Vietnam: tales of a war repressed

By John McCrystal

NZ Infantry men in the Vietnam War 1969. Photo / Supplied
NZ Infantry men in the Vietnam War 1969. Photo / Supplied

We're a nation that likes to tell and re-tell the stories of the bravery, valour, courage and honour of our military personnel.

The bookshelves groan with memoirs and biographies of those who served in Europe or North Africa during World War II, or at Gallipoli or in France during World War I.

But precious little written by or about our soldiers in Vietnam has seen the light of day, even though some of the stories are as stirring as anything to have emerged from the world wars.

Vietnam can't strictly be called New Zealand's forgotten war - that title properly belongs to our involvement in the United Nations intervention in Korea in the 1950s - but there's every reason to call Vietnam our repressed military memory.

Partly this owes to the small scale of our contribution.Only 3000-odd military personnel were involved in the conflict (a maximum of 543 for the Army at the peak, and five for the Air Force), and 37 lives were lost (not counting the four New Zealanders killed while serving with Allied forces, the soldier who died preparing to serve in Vietnam or the two civilians, members of the surgical team and the Red Cross).

More than 10 times as many people died on New Zealand roads in every single year of our decade-long involvement. Vietnam simply doesn't compare with the world wars, with their huge military actions and equally imposing death tolls.

Partly, it's because the New Zealanders involved were overwhelmingly regulars - professional soldiers - rather than the "citizen-soldiers" who were involved in the world wars.

That meant that apart from the friends and relatives of those serving and the small but vocal anti-war lobby, few Kiwis had any reason to take an interest in Vietnam.

For the majority of us, life went on. There were none of the privations and shortages of the world wars: the entire economy remained on a peacetime footing, people went to work, rugby was played, people still went to the movies and relaxed on the beach.

Partly, and probably more significantly, it's because New Zealand found itself on the losing side of a war that has come to be regarded as pointless at best, and deeply immoral at worst.

We never, as a nation, got quite so hot under the collar about Vietnam as the Americans did, we experienced nothing approaching their extremes of polarisation or the violence of their anti-war protest, but nor were we immune to a growing sense of unease as the media portrayed the conflict as senselessly profligate with civilian lives.

There were a few vocal anti-war activists marching and waving placards at the time New Zealand committed its first military personnel (a detachment of engineers) in 1964. By the time the very last were withdrawn in 1975, disapproval of New Zealand's involvement had become more general. Sensing this, Norman Kirk's incoming Labour Government had all but made regret the official policy. It's this lingering national distaste for the whole Vietnam episode rather than any lack of its significance in our military history that accounts for our amnesia on the subject.

Parade 98, a "welcome home" function in Wellington initiated by Vietnam veterans in 1998, jogged the collective memory.

A long-fought campaign to gain official recognition of links between health problems suffered by New Zealanders who served in Vietnam and their exposure to chemical defoliants and other hazards saw an apology tendered in 2006 for official neglect of the issue and an investigation was launched into a whole litany of veterans' grievances. Two years later Helen Clark's Government widened the apology to cover a range of sources of disaffection, and Kiwi vets were again welcomed home - officially, this time - in a series of events known as Tribute '08. And with the publication of his magnificently produced and magisterial history, New Zealand's Vietnam War, what Ian McGibbon calls the "reintegration of Vietnam veterans within New Zealand's military pantheon" will largely be complete.

If the Korean War looked backwards, in terms of the manner in which it was fought, as McGibbon writes, the character of the Vietnam war foreshadowed the future.

Whereas in Korea both sides fought across a clearly defined front line, in Vietnam the forces of the American-led coalition were pitted against an enemy who was hard to identify and just as hard to engage, and whose objective was to outwit, outlast and outplay rather than to win any kind of decisive victory in the field.

In the face of such a foe, all the massive firepower and technological superiority the US and its allies could bring to bear counted for little in Vietnam.

In simply staying the course, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese provided a blueprint for anyone who wanted to wage war against America: just hang in there, keep those flag-draped coffins trickling back stateside until US public sentiment is sufficiently soured to bring about a change of administration and you'll come out on top. Just look at what's happened in Iraq. Just look at what's happening in Afghanistan.

Of course, these characteristics also make the Vietnam conflict a bit of a nightmare to write about. New Zealand contributed militarily in several different ways - our initial involvement came about when Keith Holyoake's National Government reluctantly sent engineers and medical personnel in a token response to Uncle Sam's call to arms.

When that wasn't sufficient, an artillery unit was committed. When the Americans scaled up their war effort and Australia answered their demands that their allies do the same, Holyoake felt obliged, under the terms of the Anzus agreement, to send two companies of infantry.

