Australia hits nerve with battle anniversary plan

Police earlier blocked access to the site of the battle in a rubber plantation southeast of Ho Chi Minh City. Photo courtesy ABC

Police earlier blocked access to the site of the battle in a rubber plantation southeast of Ho Chi Minh City. Photo courtesy ABC

For Australia, it was a heroic moment in the country’s martial history – an isolated company of regulars and conscripts holding out against overwhelming odds.

For Vietnam, it was a case of “mercenaries” acting at the behest of American invaders, taking the offensive against patriotic forces, and suffering accordingly.

The battle of Long Tan – a baptism of fire for Australian forces in 1966, early in their Vietnam campaign – remains a source of controversy fifty years later.

The Communist authorities’ last minute objection to large scale commemorations by Australia to mark the anniversary on August 18 has exposed scars from the Vietnam War that all sides have sought to conceal.

The sight of an American president receiving an exuberant welcome from Vietnamese crowds in May will have surprised many in the outside world, where the Vietnam War has gone down in history as a symbol of superpower excess, cruelty and eventually, humiliation.

Vietnamese, according to polls, now have an overwhelmingly positive view of the United States, and the government is seeking ever closer ties to balance the threat from China.

That has not been achieved, however, without a degree of American sensitivity – most recently displayed by the Secretary of State John Kerry’s acknowledgement that the US had made serious errors over the war.

Blocked by police

Australians, by contrast, by making much of the Long Tan commemoration, may have lost sight of the very different perspective of their former enemies. Inadvertently, they have tested the limits of Vietnam’s tolerance.

Vietnam’s last minute refusal to allow the planned event to go ahead came on the eve of the anniversary, with hundreds of veterans and their families already in the area and preparing to make the journey to the cross erected at Long Tan to remember their fallen comrades.

Only the last minute intervention of the Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and a telephone conversation with the Vietnamese premier, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, was able to secure concessions.

The Vietnamese would allow smaller groups, of up to a hundred, to attend the ceremony. They also agreed to a wreath laying ceremony, but only reluctantly, and after showing their ill feeling by sending police to turn back some Australians.

Long Tan has been elevated to mythical status in Australian military history.

Eighteen men lost their lives in the battle in August 1966, the largest engagement of Australia’s involvement in the war.

Australia claims it as an overwhelming victory. An isolated company of just over 100 men, holding out against the odds, against massed attacks by Viet Cong troops, reinforced by some units of North Vietnamese regulars.

The Australians were later relieved by reinforcements in armoured vehicles supported by heavy artillery.  They put Vietnamese losses at well over 200.

It is this interpretation of events, and the high Vietnamese losses, that go part of the way to explaining Hanoi’s sensitivity.

The Viet Cong, at the time, claimed Long Tan as a victory, saying erroneously that they had destroyed an entire Australian battalion.

In the long run, however, the communists made little of the battle. It was on a relatively small scale compared to thousands of other encounters, and North Vietnam’s ultimate strategic victory over the United States.

Nowadays, Hanoi, tends not to use the war to stir anti-American hatred. On the contrary, it stresses improving strategic and economic ties with Washington, Canberra, Manila and Seoul – all former enemies once denounced as imperialists, lackeys and mercenaries.

But the sight of large numbers of Australians in the country to mark what is seen in Australia as a famous “victory” over communist forces, and to mourn the loss of comrades who inflicted such pain and death on Vietnamese,  was a step too far.