50 years ago this month, 108 Australian soldiers walked into an ambush in a rubber plantation in the Vietnamese province of Phuoc Toy.
The Vietnam war has become infamous as an event that polarised the United States and yet many people forget that the United States Armed Forces were not the only western army in those hot and humid jungles.
Nor was America the only country that had national opinion divided over the war itself. The 1st Australian task force was in Phuoc Toy to construct a base at a place called Nui Dat.
This was a strategically important spot as it was very close to a major Viet Cong base and also blocked a very important resupply route that the communist forces were using.
On the 18th of August, 1966, 2,500 Viet Cong attacked the small Australian installation and even though the communist forces had twenty times the number of soldiers, and were fighting on home ground, the Aussies came out on top.
This battle differs from a lot of the skirmishes that took place throughout the Vietnam war in that it was a case of a western army beating the Vietnamese guerilla forces at their own game.
As many have said since the war, it was this guerilla warfare that the Americans were not prepared for, nor were they properly trained to handle. Many say this is the reason that the war that never happened was lost by the forces that were never there.
Geographically, the layout of Phuoc Toy lends itself to guerilla warfare. Surrounded by rice paddies and small villages, it should have been an easy win for the Viet Cong 275th regiment.
As things happened, this is not quite how it played out. Considering that the “cong” were so much stronger in number and so much more familiar with the lay of the land the outcome of the battle of Long Tan was a true credit to the Australian men who fought it.
The world tends to think of the Vietnam war as a war between America and communist, North Vietnamese forces, which it clearly was in many ways. However, the fact remains that 60,000 brave Australian servicemen went to fight in the war; 512 of them lost their lives and there were an additional 3,000 casualties.
Historically, the Australians have been, with reasonable consistency, at the side of American forces any time they have been asked to be.
I think, as an Australian, my biggest question when it comes to the Vietnam war is why? Why was it that our government saw fit to support America on her crusade against the communists.
Of course, the geopolitics were complicated in the 60s and 70s. The cold war was in full force; Mccarthyism and the trials of the previous decade had left the American population divided; and anything colored red was the enemy of all that The Land of The Free held dear and true.
None of that really made it our war, but our sons and our fathers not only went to fight, they did so valiantly.
To ask why now is pretty pointless, especially if we consider the folly of most of America’s subsequent wars. The unnecessary death that has occurred at the mandate of the White House and the Australians that have been right there alongside them fighting. I’m no peacenik, war is necessary, liberty is important and fighting for it is noble.
That said, I often wonder if the Americans realise just how many of our lives have been sacrificed over the years because they were at war on communism, or on terror. I wonder if anyone inside the beltway actually ever sits back and thinks about that. I suspect most probably not, considering that the wanton sacrifice of their own sons and daughters on the altar of their military industrial complex doesn’t seem to matter much to them, why would the lives of their allies?
Then I start to question the Australian government’s decision making ability. I think it was best summed up in a very famous Australian folk song. The song is called “And the band played Waltzing Matilda:
“It’s time to stop rambling ’cause there’s work to be done
So they gave me a tin hat and they gave me a gun
And they sent me away to the war”
This song has become a part of what it is to be Australian and, although it was written about the first world war, it has rung true for every single offensive that the Australian armed forces have ever been called to be involved in. The lyrics continue thus:
“So they collected the cripples, the wounded, the maimed
And they shipped us back home to Australia
The armless, the legless, the blind, the insane”
50 years ago this month, a battle was fought and it was won. A battle that was a part of a war that resulted in 3,500 Australian casualties; casualties that paid the price for a war that wasn’t theirs. Just as they have in so many before and so many since. So on the 18th of August, I encourage you to raise a glass. Drink a toast and wonder what it might’ve been like to be in that steamy tropical jungle, dodging communist mortars, thinking about your family and wondering if you were ever going to make it out alive. Oh, and doing it all for a war that not only wasn’t yours, but that was never officially declared.
“And as our ship pulled into Circular Quay
I looked at the place where my legs used to be
And thank Christ there was nobody waiting for me
To grieve and to mourn and to pity”