New Zealanders also served in Australian and American units. And meanwhile, civilians were involved too, notably the surgical team and a contingent of the Red Cross, along with other humanitarian volunteers working with the Vietnamese people and journalists covering the conflict.

It's a wholly admirable feature of this "official war history" that McGibbon has chosen to cover civilian as well as military involvement, despite the difficulties in doing so: all those parallel stories unfolding at different rates in different locations and involving myriad names, numbers and acronyms - somehow he manages to keep a handle on it all.

Telling the story of the war would have been hard enough. The New Zealanders were, for the most part, operationally confined to a single area (Phuoc Tuy province), which was relatively quiet in terms of its level of Viet Cong insurgency and North Vietnamese Army incursion.

And the operations themselves were episodic - men and material were shifted about by helicopter, stayed a few days (during which time they might or might not actually "contact" the enemy), and then were flown back to base, with long periods of inactivity in between. McGibbon hasn't tried to describe every operation in which a Kiwi was involved, but has concentrated on those in which New Zealanders distinguished themselves or were killed. These, he claims, are pretty representative of the great mass of more or less homogenous activity in which our troops were involved.

The picture that emerges is of a highly competent, disciplined and effective military force, one that was proud of its identity as a New Zealand fighting force and that was determined to do its job to the highest standards of professionalism.

McGibbon is unafraid to describe the less illustrious moments: our men were involved in several "friendly fire" episodes, which resulted in a number of (mainly Australian) casualties; Kiwis were responsible for the accidental death of civilians (including one gut-wrenching incident where a Viet Cong woman was coaxed out of hiding only after she had suffocated her baby); and inevitably, there were lapses of discipline. (While he's willing to name those who performed meritoriously, McGibbon is reluctant to name malefactors, a courtesy to the living, but perhaps a disservice to future readers.)

For all the blemishes, though - and whatever the reader might feel about war in general - and this war in particular - there's every reason to admire what New Zealand gunners, infantrymen and airmen achieved in Vietnam.

There are some truly great stories: the Battle of Long Tan, in which a heavily outnumbered Australian force was saved by the defensive fire of Kiwi artillery, is celebrated in Australia even if it's largely unknown in New Zealand.

The actions that led to many Kiwis receiving decorations are as inspiring as many from the world wars that have become part of our folklore. And the stories of many of the civilians - most notably the extraordinary exploits of a Catholic nun, Sister Mary Laurence - deserve to reach a wide audience.

The most controversial aspect of this book will be McGibbon's scepticism toward veterans' claims that they were shabbily treated upon their return, which he describes as largely "mythological". He accepts that there was a difference in the way they were received by the Government and by the general public - even if it's only his acknowledgment that they have only recently been "reintegrated into our military pantheon" - but he downplays any extent to which they were deliberately snubbed or discriminated against.

He doesn't really explore why silence reigned on this passage in our history. It's enough, perhaps, that the silence has been so emphatically broken and that we can, at last, begin to talk about it.

The toll of civil war
* The coalition of the willing in the Vietnam War was small. Just a handful of countries backed South Vietnam with combat forces. New Zealand's contribution between 1964 and 1972 came to just over 3000.

* The US forces at their peak were 543,000 - for every New Zealander in Vietnam, there were 1000 Americans.

* The conflict claimed an estimated 4 million Vietnamese, more than half of them civilians. The US toll was 48,000. Australia lost 519 lives. Thirty-seven New Zealanders died from 224 overall battle casualties. Of five major 20th century wars in which NZ took part, the Vietnam conflict was the only one in which we fought with the losing side.

NZ forces in Vietnam
* June 1964: The arrival of 29 Army engineers signalled the start of New Zealand's military involvement in the Vietnam War.

* July 1965: Sappers replaced by gunners from 161 Battery, Royal New Zealand Artillery. Based at Bien Hoa, 25 kms north-east of Saigon. First shot of NZ's campaign fired just after midnight on July 16.

* September: Sergeant Alastair Don and Bombardier Robert "Jock" White became NZ's first fatalities when their vehicle was destroyed by a land mine.

* May 1966: First NZ infantry troops arrive, drawn from troops based in Malaysia.

* December 1968: Special Air Service troop of 26 soldiers arrive.

* May 1971: 161 Battery withdrawn from combat.

* December: Last of nine NZ infantry companies to serve in Vietnam withdraws. Medical team pulls out.

New Zealand's Vietnam War: A history of combat, commitment and controversy by Ian McGibbon
Exisle Publishing, $89.99

- NZ Herald

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