Chief of Army address to the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia
Any gathering of Vietnam Veterans inspires me. I feel numerous layers of connections, both personal and professional to the Australian Army that fought that war. As Brian Tateson kindly observed in his letter of invitation to this event, my father was a veteran of that conflict. Indeed, he commanded 9RAR during its arduous tour of duty in 1968-69.
The battalion lost nearly as many soldiers killed in action in its tour as our Army has lost over its entire commitment to the Afghan War. That provides some context of the scale of involvement in Vietnam, where over five hundred men were killed, thousands were wounded, while many others endure mental scars from their service to this day.
My memories of my dad’s departure and the scorn of some of our own citizens for the battalion, during one march through the streets of Adelaide, remain vivid to me. No doubt many of you have similar memories of the hostility of some, and the indifference of most Australians to your service in that war. Tonight some of my reflections will be quite personal. I trust you can forgive me that indulgence.
As you know dad passed away in 2008 and my mum died three weeks ago. They were a great team. And on top of that, on 3 July my statutory term as the Chief of the Army expires. Inevitably, nostalgia and introspection dominate one’s thoughts and emotions at such times. I do not, however, intend to be maudlin.
Tonight is an occasion to look back with pride on the service of all Australians who served in Vietnam. You fought with great distinction. Moreover, you laid the sound foundations for the Army, which I am proud to lead today. Your legacy is impressive.
At the outset, I will posit what I believe are some of the broader lessons that Vietnam instilled in the Australian Army. Inevitably, I will draw on the experience of both my father’s and my own service to reflect on those.
When I spoke at the Australian War Memorial on the occasion of the Army birthday earlier this month it occurred to me that from the inception of the modern volunteer Australian Regular Army in 1946 either my dad or I have been on full time duty in its ranks. Our lives have been lived out against the backdrop of the steady evolution of that wonderful institution, so loved and admired by our Nation.
While too young to serve in the Vietnam war, I did graduate to the Royal Australian Infantry in 1979 and joined the 8th/9th Battalion RAR, which had been formed as a consequence of the reduction in size of the Army which followed the end of the Vietnam War and the end of conscription.
This had necessitated the merger of numerous battalions as the nine battalions of our 1st Australian Division were cut back to six. And of course reductions in supporting arms and services were just as drastic. Hence, I had the honour and pleasure of serving along-side men who had served under my dad.
I think it is accurate to say that from 1973 until about 1990 the Australian Army was still characterised by the ethos, mores and culture of the Army that fought in Vietnam. The emphasis on toughness, small team cohesion, superb field-craft and individual skills and infantry minor tactics ensured that despite years of fiscal neglect and poor strategic guidance that the Army never lost its ability operate in our region.
Years later, in East Timor, I was the Chief of Operations to Peter Cosgrove who had commanded a platoon in 9 RAR. The reassuring calm and professionalism of Peter was a powerful professional and symbolic reminder that Vietnam Veterans had provided our corporate memory through the lean decades after Vietnam when our Army languished.
There was something appropriate about a decorated Vietnam Veteran leading us out of the so called ‘Long Peace.’ That is because, as I once said on the record in a paper published by one of my staff, that our Vietnam Veterans ‘kept the faith’ and kept the flame of professionalism burning amid the darkest period in the history of the modern professional Army.
While, to the uninitiated, the culture of our Army is defined by the Digger myth characterised by the enthusiastic amateur portrayed by Chips Rafferty or Mel Gibson or Graham Kennedy in war films, we all know that the truth is vastly different.
Outside the mass mobilisations of the great global wars of the 20th Century, the story of the Australian Army has generally been the story of serious professionals grappling with the changing character of war; trying to maintain a professional pitch among our soldiers, often in the face of public apathy and government neglect. The Army that fought in Vietnam comprised a blend of professional career soldiers augmented by National Servicemen.
In that sense, it possessed some of the élan of the AIF with young citizen soldiers drawn from the wider population as well as the culture of the small modern ARA, which had conducted the counter-insurgency in Malaya and the ambiguous irregular campaign of Confrontation. And there was still a smattering of veterans from the Second World War and Korea.
Australia, in common with most democracies, never enters a war with the Army it needs. It goes to war with the Army it has paid for and trained.
In many ways the Army in which you served was the best we ever sent to war. It possessed a cadre of officers and NCOs with significant combat experience, including in the jungles of our immediate region.
In saying that, I recognise that I am repudiating some urban myths. Firstly, conscription was already in place before we committed battalion and formation level forces to Vietnam. Conscription had been introduced to expand the Army after it became clear that our immediate neighbour Indonesia was unstable and we had been facing off with them over numerous friction points culminating in Confrontation.
Despite the social backlash over conscription our ‘Nashos’ served with great professionalism and not one went to Vietnam without effectively volunteering for service there.
In addition to expanding through conscription, the Army had commenced significant modernisation of its equipment, especially its artillery and its protected mobility. Likewise, our superb individual training system, long the hall mark of our Army was producing excellent individual soldiers, who in turn formed superb small units and sub units.
Our combat performance in Vietnam reflected this. While battles like Long Tan, Coral and Balmoral fire the imagination and have entered the lexicon of Australian military history, your performance was consistently excellent across a wide spectrum of operations.
