Vietnam: international perspectives on a long war

Vietnam: international perspectives on a long war conference brand

An international conference at the Australian War Memorial
Thursday 15 – Friday 16 August 2013

The Vietnam War continues to cast a long shadow. At the height of the Cold War it dominated global attention for over a decade. Although the war
ended almost 40 years ago, it confronted political leaders, military commanders, and soldiers in the field with dilemmas that are still relevant today. Controversy over military intervention and the conduct of the war generated deep divisions in political and cultural life and left an indelible impact on American and Australian society. The war also shaped Australian and US defence and foreign policy for a generation and left lingering after-effects in Vietnam and the neighbouring nations of South-east Asia.

Many questions remain about the war: whether the strategic goals were relevant or attainable, whether the tactics employed were effective or appropriate, and whether the morality, cost and consequences of the long war could be justified by either side.

This conference gathered leading historians, authors, former war correspondents, and veterans from Australia and overseas to bring multinational perspectives to bear on these and other questions as they reflected on the course and conduct of the military struggle, and the enduring memory of the conflict. This was an informative and engaging experience for all participants and should serve to reshape many popular perceptions of our longest and most controversial war.

The proceedings were televised by Sky News for their Public Affairs channel, and the papers will be published by the Memorial in due course.

The conference was convened by the Australian War Memorial, and was proudly supported by Boeing Australia.

The support of the Australian Government through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs is gratefully acknowledged.



Wednesday 14 August 2013

6:00 pm

Welcome Reception

  • Terrace Café, Australian War Memorial
  • Canapés and beverages will be provided


Day 1 – Thursday 15 August 2013

8.15 am


9.00 am

  • Welcome by Dr Brendan Nelson, Director of the Australian War Memorial
  • Official opening by Rear Admiral Ken Doolan AO RAN (Ret'd), Chairman of the Council of the Australian War Memorial

9.15 am


Keynote address: Learning to eat soup with a knife: counterinsurgency lessons from
Vietnam for Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond

Dr John A. Nagl (US Naval Academy, Annapolis)
Australian War Memorial Boeing Visiting Fellow

10.00 am

Morning tea (30 minutes)

Session 1     

Cold War strategies in Vietnam: the views from both sides

10.30 am

Competing strategies in the Vietnam War
Professor Robert J. O’Neill AO,
(former Chichele Professor of the History of War, University of Oxford)

11.15 am

An adviser's war: at the intersection of Vietnamese and Western interests and cultures
Lieutenant Colonel David Millie MBE (Australian Training Team adviser and author)

12.00 pm      

Lunch (45 minutes)

Session 2 

Elusive victory: alternative strategies from attrition to

12.45 pm


The fallacy of the false alternative: American strategy in Vietnam
Dr Gregory A. Daddis (US Military Academy, West Point)

1.30 pm


Order from chaos: 1st Australian Task Force combat effectiveness
in a complex war

Dr Robert Hall (University of New South Wales, Canberra)

2.15 pm

Comfort break (15 minutes)

2.30 pm 


Panel discussion: A winnable war? Could the US and its
allies have won?

  • Chair: Professor Robert O’Neill
  • Panel: Dr John Nagl, Dr Robert Hall, Dr Gregory Daddis

3.30 pm   

Afternoon tea (30 minutes)

Session 3

The other war: winning hearts and minds; bringing the
war home

4.00 pm Other roads to victory: pacification and nation building in Phuoc Tuy
province, 1966-1972

Mr Tom Richardson (University of NSW at ADFA)  
4.30 pm Perilous war reporting: the era of front line involvement
Dr Frank Palmos (former war correspondent, independent
scholar and author)  


Close of day one

6.30 pm      




Conference dinner in ANZAC Hall, Australian War Memorial

After-dinner talk:
Going back over the ground: Australian veterans in Vietnam
Lieutenant Colonel Gary McKay MC (Retd)
veteran, author and Vietnam battlefield guide


Day 2 – Friday 16 August 2013

Session 4

The soldiers’ war: the Australian and American experience

9.00 am

The Australian war: a junior officer at the sharp end
Mr David Sabben MG (veteran and author)

9.45 am

Fragging in Vietnam: why American (and Australian) troops murdered 
their officers during the Second Indochina War

Mr George Lepre (US Army veteran, independent scholar and author)

10.30 am

Morning tea (30 minutes)

Session 5

The soldiers’ war: allies and enemies

11.00 am

Tougher than us: the NVA/VC soldier
Brigadier Ernie Chamberlain CSC (veteran and author)

11.45 am

Forgotten histories: the memories of South Vietnamese veterans
Professor Nathalie Nguyen (Monash University)

12.30 pm Lunch (60 minutes)
Session 6 

Lessons and legacies from the war

1.30 pm

Six Australian servicemen abandoned in Vietnam ask, “Why did
you take so long to find us?”

