Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 34

Robert A. Hall, Combat battalion: the Eighth Battalion in Vietnam, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2000, xix + 308 pp., illustrations, maps, tables, bibliography, index, soft cover, rrp A$29.95.

Reviewed by: BOB BREEN, Colonel (Operations Analysis), Land Headquarters

With this book Robert Hall, an experienced, professional historian, who served with the 8th Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment (8 RAR) in Vietnam during 1969-70, has broken the mould of Australian infantry battalion histories. Most books of this kind have been written to commemorate and venerate, not necessarily to educate. Typically, an individual veteran, or a group of veterans, writes their unit history following a chronology. The story-line covers battalion operations, and chronicles successes as well as setbacks, privations and challenges. The emphasis is on tactics, anecdotes and photographs, mostly set within the internal context of mateship and sacrifice. Many authors writing at battalion level do not include the external strategic context, the intent of higher commanders, or political and social dimensions of military action and military life respectively. Hall, however, sets a new benchmark for this genre.

By including external strategic context and other lines of inquiry, Hall has taken his account well beyond merely chronicling operations and recording anecdotes. With the benefit of a thirty-year accumulation of evidence about the Vietnam conflict, as well as access to official records and his fellow veterans, he provides a series of revealing and sometimes confronting insights into his battalion's experience. He takes a systematic and thematic approach, drilling deeply and dispassionately into contentious issues, as well as features of combat operations and human factors that have hitherto received insufficient attention in battalion histories. It is an approach which combines the curiosity and objectivity expected of an academic historian with the clinical analysis of an operations analyst and a social scientist.

The first third of the book sets the scene and examines 8 RAR operations. This unit-level analysis is set against the background of an underlying tension between American and Australian senior officers about whether to provide population security, by ambushing infiltrators and increasing public confidence, or to search for and destroy enemy units in remote jungle redoubts. Hall is critical of both senior American and Australian commanders for choosing "find and fight" tactics accompanied by clumsy applications of firepower. He assembles his evidence well, and capitalises on and discusses the work of other Australian military historians (such as David Horner, Frank Frost and Jane Ross) to give his analysis credibility, interest and comprehensiveness.

The remainder of the book is a riveting mix of stories, descriptions of the life and work of members of 8 RAR, and analysis and discussion of a wide range of issues. Hall gets the balance of story-telling, analysis, discussion and exposition of statistical information right. Indeed, even tables of statistical data are interesting. For example, the enemy opened fire first for 88 per cent of American contacts in Vietnam. On average, Australian combat units opened fire first for 90 per cent of their contacts. In 8 RAR's case, their opponents fired first for only 6.7 per cent of more than 130 contacts over twelve months. The Australians initiated just under two-thirds of their contacts from ambush positions, and using small arms fire alone achieved a killing ratio of one Australian for just under 87 enemy. Over 80 per cent of 8 RAR's casualties were sustained from anti-personnel mines that were relocated from the Australians' own minefields by their opponents.

Hall devotes his final chapters to issues such as friendly fire, the effects of moral ambiguity, lack of wholehearted public support and media sensationalism on morale, and factors influencing unit cohesion, disintegration and discipline. These revealing and insightful chapters are worth the price of the book alone. There are many lessons for Australian infantrymen and those who prepare them for service in East Timor.

This book is a compelling read for a wide readership. Hall has done much more that tell the story of 8 RAR's experience in Vietnam. He has provided timely insights into why Australian infantry battalions are successful organisations and the consequences for them of poor strategic guidance, political expediency, higher headquarter incompetence and lack of public support.