Australians in Vietnam: The modest men whose victory was ignored
A book review of “All Day Long the Noise of Battle,” by Gerard Windsor
Introduction — Farmer
It was on Anzac Day in the small town of Wycheproof, Victoria, Australia — wheat growing heartland — that the President of the Returned Services League (RSL), whose nickname while serving in Vietnam was predictably “Farmer,” mentioned to me a book he thought I should read. There was a quiet insistence about the importance of this book, and I came to understand this was a different sort of war book. This book was treasured because a small group of soldiers felt that their story, the story of a successful attack against a strong Vietnamese defensive position, had never been told.
Farmer was a powerhouse of his local community who had rescued his local RSL from closing; had the history of local returned and fallen soldiers recorded; completed the unfinished Avenue of Honour and had commissioned a new statue of a soldier for the town. Farmer, you see, grew things. He replanted seeds of history that had been left to die; tended them and brought them back to life. By the time I arrived in Wycheproof, there was a beautiful commemorative park and a huge Anzac Day turnout. Later, there was a phone call to confirm my postal address, and then the book arrived in the mail. I realised that as a seed needs water to grow; truth needs to be told; stories need to be heard; and Farmer had entrusted me to help this story be heard.
In brief, this book is the story of Charlie Company, 7th Royal Australian Regiment (7RAR) on “Operation Coburg” in February 1968, (during the Tet Offensive which began on 31st January 1968.) It covers “the Bunker Action,” which as the author Gerard Windsor laments, is the awkward phrase used to describe what was a bold, yet also well-executed and successful infantry attack.
As Windsor argues, while the general Australian public are aware of the battles of Long Tan in 1966; Coral and Balmoral in May 1968, few have heard of the “Bunker Action” — which for a long time was wiped from Australian military historic records. This is a shame given that among other acts of bravery, the author argues that the deeply respected and humble Lieutenant Mark Moloney should have been awarded a Victoria Cross for his actions.
The three-day attack was successful; there was a low body count; the men were in shock afterwards and were modest, so the significance of what occurred was not well conveyed.
The continued erasure of their story from Australian military history had saddened “Bunker Action” veterans, thus, this book, so tactfully written, is the truth balm to many. Gerard Windsor’s extraordinary approach to faithfully depicting the story is itself an exemplar on ‘how’ to record military history.
A unique feature of this book is the author’s approach in confronting and skillfully dealing with the phenomenon of memory loss. Windsor explains events from the perspectives of multiple soldiers, who recall things differently. Sometimes the author weighs up the written evidence and the various testimonies and concludes that story-line X is more probable than story-line Y or Z; but notes we can never know for sure. For example, Person X recalls three grenades had been thrown, Person Y says none were thrown, while Person M says they were throwing grenades the entire way.
It is as though with each sentence Gerard Windsor writes, he is conscious that about 90 men are scrutinizing it for accuracy. As one reads, one can almost sense the men peering over his shoulder examining each keystroke, ready to politely correct it — if it were not precisely fair, and if it didn’t include all perspectives.
The feeling the book conveys, therefore, is the most accurate recording of the soldier’s voice from Vietnam that I can recall reading.
Also, historically interesting, is that it is predominantly the voice of ‘nashos’ — those conscripted under the National Service Scheme. Their story corrects many cliques about ‘nachos’ and soldiering in Vietnam than people might have unconsciously formed through the overpowering cultural dominance of films like ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘Platoon’ or historical focus on incidents like the Mỹ Lai massacre. Such US stories often depict heroic characters, but also conscripts who are reluctant to be there and are disinterested, while others are ill-disciplined ‘cowboys’ and perpetrators of war-crimes; this is all presented as normal facets of the war. In “All Day Long the Noise of Battle” we see a different Australian story. The conscripts and regulars took soldiering extremely seriously and are fair and disciplined in how they treat their foe.
Treatment of the enemy and attitudes to victory
The book discusses the soldiers’ mentality towards “the enemy” and “victory.” As Windsor explains, while for psychological reasons, the enemy had to be dehumanised, the soldiers did not harbor hate towards the Việt Cộng (VC). They took a pragmatic approach to killing; it was a grim, messy job that had to be done. The reader learns of VC being treated in the same hospitals as the Australian and American soldiers. Corpses were treated respectfully:
While for photographs of a corpse, a rag cloth was placed over an enemy’s genital area as a way of treating the corpse with some decency. P. 211
There was no ‘body count’ mentality:
The Australians who took part in the Bunker action… have never shown any inclination to describe their battle in terms of a tally. Rather, it was a fearful ordeal against men who were as skillful and brave as they, and who finally withdrew from the fight for their own strategic purposes. The Australians never used the word ‘Victory’ and the emotions they recognised in themselves were exhaustion and relief and thankfulness, never anything as remotely high tempo as exultation, much less bloodthirsty satisfaction. They mourned their own dead and looked for neither compensation nor consolation in the number of causalities they inflicted on the enemy.” P. 210
What was victory like? The key moment? It was seeing two VC evacuating some of their heavily wounded and letting them go quietly. This wasn’t completely due to mercy; soldiers didn’t want to draw attention to their location. Victory was a somber, low-key, and barely discernible moment of allowing the enemy to clear their wounded.