Lieutenant Colonel James Bourke AM, MG (veteran and researcher)

2.15 pm

Learning from the past, focusing on the present: US policymaking
and the legacies of the Vietnam Wars

Dr Mark A. Lawrence (University of Texas at Austin

3.00 pm

Afternoon tea (30 minutes)

3.30 pm

Panel discussion: The cost and consequences of the Vietnam War

  • Chair: Dr Peter Edwards
  • Panel: Dr Nathalie Nguyen, Dr Mark Lawrence, Lt Col Jim Bourke
4.30 pm

Echoes of Vietnam—“Lessons” from a long war
Mr Ashley Ekins (Australian War Memorial)

5.00 pm

Closing remarks

Abstracts and speakers

ynopses of papers and speaker biographies (in program order)

Day 1 – Thursday 15 August 2013

John A NaglJohn A Nagl

US Naval Academy

Learning to eat soup with a knife: counterinsurgency lessons from Vietnam for Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond

The United States entered the Vietnam War with a doctrine well suited to fighting conventional war in Europe, but worse than useless for the counterinsurgency it was about to combat. Throughout the American experience in Vietnam, organisational learning foundered on the Army’s vision of the object of warfare as the destruction of the enemy’s forces. This concept was so deeply ingrained in the Army’s leaders that they refused to listen to innovators who were convinced that the Army’s concept was not just ineffective but actually counterproductive in the new kind of warfare it faced in Vietnam. The U.S. Army did not allow learning to occur during the course of the conflict, neither from its own officers, the United States Marine Corps, nor the British Advisory Mission, invited to Saigon for the express purpose of imparting lessons learned from the Emergency in Malaya. The US Marine Corps, coming from a different organisational culture and a history of small wars, developed some genuine innovations which showed promise in the counterinsurgency effort, but were also discouraged by the American Army officers in command of the American effort in Vietnam. Even General Creighton Abrams had great difficulty in implementing change when he assumed command in Vietnam in 1968. The history of the United States in Vietnam can be seen as the history of individuals attempting to implement changes in counterinsurgency doctrine, but failing to overcome a very strong Army organisational culture predisposed to a conventional attrition-based doctrine. The lessons of Vietnam exerted a significant influence on America’s unpreparedness for and slow adaptation to the demands of counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dr John A Nagl is Minerva Research Professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis. He was a Senior Fellow and later the President of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington and remains a non-resident Senior Fellow at CNAS. He is also a member of the Defense Policy Board, a Visiting Professor in the War Studies Department at Kings College, London, a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and a member of the International Institute of Strategic Studies. Dr.Nagl has testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was appointed by the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee to serve on the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel (the Hadley/Perry Commission).

Dr. Nagl was a Distinguished Graduate of the United States Military Academy Class of 1988 who served as an armor officer in the U.S. Army for 20 years. His last military assignment was as commander of the 1st Battalion, 34th Armor at Fort Riley, Kansas, training Transition Teams that embed with Iraqi and Afghan units. He led a tank platoon in Operation Desert Storm and served as the operations officer of a tank battalion task force in Operation Iraqi Freedom, earning the Combat Action Badge and the Bronze Star medal. Before teaching at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Dr Nagl taught national security studies at West Point’s Department of Social Sciences and in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, and served as a Military Assistant to two Deputy Secretaries of Defense. He earned his Master of the Military Arts and Sciences Degree from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, where he received the George C. Marshall Award as the top graduate, and his doctorate from Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar under the supervision of Professor Robert O’Neill. He was selected as the Alumnus of the Year of Creighton Preparatory High School in 2012.

Dr.Nagl is the author of Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (2002) and was on the writing team that produced the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. His writings have also been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy, Parameters, Military Review, Joint Force Quarterly, Armed Forces Journal, The Washington Quarterly, and Democracy. He was profiled in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times Magazine in January 2004: Dr.Nagl has appeared on The News Hour with Jim Leher, National Public Radio, 60 Minutes, Washington Journal and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Together with his wife Susanne and son Jack, Nagl will move to become the 9th Headmaster of The Haverford School in Haverford, Pennsylvania in July 2013.

