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Why Vietnam Still Matters: The Australians Tangle With Victor Charles in the Battle of Long Tan

Exclusively for CounterPunch, Matthew Stevenson travels from Haiphong and Hanoi, in what was North Vietnam, to the Central Highlands and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon and the capital, in search of the remnants of the American war in Vietnam.  This is Part VI of an eight-part series.

The “Australian” rubber plantation at Nui Dat, about 45 miles southeast from Saigon, where the bitter Battle of Long Tan was fought on August 18, 1966.

On my last day in Vietnam, I was out the door of my Saigon hotel at 7:00 to catch a bus heading toward Ba Ria, a large town near the coastal city of Vung Tau. With me was a bike-riding friend and my folding bicycle. We wheeled our bikes through the bus terminal, searching for a Ba Ria bus connection.

The parking lot must have had a hundred buses, and it was only with the help of a security guard that we found the right ticket kiosk inside and the departing bus outside. The driver stowed my bicycle into the rear luggage rack and before 8:00 the bus was heading southeast of Ho Chi Minh City, in what felt like the world’s longest traffic jam.

Off and on during the past several weeks, I had worked hard on this excursion to Nui Dat (a village near to Ba Ria), close to which in 1966 the Australian army fought its fateful battle of Long Tan.

I had only heard about the battle the previous summer, when friends from Down Under came to visit and we were talking about where the Australian army had fought during the Vietnam War.

They alluded to the battle of Long Tan, and encouraged me to watch an online documentary film. They said that in Australian history, Long Tang had the resonance of Gallipoli or Tobruk—celebrated Australian battles—but they also said that the battlefield was off limits to casual travelers, which I now included to mean anyone heading to Ba Ria on a bus with a folding bicycle.

In my searching for details about Nui Dat and Long Tan, I had no trouble watching the documentary film or in looking up books and articles about the battle. But on some of the links, there were published warnings that no one was to visit the so-called Cross of Long Tan until that they had permission from the local municipal council, whose form and fax number was included in the explanation.

Figuring that it would have the same chances to get there as a letter to Santa Claus, I filled out the permission form with my passport information and faxed it to the municipal office. I didn’t think I would hear back from anyone, but this way, if confronted without a pass while visiting the cross, I could say truthfully that I had complied with the local regulation. If there were any doubts, someone could check the fax machine.

The bus stop in Ba Ria was nothing more than the shoulder of a busy road, and it required some nimbleness to move with the bicycles across about six lanes of busy traffic.

To get from Ba Ria to Nui Dat, a nearby village, we had with me some printed Google maps from the Internet plus my maps of the battle, on which I had highlighted some routes into the country. Finally, because it was 2018, we also had my friend’s iPhone, which was connected to the local network and a GPS app. Between all those coordinates, Nui Dat would surely be easy to find.

On this occasion, because the Google speaks with such an authoritative voice, I deferred to GPS, which for reasons I could never fathom sent us on a long roundabout trek. An hour out of Ba Ria, we were back near to where we started. Apparently, like everyone else in Vietnam, Google has given up on bicycling, and the maps were calibrated only with high-speed engines in mind.

By stopping at roadside stores, we were finally able to figure out which road headed to Nui Dat and where the Australians had pitched their combat base. It was in the fold of sharp hill that looms to the right of Highway 2, just before it enters the town.

Unfortunately, the base of the hill, where the Australians had located their artillery, was fenced off, so it meant backtracking some on the highway and turning down a small dirt lane, which meandered through the heart of the 1966 battlefield, much of which took place in a rubber plantation.

In the fighting, several platoons of Australian soldiers, out on a patrol of the perimeter, stumbled into the ambush of several thousand Viet Cong soldiers. By hunkering down, tightening their lines, and calling in artillery, the Aussies survived numerous attacks and, in so doing, killed hundreds of VC soldiers—to the point that rarely, afterwords, would the guerrillas want to take on the Australian regiment.

The problem with studying the history of the Vietnam War is that the battlefields—except here and there—are largely absent of any markers, guides, maps, or indicators.

For more than an hour, we rode our bicycles in what felt like circles, trying to find the Cross of Long Tan, a marker that lies at the center of the battlefield.

In 1969 a wooden cross was placed in the rubber plantation near where several Australian platoons inflicted heavy casualties on the Viet Cong. After the American defeat in 1975, the cross was moved to a regional museum in Bien Hoa. During the 1980s, a replica cross was erected on the battlefield—that which requires fax permission to visit. In 2017, the original Long Tan Cross was given by Vietnam to Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Without the intervention of a kindly man in a local café, I doubt that we would have found the Long Tan Cross. Although there was a sign for the cross on a utility pole in the village of Long Tan, very quickly that road drifted aimlessly into a forest.