Daily soldiering life
The book describes daily life in the field and the many concurrent practical difficulties, such as people endlessly disappearing on R&R, barracks duties, medical leave, rotations, and reassignment. There are reflections on the right ways of soldiering, ethics, courage, behaviour, discipline, and leadership.
The story clearly conveys the idea that the fighting had to be done and achieved despite nothing ever being ‘right’ — there was always uncertainty, sub-optimal manning, or tactical inconveniences, but the troops had to get on with it regardless.
The book has a gentle tone as it tells of hard realities. There is a matter-a fact, methodical style, as though the author’s unapologetic priority is the truthful recording of history; it is war without the dramatic soundtrack.
The descriptions of the battle’s aftermath are detailed and valuable because this is part of military activity that is not typically described. Casualty evacuation was flawed due to people downplaying their injuries. For example, men described as ‘slightly wounded’ sometimes had five bullets in their leg; the delay in evacuating them meant that some of these men, unnecessarily, became lifelong cripples.
After the three-day battle, although still in a conflict zone, soldiers were so exhausted they couldn’t dig scrapes and with no sleeping gear or food, they laid flat on their backs on the ground.They were so overtired, they couldn’t sleep; instead, they laid in a state of shock, staring at the stars throughout the night.
One difficulty with the book is that occasionally readers might get lost among the alternate storylines offered by different soldiers. However, I accept that this book is not really for outsiders; it is a book intended to clarify the truth among those who were there, and it is also for those who study the history of Australians during the Vietnam War.
Despite the prioritisation on a truthful recording of history, this is still a very touching and beautiful book. There is a sense of a group of soldiers, so long forgotten, so long mischaracterised, portrayed only by others, and often misunderstood, at last speaking their truth. This is who we really are. This is what it was like. This is what happened. And what a breath of fresh air truth is. How tough, brave, and human they were.
Australian military history and national identity
Why was this story so long hidden, that it took a good Samaritan writer to unearth it, rather than for it to emerge through official war history protocols? Does this tell us something about Australian military identity and national identity? Does Australia only wish to commemorate and acknowledge military battles where there is a large loss of Australian life? Is a successful attack distasteful — especially in the context of an unpopular war? Does it conflict with our national ethos, to be seen as successful attackers, rather than the underdog? If the epitome of successful soldiering is to ‘win’ – with a low loss of life – why was this chapter of history ignored? Does national shame around Vietnam mean that it is inappropriate to acknowledge military success or skill?
Such a line of questioning leads me to other queries. For example, why are ANZACS always described as handsome, fit men, but Vietnam Veterans are predominantly characterised as broken men who were shamed? Were they not also beautiful, healthy young men once? Did not many also make huge contributions to society, like Farmer?
Ironically, in another small country town, on Anzac Day the year before, I’d found myself in conversation with 4 Field Regiment artillery soldiers, who supported 7 RAR during Vietnam, possibly at the “Bunker Hill” action as well. They had created a photographic history book of their time, (part of the Gunners and Vietnam series) which also told a different story of soldiers in Vietnam to that which we are used to.
The pictures show Vietnam Veterans not as slightly disheveled men with a sometimes-faraway stare, but rather as one turns the pages, one sees fit, laughing, slim, tanned men who are at times working hard and at other times laughing and pulling pranks.
Both these books have forced me to reflect on how military history is told and who tells it. Author Gerard Windsor removes the projected cloak of national shame and pity from the Vietnam War soldiers. He shows them as multi-dimensional; restoring their dignity and humanity while also acknowledging their professional military skill.
On finishing the book, I recalled the Dawn Service in Wycheproof earlier that year. I had been standing at the back of the crowd. It was dark, and in front of me was fifty metres of black silhouettes: people of various shapes and sizes standing silently and still. All were absorbed in their own solemn thoughts.
From towards the BBQ area, I saw a figure walking towards the Cenotaph. From the gait and the heavy limp I could immediately tell it was Farmer. His distinctive voice echoed out as he moved among the silhouettes at the front. There was a sudden flurry of hand shaking and back patting; and suddenly isolated single silhouettes merged into huddles of people. There were whispers then outright shrieks of laughter, followed by happy chatter.
As Farmer often reminds me, he had been on R&R at the time of the Bunker Action, however, he was part of the unit and is mentioned in the book. Thus, this huddle of older men, on the inside, were some of those whose story has been told so carefully and respectfully by Gerard Windsor.