Robert J O'Neill AO

Robert J. O'Neill AO

Vietnam veteran, strategic analyst, military historian and former Chichele Professor of the History of War, University of Oxford, UK

Competing strategies in the Vietnam War

Until the Korean War of 1950-1953, Western military intervention in East Asia had had a reasonably successful record in the 20th century. The Korean War was fought to a draw, not a victory. The following year, 1954, saw the French defeated in Indochina, and American military power teetered in the Western Pacific. At the same time the Cold War in Europe intensified in the Berlin crises of 1958-1961, and the Middle East continued to be a war theatre which threatened to draw in the US, its allies and the Soviet Union. Nationalism, political reform, and indigenous military power were growing in South-east Asia. By the early 1960s a major challenge to Western influence in that region was clearly in the process of development.

The leaders of the Communist Party in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap, took confidence from these developments and pressed ahead with a combined politico-military strategy to incorporate the southern half of their country in a reconstituted Vietnamese nation, ruled by the Communists in Hanoi. The directness of this challenge was too much for the Americans to ignore and the result was the Kennedy Administration’s commitment of military support to South Vietnam. American strategy rested heavily on its conventional military power, and economic assistance. The military power, when applied often proved counter-productive and much of the economic assistance was wasted. Despite some changes in their doctrine in the late 1960s, the Americans slowly lost the war on the ground in Vietnam, and political support for it in the US and other friendly states such as Australia, collapsed. The North Vietnamese victory in 1975 was no surprise and it has posed important and continuing questions for American influence in East Asia and on the world stage at large.

Professor Robert J. O’Neill AO, FASSA has enjoyed a distinguished career as an historian and strategic analyst, notably as the Chichele Professor of the History of War at the University of Oxford. He has published widely on military history, strategic issues, global history and international relations.

Robert O’Neill graduated from the Royal Military College, Duntroon in 1958 and from 1958 to 1968 served as an officer in the Australian Regular Army. As an infantry captain and intelligence officer on active service in South Vietnam with 5th Battalion the Royal Australian Regiment (5RAR) in 1965-1966 he was mentioned in despatches. In 1961 he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship and in 1965 completed his D.Phil thesis at Oxford University titled, The relationship between the German Army and the Nazi Party, 1933–39. He served as Senior Lecturer in History at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, 1968–1969. He was Senior Fellow in International Relations, 1969-1977, Professorial Fellow, 1977-1982, and Head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, 1971–1982. In 1982 he became Director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

From 1987, Robert O’Neill was the Chichele Professor of the History of War and a Fellow of All Souls College at the University of Oxford, until he retired in September 2001. He was also Chairman of the Council of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London, 1996–2001; Chairman of Trustees of the Imperial War Museum 1997–2001; a director of the International Peace Academy, New York, 1990–2001; founding Chairman of the Council of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) in Canberra, 2001–2005; and Deputy Chair of the Council of the Graduate School of Government at the University of Sydney, 2002–2005. He helped to establish the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, 2006-07 and was Chairman of its International Academic Advisory Committee from 2008 to 2011. He was a board member of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, 2003-2012. With other senior historians he has conducted the Blackheath History Forum since 2009.

Professor O’Neill’s long list of publications includes the official history of Australia’s involvement in the Korean War, which was published in two volumes, Strategy and Diplomacy (1981) and Combat Operations (1985). He was also general editor of the re-issued twelve-volume series, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 (University of Queensland Press in association with the Australian War Memorial, 1981–1989). His many publications also include: The German Army and the Nazi Party, 1933–1939 (1966), Vietnam Task; the 5th Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment, 1966/67 (1968), General Giap; politician and strategist (1969), The strategy of General Giap since 1964 (1969). He has lectured and taught on the Vietnam War since 1967.

David Millie

Lieutenant Colonel David Millie MBE (Retd)

Vietnam veteran, former Australian Army Training Team adviser, and independent author

An adviser’s war: at the intersection of Vietnamese and Western interests and cultures

The Paris peace talks commenced in1968. The prospects of peace fuelled hopes of a settlement to the conflict. But this proved to be a false hope and the war continued for another four years for the allies.

The allied ground war in Quang Tri province was confined within the boundaries of the Republic of (South) Vietnam. As the northernmost province, Quang Tri bordered the demilitarized zone, forming a gateway into the South from North Vietnam and giving the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong some flexibility in the prosecution of their military effort. Allied combat forces in the province comprised the equivalent of eight regiments/brigades, sufficient to dominate the local Viet Cong and keep the North Vietnamese Army on the borders. The concept of operations for the allied combat units included protection of the populated areas, by deployment towards the border area of Laos and North Vietnam. This highly mobile shield kept the North Vietnamese Army at bay, mainly across the borders. Concurrently, South Vietnamese Territorial Forces were engaged in providing protection to hamlets and key installations in co-operation with police.

