Editorial: Revisiting the scars of battle of Long Tan

The Governor General, Sir Jerry Mateparae, and Prime Minister John Key, paying their respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The Governor General, Sir Jerry Mateparae, and Prime Minister John Key, paying their respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Veterans of the Vietnam War yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of a battle known to very few in this country.

On August 18, 1966, in a rubber plantation called Long Tan, Australian troops numbering little more than 100, accompanied by three New Zealand artillerymen, were attacked by a force estimated to be 1500 to 2000 strong.

Pinned down, the Anzacs resisted repeated attacks while calling in artillery barrages from nearby Nui Dat base.

Despite a tropical thunderstorm, the shelling was accurate and devastating enough to repel enemy assaults until armoured relief arrived.

The Battle of Long Tan has become an annual commemoration for Vietnam veterans who have little enough to mark their efforts and the risks they faced in the service of their countries.

The military service of generations since World War II has struggled for public honour. If Korea was the forgotten war, Vietnam was the discredited war. Both were fought in the name of social and economic ideals.

The Korean War was at least partially successful. The stalemate left separate states to pursue communism and capitalism and their relative prosperity offers a stark contrast today. Vietnam was a complete military defeat for the countries that tried to "preserve" half the country from communism. It was a war their voters did not believe necessary - and they turned out to be right.

The "dominoes" did not fall; communism was to fall of its own accord. In Vietnam, as in China, it survives only as an instrument of political power. Its economic prescription has made room for the energy of private enterprise and the efficiency of markets responsive to consumers.

Vietnam today is an economic ally of New Zealand, Australia and the United States in Apec and the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. The war was unnecessary, a mistake that probably drove a nationalist movement more closely into the communist bloc than it might have been.

Gallipoli, in contrast, was also a mistake and a defeat. The war in which it occurred was unnecessary, yet it is it we commemorate as the Great War. On Anzac Day we are supposed to honour the service and sacrifice of those who fought in our name in all wars, but few of them are still alive except those who went to Vietnam in 1965-71.

Today there are memorials to the Anzacs on the Gallipoli Peninsula and Australians and New Zealanders find a warm welcome in the country their soldiers tried to invade. Vietnam, understandably, is less welcoming of commemorations of Long Tan. Visitors to the site of the battle were to be admitted in groups of less than 100 yesterday and asked not to wear medals or make speeches.

After 50 years the wounds of the Vietnam War still leave a scar on all countries involved. The social turbulence it caused in the 1960s was a formative experience for the generation born after World War II. It left many with a deep-seated antagonism to the United States and military alliances to this day.

Their children's generation, though, has found much to honour on Anzac Day and may yet be more willing to recognise all who answered their country's call unquestioningly.

- NZ Herald

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