For every Long Tan there were a dozen less spectacular actions where painstaking patrolling and ambushing yielded tactical victories. As evidence of the proficiency of our soldier and small unit skills, we initiated contact, in 85% of our encounter battles with enemy forces. For that statistic I am indebted to 8RAR Veteran Bob Hall who has conducted exhaustive analysis of our after action reports from the war.
While our doctrine of Ambush and Counter Ambush were integral to our ability to apply our superb individual skills against an irregular enemy, in close terrain, we also fought numerous, traditional limited war engagements. For instance, at Binh Ba and Ba Ria we fought combined-arms actions in a built up areas-in the former employing tanks in close support of infantry - in the latter using APCs in that role.
These still represents the high water mark of that type of operation by our ground forces since the end of the Second World War. We have not achieved as impressive a result in a similar scenario ever since, though I believe, after years of neglect, we could now fight in complex urban terrain with tanks in support if necessary. Achieving that level of combined arms proficiency has been a key objective of mine - and every Chief of Army’s since the 2000 White Paper.
That we never lost the link to that core skill is due in large part to the maintenance of our cadre of Vietnam veterans who served on after the war well into the latter part of the 20th Century.
Our forces were sustained by excellent Australian logistics and our low numbers of non-battle deaths due to illness were testimony to professional mastery of military medicine and sanitation. And of course the rapid Casualty Evacuation system (DUSTOFF) became one of the iconic achievements of that war.
Of course, the character of the war evolved, as did our military responses. On occasions we pursued main force enemy using conventional limited war tactics, while on other occasions we attempted pacification operations, which resembled our more recent counter-insurgency tactics. All the while our splendid AATV raised and trained indigenous forces. Long before the terms hybrid and three block war came into vogue you were fighting one.
From 1967 the efforts of our land forces were supported by a growing contribution of RAN and RAAF elements. At the peak of our operation in 1970 we had a very potent and coherent joint force in Vietnam. To this day we have never matched the scale of that operation abroad.
In summary, the Australian Regular Army fought superbly well in Vietnam. Over time the war became unpopular as the political class lost the ability to make the moral and geo-political case for our involvement. That was not your fault, though undoubtedly it compounded the emotional toll fighting in Vietnam took on so many of your mates.
Our failures in Vietnam were failures of intelligence and imagination at the highest levels of government, predominantly in Washington. In the last analysis our large commitment there is entirely understandable and comprehensible against the backdrop of Australian Grand Strategy since the Boer War. I have never subscribed to the ‘other people’s wars’ bleat about all of our foreign military deployments whether in Vietnam or as far back as Gallipoli or El Alamein.
We have always contributed forces to Coalitions led by the dominant Western maritime power of the day. Then as now it was the United States. Knowing what all of us knew then, our involvement in Vietnam was both inevitable and represented a realistic appraisal of the nature of Australia’s strategic circumstances and the nature of the world of the post-colonial era. Your service was squarely in that tradition and thus conformed to a sound ethical and strategic framework. Never doubt that. You served your country well.
However, may I say on behalf of the modern Army, your legacy was more than a series of well-executed tactical operations squandered through poorly conceived war plans, and flawed grand strategy.
Rather, you in reality founded the modern Australian Army. In Korea and Malaysia many of regulars were veterans of the Second World War. A significant portion were veterans of the British Army. The Army that expanded to fight in Vietnam was distinctively Australian.
Through conscription it possessed a link to the mass mobilisations of the First and Second Australian Imperial Forces. Yet its ethos was distinctively Australian. While we often were forced to conform to major American search and destroy operations, we never lost sight of the primacy of individual skills and small team cohesion. Moreover, we always husbanded scarce resources carefully and our leaders were never sanguine about losing troops in battles of attrition.
Likewise our commanders at 1 ATF and AFV levels never lost or surrendered our national autonomy. This deep sense of Australian military identity may be traced back to Monash himself. These remain fundamental to any concept of an Australian Way of war. You would nod with proud recognition at your heirs today as they go about their operations in Afghanistan in their unique Australian way. They look back on you with great pride. You showed them what right looks like. And you can feel the pride of doting parents at their efforts, be assured.
Finally, today’s Army owes you one deep and very particular debt. Many of you returned to this country, your duty nobly done and were shunned or even abused. This was a travesty, which has slowly been rectified. But the harm done to you and your mates can never be undone completely.
However, today, our political leaders, our media and the wider community have learnt the lessons from that awful act of national ingratitude. Today, even the most ardent anti-war activist exempts our serving men and women from their criticism. I do not believe that the Army has enjoyed more overt and generous public support in my entire time inside it or as one of its extended family - a period well in excess of 50 years. For that we owe you a great debt. Your suffering underwrote that reconciliation.
Finally, it is a sad fact that many Vietnam Veterans continued to grapple with the demons of mental and physical health symptoms long after war. Too many took their own lives or suffered without support. Again, that experience has ensured that we are vigilant about the occurrence of PTSD and emotional problems among our returning service men and women. It is to be hoped that belatedly we are all moving to ensure that veterans of Vietnam receive the quality of support that their service deserves.
Let me end where I began. I am honoured to be able to share this special evening with you. As Chief of the Army to whose history you contributed such an impressive chapter I salute you. Thank you for your service in peace and war. Your duty is over faithfully and nobly executed. Let us pause to remember those who did not return to see this day.