During the period from 1968, fourteen Australian Army warrant officers served in U.S. Army advisory teams with Vietnamese military units. Advisors at the district and province level in Team 19 provided the oil and the glue to help strengthen government agencies in the province. Occasional mortar attacks and raids on local outposts reminded the allies that the communist forces had not given up the resistance. On the cultural front, the ancient philosophies of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism may have been more influential in the Vietnamese psyche than those of either Christianity and communism.

David Millie graduated from the Royal Military College, Duntroon in 1959 and served in infantry, aviation and training units prior to service in Vietnam with the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam in 1968-1969. For much of this time, he served with an American advisory team in Quang Tri province, the northernmost province of South Vietnam. David’s service was subsequently recognised with the award of an MBE (Member of the Military Division of the Order of the British Empire) ‘in recognition of his professional competence and devotion to duty’ as an adviser with the Training Team.

After returning from Vietnam his postings included aviation unit command, the Staff College course in England, a Joint Services Staff College course in Canberra and a succession of staff appointments in policy directorates of the Department of Defence. After 31 years of military service, he then enjoyed a second career as a property valuer. In 2007 he commenced writing the story of his year in Vietnam, basing his narrative primarily on his diary and letters written during the conflict. The resulting work, Team 19 in Vietnam: An Australian soldier at war, will be published by the University Press of Kentucky and has been accepted by the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) for inclusion in their Foreign Military Studies book program. The work is one of the very few books on the Vietnam War written from the perspective of an Australian Army officer serving in a U.S. Army advisory team.

Gregory A Daddis

Gregory A. Daddis

Academy Professor, Department of History, US Military Academy, West Point

The Fallacy of the False Alternative: American Strategy in Vietnam

Many standard American histories of the Vietnam War—at least those arguing the war was winnable—contend that the US Army squandered its chances at victory in Southeast Asia because of misguided strategy. These conventional works claim that once President Lyndon B. Johnson escalated the conflict and deployed American ground combat troops to South Vietnam, General William C. Westmoreland, the head of the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), pursued an ill-advised strategy of attrition. Rather than concentrating on population security and counterinsurgency, Westmoreland instead wrongly engaged in a conventional war of attrition aimed at little more than racking up high body counts. Worse, the narrative continues, MACV’s commander implemented this strategy despite being presented with a clearly better alternative from US Marine Corps commanders operating in the northern provinces of South Vietnam. According to this school of thought, the marines focused more appropriately on population security, and their supposed successes suggested Westmoreland missed a grand opportunity to win the war in Vietnam.

Such conventional wisdom, however, presents a flawed reality of American strategy under Westmoreland. MACV’s commander never subscribed to an “either-or” approach to confronting a political-military threat inside South Vietnam’s borders. At no point did Westmoreland concentrate solely on conventional battle at the expense of counterinsurgency. Likewise, the general never believed local civic action or pacification programs to be a panacea that would convince Hanoi’s leaders their own war was unwinnable. In reality, American strategy from 1964-1968 rested on a belief that South Vietnam was facing a dual threat—both conventional and unconventional—that required a similarly comprehensive response. By re-examining American strategy under Westmoreland, one finds no “missed opportunity”, a conclusion that raises important questions about the limits of American military power abroad in the mid-1960s.

Dr Gregory A. Daddis, a colonel in the US Army, is an Academy Professor in the Department of History at the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York. A West Point graduate, he is a veteran of Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. He holds a PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an MA from Villanova University.

Gregory Daddis is the author of two books on the Vietnam War: No Sure Victory: Measuring U.S. Army Effectiveness and Progress in the Vietnam War (Oxford University Press, 2011); and his forthcoming Westmoreland’s War: Reassessing American Strategy in Vietnam, 1964-1968 (Oxford University Press, 2013). He has also published scholarly essays in The Journal of Military History, the Journal of Strategic Studies, War in History, War & Society and professional articles in Armed Forces Journal and Military Review. During the 2012-2013 academic year, he served as the director for the core military history program at West Point. Additionally, he has taught classes on the history of unconventional warfare and taught a senior seminar on the Vietnam wars. His next major book project is a reassessment of American strategy in the Vietnam War under Creighton Abrams.

