemy body and casualty counts often do not correspond with those from the enemy archives. These insights from the enemy make this book unique and thus places it apart from many other texts on the Vietnam conflict.
In a perceptive foreword, Major General Jim Molan, AO, DSC, not surprisingly compares the Vietnam conflict to that in which we are currently engaged in Afghanistan. A real benefit of this book is that it is an object lesson in history as to how to win and lose wars, especially from the point of view of a small ally and a big war.
Probably the majority, if not all, of the jungle battles and engagements in which the soldiers of the Australian Task Force, based at Nui Dat in Phuoc Tuy province, participated are discussed in the book. These analyses are revealing and provide numerous tactical lessons. The descriptions are also unique in that for many of those battles, an analysis is also provided of the enemy’s force structure, tactics and summations.
The battle of Long Tan is well known to most Australians and features in the tradition of the Australian Army. The authors’ interpretation of this conflict makes for most interesting reading. The enemy had a plan for Long Tan – it was no incidental engagement. The Viet Cong’s 5th Infantry Division manoeuvred the Australian Task Force into fighting on a battlefield of the VC Commander’s choosing. There was conflict in Australian Headquarters about signal intelligence. We do know that on 17-18 August 1966 ‘all hell broke loose’ in the Long Tan rubber plantation involving 10, 11 and 12 Platoons of Delta Company 6RAR. It was all ‘old fashioned Australian courage’, according to General Westmorland, COMUSMACV but in Australia there was a quota system on awards for gallantry and bravery imposed by politicians!
The authors describe the catastrophes of the Dat Do minefield, the forgotten battles of the Fire Support bases Coral and Balmoral and the clashes of Operation Ivanhoe in the Nui Sao-Nui Le battle area. Apparent disharmony between the military and the politicians becomes evident. Political survival was dependent on low casualty figures and it seems that many decisions of a military nature were taken on the basis of political expediency. The RAN is mentioned a number of times in the book, especially in relation to HMA Ships Hobart, Perth, Brisbane and Vendetta. The contribution of the RAN Helicopter Flight and Clearance Diving Team 3, one of the most highly decorated units to serve in Vietnam, is covered. HMAS Sydney is also discussed in a number of areas in the book.
There is much of interest in the last four chapters, which are on ‘Vietnamisation’, ‘The Inevitable Withdrawal’, ‘An Inglorious End’ and the Epilogue. Such matters as the My Lai massacre and the Paris Peace Talks are covered. During the latter, we read about the strategies of Nixon and Kissinger and the obstructive manipulations of Le Duc Tho whilst the bombings of Laos and Cambodia occurred to block the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Attention is also paid to the use and ramifications of chemical agents such as Agent Orange. In addition the tragic consequences of the invasion of the South are explored, the execution of many people there and the attempts of thousands to escape, which led to the Vietnamese diaspora. The cost of the war in dollars and cents would be in unimaginable numbers if the real expenditure could ever be assembled.
In the end a new terminology emerges for South East Asia, known as ‘The Billiard Table’ phenomenon rather than the earlier ‘Domino’ theory. The Billiard Table is the geographic space out of which China will knock all the balls to gain complete control of the area’s resources. This formidable book by Davies and McKay certainly examines numerous aspects of the Vietnam War under a high magnification microscope. It is a valuable reference work on this conflict, which stands apart from a number of other manuscripts on the subject. It should take its rightful place in libraries of Australian military history amid conflicts such as those of Gallipoli, Tobruk and Kokoda.
Reviewed by Kevin Rickard