Soldiers of the First Battalion scatter for cover after landing for a search-and-destroy mission in July 1965. Feelings of abandonment among Australian troops grew as the Vietnam conflict dragged on. Photo: Stuart MacGladrie
FIGHTING TO THE FINISH: THE AUSTRALIAN ARMY AND THE VIETNAM WAR, 1968-75
By Ashley Ekins with Ian McNeill
Allen & Unwin, $100
TO DESCRIBE Fighting to the Finish, the ninth and last volume of the official history of Australia's involvement in south-east Asian wars, as ''intimidating'' is to understate the general reader's likely apprehension: 1137 pages of war history, including 219 pages of endnotes, a 65-page summary of operations and another 200 pages or so containing a chronology, roll of honour, glossary, bibliography, index and statistical analyses.
This great brick of a book exudes a kind of diehard aura amid the ephemera and transience of the electronic age: ''I'm not dead!'' it seems to bark.
That was a few weeks ago. I am now wondering how to respond to Ashley Ekins and Ian McNeill's achievement. The words ''magisterial'', ''exhaustive'' and ''comprehensive'' rush to mind: it is certainly all three. No doubt their work deserves to be read and demands respect. Detailed without being dense, it illuminates on many levels: from the trauma of jungle warfare and the dismal last days, to the fraught process of ''Vietnamisation'' and the ravages of alcohol on the men. It is much easier, and more enjoyable, to read than I had anticipated, with some wonderfully vivid passages that, according to one soldier, ''did bring back to me the absolutely incredible intensity and remarkable variety of combat operations''.
Ekins (McNeill died during the book's long gestation and serves as a guiding spirit) takes us down the long, grim road of the last years in Vietnam, from the end of the Tet Offensive (or Mini-Tet, as the final, bloodiest confrontations were called) in mid-1968, to the sudden pullout - or so it seemed to the troops - in 1972, and the grinding last days that ended with the Fall of Saigon in 1975. In between, the reader is immersed in the death throes of a doomed campaign, which lost the support of the Australian people and the politicians who had originally overwhelmingly supported the dispatch of about 50,000 troops, many of them national servicemen chosen at random, to Indochina.
Despite the plunging support for the war at home, the diggers kept at it, bashing through the scrub, risking their lives, doing their duty - in the name of a cause from which Canberra gradually and quietly distanced itself. A spiralling sense of abandonment took hold in many soldiers' minds.
It is a vast panorama and the book's strengths are evident everywhere: Ekins and McNeill have done a truly heroic job compiling, synthesising and narrating it. They pull no punches in condemning the political myopia that gripped the Australian government throughout. We went to war, they conclude, because the government considered it ''vital to Australia's strategic interests to have a strong United States in south-east Asia [and] to show a willingness to assist the United States to achieve her aims in South Vietnam''.
Alas, Canberra failed to achieve that lofty goal: ''In making such an unqualified commitment of combat forces,'' the authors say, ''the Australian government and its advisers forfeited the opportunity to negotiate wider war aims with the higher managers of the war in the United States [in fact, we were excluded from America's war planning altogether]. They failed to evaluate the risks inherent in military involvement, and to assess the likelihood of victory or defeat. Australia lost any chance of influencing American strategic aims or the American concept of military operations.''
Ekins is adept at showing the extraordinary pressure on ordinary soldiers, who spent weeks, if not months, heavily laden, in roasting combat zones, under constant risk of attack. Indeed, Major-General Donald Dunstan, a former deputy task force commander, later said the Vietnam War was ''much harder on the private soldier and the junior commander than any other war that I've been involved in''. One officer, Gordon Alexander, recalls: ''There was not one single operation during my year where we didn't have enemy contact. Soldiers worked 24/7, patrolling, ambushing, cordon and search, bunker busting …''
The book has flaws. One, inherent in any ''official history'', is what might be called a state of willing and suspended indiscrimination, imposed upon the authors by the very terms of reference of an ''official history'' - which must, by definition, contain about every contact and operation associated with Australians in the war, regardless of whether some are repetitive or dull. At times, this all-encompassing task blunts the fine art of discriminating between ''historical'' and ''unhistorical'' facts - in crude terms, those that bear decisively on events and those that do not.
A more serious blot, however, is the absence of an overarching critical appraisal of the lack of tactical and strategic coherence in Vietnam as successive commanders sought to impose their egos and plans on the men. While the Diggers generally cleaved towards variations of counter-insurgency warfare honed in Malaya, their commanders were buffeted about by conflicting demands of the Americans and the claims of their own ideas - and egos. ''There is enough evidence to suggest that we were generally poorly led at senior level,'' Alexander remarks.
He cites examples of the general failure to supply close fire support on major operations - a point Ekins uncritically passes over.
Fighting to the Finish also fails adequately to cover the Agent Orange controversy; the evidence suggests that many veterans were exposed to harmful levels of herbicides but Ekins skates over the issue, while acknowledging it as ''the most enduring legacy'' of the war. If so, one might expect a more trenchant analysis.
In sum, the final volume is refreshingly accessible, comprehensive and even occasionally exciting. The authors are generally well rounded in their sketches of commanders, avoiding the usual official historian's reluctance to get personal. Take the case of Brigadier ''Black Jack'' Weir, an impressive soldier before Vietnam, who literally cracked up as task force commander in the country. One reason was the pressure the Americans imposed to meet their wretched ''body count'' quotas.
Weir became so fraught a military psychologist was appointed to trail and study his behaviour, with tragicomic results when the psych popped up at regular intervals, to Weir's horror. Ekins doesn't mention this ubiquitous shrink, but does quote a major, who recalled that Weir ''panicked under pressure and raved and screamed and lost control''. Medical officers decided Weir was unfit for service.
So what did we achieve in Vietnam after 12 years of combat, more than 500 dead, thousands wounded and immeasurable grief?
The Australian Army held and largely secured, between May 1968 and 1970, Phuoc Thuy, a small province in Vietnam (this is not a ''myth'', as Ekins states: most of the final operations were either outside the province or on the borders during this period; though conditions heated up towards the end, as the Viet Cong anticipated the Australian withdrawal); the politicians achieved not a scrap of what they hoped for - that is, an American ally in south-east Asia - and the war created several thousand bitter and incapacitated men, who would neither forget, nor forgive, being deserted both by the government and the nation.
■Paul Ham is the author of Kokoda, Vietnam: The Australian War and Hiroshima Nagasaki, which are published by HarperCollins.