Robert Hall

Robert Hall

Australian Centre for the Study of Armed Conflict and Society, University of New South Wales, Canberra

Order from chaos: 1st Australian Task Force combat effectiveness in a complex war

Although political, social and economic reforms were essential elements of the Republic of Vietnam’s counterinsurgency campaign, combat operations were necessary to secure the conditions under which they could be successfully developed. To assess the combat effectiveness of the 1st Australian Task Force (1ATF), a research team consisting of Dr Bob Hall, Dr Andrew Ross and Dr Amy Griffin (co-authors of this paper), first developed databases of 1ATF combat activity and then analysed them using statistical, spatial and temporal techniques. This paper presents some of the tactical-level results of our analysis. It shows that 1ATF dominated the enemy in Phuoc Tuy Province and that, by 1971, enemy ability to interfere with the South Vietnamese government’s reforms had been severely reduced, though not completely eliminated. Furthermore, while a small number of ‘landmark’ battles such as those at Long Tan, Binh Ba and Nui Le, tend to be the focus of Australian historiography of the war, military historians are less able to grapple with the significance of the very large number of smaller contacts. Our analytical techniques allow us to make sense of this seemingly chaotic mass of contacts, many of which, if viewed in isolation, seem inconsequential. We show that the smaller contacts were of equal, if not greater importance, in tracing the ebb and flow of the campaign, than those ‘landmark’ battles.

Dr Bob Hall graduated from the Royal Military College, Duntroon, in 1968. He served in Vietnam as an infantry platoon commander with the 8th Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment (8RAR) during the battalion’s 1969-1970 tour of duty. After further military service in Papua New Guinea, HQ 1st Division and Army Headquarters, Canberra, he left the Army in 1991 to pursue an academic career. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the University of New South Wales, Canberra, where he leads a military operations analysis research team examining the operational effectiveness of the Australian army in Vietnam. Dr Hall’s research interests include the Australian army’s role and performance in the Vietnam War and the Indonesian – Malaysian Confrontation. His many publications include the books: The Black Diggers: Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in the Second World War (1989), Fighters from the fringe: Aborigines and Islanders recall their war service in the Second World War (1995); and Combat Battalion: The Eighth Battalion in Vietnam, (2000) as well as numerous book chapters and articles.

Tom Richardson

Tom Richardson

Doctoral research student, University of New South Wales, Canberra

Other roads to victory: pacification and nation building in Phuoc Tuy province, 1966-1972

Although often obscured in a historiography that relentlessly focuses on US involvement, the key goal of the pacification process during the Vietnam War was the creation of a viable South Vietnamese state. At a provincial level, this meant the establishment of a government capable of providing necessary services, security, and democratic representation. Under the aegis of the office for Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) and its predecessors, an enormous advisory effort grew up to help drive this plan to fruition.

This paper examines this process in Phuoc Tuy province between 1966 and 1972. It argues that some aspects, notably the growth of democracy, were surprisingly successful, on a whole the effort was crippled by problems of ineptitude, corruption and nepotism. In particular, it focuses on the issue of leadership and the systemic nature of problems within the Republic. Advisory efforts tended to assign blame to individual leaders within the government rather than institutional factors. The result was the creation of a cycle in which leaders were rapidly turned over, with a resulting stagnation in the institutions as a whole.

Tom Richardson is currently completing his PhD thesis on pacification in Phuoc Tuy province at the University of New South Wales, Australian Defence Force Academy. He graduated from Monash University and was a summer scholar at the Australian War Memorial in 2010. He has had reviews published in both Wartime and the Australian Army Journal.

Frank Palmos

Frank Palmos

Former Australian foreign correspondent, author, and independent scholar

Perilous war reporting: the era of front line involvement

In the Vietnam War, between the fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and the fall of Saigon in 1975, some 200 journalists and photographers died while working with uniformed military forces, almost all during actions. In contrast with recent Middle Eastern warfare, where journalists with Western forces are ‘embedded’ with their movements restricted and media outside this protection are deliberately targeted by snipers, kidnapped, ransomed or executed by enemy insurgents imbued with racial and religious hatreds, reporters in Vietnam went to the front.

In Vietnam, the dangers were always high, but the images and reports from missions were sent back, bringing battle scenes into homes via the evening television news, and providing wide coverage that is rare from today’s Middle Eastern or African conflicts, where journalists and photographers are deliberately targeted. Hanoi, in contrast, directed their leaders in the field to avoid harming journalists, whom they correctly saw as non-combatants and as their best avenue for justifying the communist claims to national unification.

Thus, international audiences outside the Communist Bloc read and watched of the unfolding dramas in Vietnam with an understanding hitherto never available to them in previous wars, and certainly not available to them since the early days of the fall of Baghdad in 2003 where, in Vietnam War style, reporters anticipating events stationed themselves in the city. They were perhaps the last of the genuine front line reports from Iraqi and most of the Middle Eastern conflicts since. War reporting from the front line in Vietnam is the theme of this presentation by a correspondent who joined 33 land, sea and air missions, between arriving in Saigon in 1965 and departing after the most brutal and decisive fighting of the war, in 1968.

