On August 18 1966 there was a battle where everyone could fire between the trees in any direction. After recovering a great many Vietnamese bodies Australians marked a victory.
Lyndon Johnson decorated our allies. Ha Noi hailed the engagement as a bold trap sprung on the invaders.
Now many in Australia and New Zealand mark the battle at Long Tan as Viet Nam Veterans’ Day. It is a day of commemoration in the Australian state of New South Wales.
The public holiday across both nations for service overseas is ANZAC Day. On April 25 1915 Winston Churchill landed the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps at Gallipoli where more than 10,000 died.
In a recent essay Greg Lockhart, a Viet Nam veteran in New South Wales, asks why Australians fight in wars which they don’t understand. In conversation he points out that ANZAC forces thought they were fighting the North Vietnamese Army, which never existed.
The enemy was the People’s Army of Viet Nam, whose history Greg has written. His most recent book, The Minefield: an Australian tragedy in Vietnam (2007), shows how commanders laid a large minefield that was not properly protected because they did not understand who or where the enemy was.
Greg’s criticism of Australia is paradoxical because he carries it off with the good sense and common touch which is characteristic of his country. Australia’s intellectuals have pioneered a candid view of the formerly colonized, including white settlers.
They later welcomed another American, Ben Kerkvliet, who has shown the world how the Vietnamese began abandoning collectivism even before unification. They sent Ben Kiernan to the United States where he has written the story of the Khmer Rouge.
In a new generation, anthropologist Philip Taylor has talked with Vietnamese who inhabit a frontier between nations, or a spiritual world. Nathalie Nguyen has explained the Vietnamese literary tradition in French.
I agree with Greg that the Australians at Long Tan didn’t know where they were, who they were fighting or why. But their sense of who they were, free and fair and mates, is letting them find out.