Mercifully, the café man was following us on his motor bike, and he led us along dirt trails and back roads until we found the cross down a brick path, although not flanked by any fax machines.

Remembering Long Tan

The lessons of Long Tan are as difficult to fathom as those at Khe Sanh. Clearly, in the firefight with several battalions of Viet Cong, the 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6 RAR), fought with the same determination that the U.S. Marines brought to their hill fights around Khe Sanh.

At Long Tan, about 200 Australian soldiers fought enemy units about ten times their numbers, and for much a long day, hot day, stood their ground, killing or wounding some 600 V.C. soldiers (the Australians lost 18 men, and had 24 wounded, in the fight).

To be clear, the Australians had the benefit of artillery at their backs, and it was the long guns around Nui Dat, as much as Aussie courage, that carried the day at Long Tan. Nor did the fighting do much the change the dynamics that allowed the VC free rein over much of Phuoc Tuy province, although they tended to give the 6 RAR a wide berth.

The Australians had come to Vietnam in answer to a request from the Americans and Lyndon Johnson, to give the Vietnam conflict the more comforting image that it was an international coalition fighting the spread of evil Communism. The Australians, as they did in World War I at Gallipoli, took up this imperial burden.

Although the battle of Long Tan is remembered with the pride that recalls Anzac Cove and Tobruk, the words Nui Dat—at least locally in Vietnam—are recalled for the manner in which the Australian army, on establishing their base camp, decided to cleanse the surrounding landscape of all farmers and villagers, on the suspicion that they might well have been abetting the enemy around the camp.

Personally, I found it frustrating—although that might have been getting lost in the service of GPS—that so little has been done to indicate the contours Long Tan battlefield, when it comes to signs and battle maps on the ground.

Yes, the Internet has some useful illustrations and historical explanations of the fighting. But once you have entered the rubber planation that lies between Nui Dat and the village of Long Tan, there is little to guide anyone, save an odd man on a motorbike, to such a cornerstone of Australian history.

When I wrote to my New Zealander friend, Dr. Michael McKinley, a Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Strategy who taught for many years in Canberra—and who has military experience and judgment that I respect—about my frustrations over the lack of Long Tan battlefield markers, he wrote to me a long, reflective message, which reads in part:

The difficulty, almost impossibility, of locating Long Tan in its wartime significance has nothing to do with the Australian War Memorial, believe me. [Memorial director] Brendan Nelson, a former medical doctor, Coalition Government Cabinet member, and anti-university (they’re elitist) mouthpiece would colonise it for future generations if there was even the hint of an opening to do so: like his predecessors, he subscribes to the Anzackery School of Australian Origin and Identity.

The “problem” is that the Government of Vietnam will not have it in any way, shape or form. The commemorations last year were nearly forbidden until a deal was reached in which Australians attending the site were required to give assurances that it would not be . . . . well . . . anything like a commemoration that Australians are accustomed to on other former battlefields. Severe restrictions applied. And, after all, it’s their country.

Then there’s the question: Why Vietnam? The preferred answers still have the inside running and Ken Burns’ misleading documentary, as do the movies, “Dunkirk” and “Their Finest Hour” with regard to Winston Spencer F*****g Churchill.

In this regard, Australians and New Zealanders have learned that Turkey—with its extraordinary welcoming attitude on the Gallipoli Peninsula—is probably the exception rather than the rule. Even then when the Turkish authorities suggested that, for bona fide safety and environmental reasons, the numbers attending ANZAC Day celebrations might have to be scaled back, the reaction in Australia was extremely insensitive.

Reading his message made me feel better about my day spent on the bicycle, under the midday sun, in search of a corner of Australian history. It might also explain why most countries in the world are no longer willing to follow the American lead to take up the White Man’s Burden.  And in case you are forgetting how the rest of this hymn to U.S. imperialism reads, here it is:

Take up the White Man’s burden

In patience to abide

To veil the threat of terror

And check the show of pride;

By open speech and simple

An hundred times made plain

To seek another’s profit

And work another’s gain

Up Next: Around Saigon at night by bicycle; Frank Snepp’s Decent Interval. To read earlier installments in the series, please click here.

 

More articles by:

Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, is the author of many books including, most recently, Reading the Rails.

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