Dr Frank Palmos is an historian and former journalist. He was a Vietnam War correspondent for five tours between 1965 and 1968, accompanying 33 land, sea and air missions from bases in Da Nang, Saigon and Nha Trang. He was the sole survivor of a Viet Cong ambush of five Western war correspondents in Cholon, Saigon, on 5 May 1968 during the Second Tet Offensive. His experiences as a correspondent in Vietnam, and in his successful, two-year investigation into the Tet incident, constitute his autobiographical book, Ridding the Devils (Bantam, Sydney 1990) which has been translated into Vietnamese and read in serial form over Vietnam National Radio, 1990-1991. He compiled and authored the English version of Bao Ninh’s celebrated Vietnam War novel, The Sorrow of War (Secker & Warburg, 1993), winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Award 1994, and rated by the Society of Authors, London, as one of 50 best translations in the 20th century. He was a contributor to Requiem (Jonathan Cape, 1997), edited by Horst Faas and Tim Page, in memory of the 135 combat photographers and correspondents killed over two decades in the Indochina Wars.

Following graduation in journalism and Indonesian studies from the University of Melbourne, he was appointed in 1964, aged 24, while a senior journalist at the Melbourne Herald Australia’s youngest foreign correspondent to Southeast Asia. He was founder and bureau chief of the first foreign newspaper bureau in the Republic of Indonesia in Jakarta for the Herald – Sun, Sydney Morning Herald – Sun groups, representing ten Australian and numerous overseas daily newspapers. He was Dean of Foreign Correspondents, Co-Founder and President of the Djakarta Foreign Correspondents Club, 1965-1969; special writer for the New York Times, Washington Post, The Economist, London, and the Groene Amsterdammer, Vrij Nederland, and BBC Panorama in 1968. He was awarded a Churchill Fellowship in 1971 (Pioneering Journalism in Asia, 1964-1970); and was a television journalism Logie winner in 1974 with a Current Affairs Channel 9 team. He received his PhD from the University of Western Australia in 2012 for his study of the Indonesian revolution, Surabaya 1945: Sacred Territory.

Gary McKay

Gary McKay MC

Vietnam veteran, author and Vietnam battlefield guide

Going back over the ground: Australian veterans in Vietnam

(After dinner talk—conference dinner)

Lieutenant Colonel Gary McKay MC (Retd)was conscripted into National Service in 1968. After being commissioned as a Second Lieutenant through the National Service Officer Training Unit (OTU), Scheyville, he saw active service in South Vietnam in 1971 as a rifle platoon commander with 4th Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment (4RAR). During his tour of duty he was severely wounded in the battle of Nui Le and returned to Australia. For his actions in Vietnam, he was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry. Gary stayed in the Regular Army with a permanent commission and commanded at company and battalion level as commanding officer of 8/9RAR. He retired from the military as a lieutenant colonel in 1998 after 30 years’ service and is now a full-time, non-fiction author and freelance historian.

Gary is Australia’s most prolific author on the Vietnam War and is the author of fourteen books on that subject. An autobiographical account of his experiences as a platoon commander is recounted in his best-selling book In Good Company (Allen & Unwin, 1987). He has written oral histories and regimental accounts, including books on the infantry, the SAS and armour, and a combat support oral history entitled Bullets, Beans & Bandages (1992). When not writing, Gary regularly conducts battlefield tours to Vietnam as a historical and cultural commentator. The subject of one of these tours became his acclaimed Going Back (2007). He also co-authored two books with Libby Stewart (Viet Nam Shots and With Healing Hands). Gary lives at Kiama with his wife Margot and he is working on a novel (the dreaded ‘blockbuster’) just to see if he can. His other main interests are surfing, cooking and ensuring quality control is maintained throughout the Australian red wine industry.

Day 2 – Friday 16 August 2013

David Sabben

David Sabben MG

Vietnam veteran, author and tour leader for veterans’ pilgrimages to Vietnam

The Australian war: a junior officer at the sharp end

A Nasho plays in the big league: From the mid-1960s to the early-1970s, Australia engaged in two significant experiences. They were separate yet they were connected. Each would change the face of Australia’s society. Each would be controversial in its own right, but the combination of the two would polarise the Australian community, setting family members and friends against each other, and ultimately going beyond politics and religion, into morals, ethics, international conventions, human rights issues and more. The two experiences were Conscription and the Vietnam War.

In this presentation, a former conscript (a National Serviceman, or ‘Nasho’) will offer an assessment of the unique experience of the National Service experiment as it interplayed with the Vietnam experience. The strengths and weaknesses of some 20 factors are briefly analysed for their effectiveness and impact at the time. Issues assessed include the National Service scheme, training, the military machine, war strategy, tactics, weapons, command, leadership, operations, support, morale, discipline and much more. There is also a parallel to be drawn from the Nasho’s role in a professional Army and Australia’s role in the overall Vietnam War 1962-1972.

In conclusion, a practical suggestion is offered on how the Australian military personnel can realistically be represented at the planning stages of any future overseas commitment to prevent or counter many of the weaknesses revealed by the assessments above.

David Sabben was born in Suva, Fiji in 1945 but moved to Australia in 1958. Dave was called up in 1965, aged 20, for the first intake of Australia’s National Service Scheme. He completed the first course of the Scheyville Officer Training Unit (1OTU). Posted to 6RAR, he was appointed commander of 12 Platoon and took them to Vietnam in June 1966. He served the full 12-month tour and was a platoon commander at the Battle of Long Tan for which he was mentioned in despatches and subsequently awarded a Medal for Gallantry (MG). After returning to Australia in 1967, he was discharged from his National Service obligation but served a further four years with the Citizen Military Force (CMF). He resumed his civilian career first in Sydney and then Melbourne, ending as a Project Manager in the computer industry. Dave retired in December 2004 and has spent his retirement writing. He was co-author of the book The Battle of Long Tan as told by the Commanders (2004) and has written his own book on the battle, Through Enemy Eyes (2005), a ‘faction’ account of how the enemy reacted to the arrival of the Australian Task Force, including an “enemy-eyes” account of the reasons for, and conduct of the battle of Long Tan.

George Lepre

George Lepre

US Army veteran, independent scholar and author

Fragging in Vietnam: Why American (and Australian) troops murdered their officers during the Second Indochina War

During the later years of the Second Indochina War, morale and discipline waned in the American and Australian armies. The long war’s unpopularity and seemingly indecisive result frequently led young soldiers into mischief. The Americans saw desertion rates skyrocket, racial tension turn deadly, drug use become endemic, and even men refusing to fight. But most serious of all was the violence directed not at the enemy but at officers and NCOs. Such incidents often involved the use of fragmentation hand grenades, resulting in the adoption of a macabre term to denote its practice: "fragging."

Between 1968 and 1972, several hundred fragging incidents were observed in the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, causing dozens of casualties. Similar tensions were also evident in the much smaller Australian task force and resulted in the deaths of several officers and NCOs. This paper will examine the background and proximate causes of the "fragging" phenomenon and describe its physical particulars. The motives for these crimes, while often difficult to determine, will also be explored. This will be followed by an overview of the military’s efforts to halt the violence, centring on the criminal investigation elements and justice apparatus. A comparative analysis of the U.S. and Australian forces in Vietnam and an overall conclusion will round out the presentation.

George Lepre is an independent scholar and author. After serving in the U.S. Army, he earned master’s degrees from Drew University and the New School for Social Research. His book, Fragging: Why U.S. soldiers assaulted their officers in Vietnam (Texas Tech University Press, 2011), was the product of over ten years of archival research. His previous book, Himmler’s Bosnian Division: The Waffen-SS Handschar Division 1943-1945 (Atglen, Philadelphia: Schiffer Publishing, 1997), received the Sydney Zebel History Award from Rutgers University.

Ernie Chamberlain

Ernie Chamberlain CSC (Retd)

Vietnam veteran, independent scholar and author

Tougher than us: the NVA/VC soldier

In Vietnam, in memorials and in print, Vietnamese communist soldiers continue to be valorized and commemorated for their exploits and sacrifices during the War. Insights into the lives and service of the NVA and VC troops (the bộ đội) can be gleaned from captured documents – reports, journals, diaries, personal history booklets and soldiers’ letters. In recent years, several unit histories and memoirs have been published – and a number of previously untranslated documents have become available. While these more recently published histories continue to be “hyperbolic” and propagandist, some include occasional frank admissions of error and failure – and provide additional insights into engagements with US and Australian forces. Vietnamese blogsites covering the War have also emerged – albeit controlled, and are quite active.

The NVA and VC soldiers faced superior firepower; had only rudimentary shelter; and stoically bore the privations of hunger, illness and disease. Malaria was rampant, medical support was limited, and some diaries recount deaths by starvation. For the NVA, just “getting there” was often a perilous five-month trek down the Trail. Far from their loved ones – and without a defined “tour of duty”, homesickness and fear of a lonely unmarked grave often sapped the soldiers’ morale and resolve. Political officers had a critical role.

Units employed innovative tactics such as “grabbing the enemy’s belt” and “luring the tiger from the mountain”. Still, casualties were very high. 33 NVA Regiment – whose strength averaged about 1,100, reportedly suffered 3,056 killed during the conflict. While the soldiers’ upbringing had inured most to hardship and sacrifice, it was still a hard struggle – and merits acknowledgement.

Brigadier Ernest Chamberlain CSC (Retd) A veteran of the Vietnam War, Ernie Chamberlain served 36 years in the Australian Defence Force. In 1969-1970, as an intelligence officer, he served at the Australian Task Force, as a liaison officer in Baria, at the Australian Embassy in Saigon, and on a Vietnamese Army Headquarters staff. A Vietnamese linguist, he returned to head the language department at the School of Languages at Point Cook after a period of study at Saigon University. In the period from late 1972 to April 1975, he was the Vietnam desk officer in the Joint Intelligence Organisation (JIO) in Canberra, and he visited the Indochina states in 1974.

In 1988, Ernie Chamberlain was appointed the Director of Military Intelligence. He later served as the Defence Attaché in Phnom Penh (1991-1993) and Head of the Australian Defence Staff in Jakarta (1996-1998). Awarded the Conspicuous Service Cross, he is a Khmer speaker and an Indonesian linguist. He retired as a brigadier in 1998. From 1999, he served in East Timor for several years in UN appointments and as the strategic policy advisor to the Timor-Leste Defence Minister. A Command and Staff College graduate, and later an instructor and the director of studies at the College, Ernie Chamberlain also holds an Asian Studies degree (from ANU) and a graduate diploma of management. He has published seven books on Timor and two on the Vietnam War. His most recent work is The Viet Cong D440 Battalion: Their Story. Ernie posts his writings on the Internet as “free-to-read”.

Nathalie Nguyen

Nathalie Nguyen

Associate Professor, National Centre for Australian Studies, Monash University

Forgotten histories: the memories of South Vietnamese veterans

In the closing days of the Vietnam War in 1975, a group of South Vietnamese Rangers made a fateful decision. Their young commander had stated that he would fight to the end and asked for volunteers. The story of what ensued is told by a former Ranger now living in Australia. This paper explores the nature of sacrifice and remembrance, and the ways in which Vietnamese veterans remember their service and reflect on the war. Vietnamese veterans have marched on Anzac Day in Australia since 1981 yet little is known of their life stories, their war experiences or their understanding of the war. South Vietnam lost a quarter of a million soldiers in the war and many former soldiers were among the more than two million Vietnamese who left their homeland in the post-war years – an exodus of a scale unprecedented in Vietnamese experience. Their histories have been largely silenced in the vast historiography of the Vietnam War. Based on a new oral history project conducted in Australia, this paper focuses on the narratives of veterans of the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF). Their stories are set within the wider context of the Vietnamese diaspora and provide not only new insights into the war but also an added dimension to Australian war and immigration history.

Dr Nathalie Nguyen is an Associate Professor and ARC Future Fellow at the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University. Her work deals with memory, war and migration with a focus on the Vietnamese diaspora and the experiences of refugees. Previous fellowships include an ARC Australian Research Fellowship (2005-10) at the University of Melbourne, a 2007 Harold White Fellowship at the National Library of Australia, and a 2011 Visiting Research Fellowship at the University of Oxford. A graduate of the Universities of Melbourne and Oxford, she has published widely on women’s oral and written narratives, oral histories, trauma and literature. Her new ARC project focuses on the memories and experiences of Vietnamese veterans in Australia. She is the author of three books. Her second book, Voyage of Hope: Vietnamese Australian Women’s Narratives, was shortlisted for the 2007 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards; and her third book, Memory is Another Country: Women of the Vietnamese Diaspora, received international recognition as a Choice Outstanding Academic Title, 2010.

James Bourke

James Bourke AM, MG

Vietnam veteran and founder of “Operation Aussies Home Inc.”

Six Australian servicemen abandoned in Vietnam ask, “Why did you take so long to find us?”

The historiography of Australia’s participation in the wars of the 20th century shows that the State has often had trouble in dealing with the aftermath of war. The Vietnam War was no exception. Nonetheless, Australia is strong when it comes to commemorating the sacrifices of her warriors, even though Vietnam veterans themselves had to organise their own Welcome Home Parade, held in Sydney in 1987. The Vietnam War claimed the lives of 521 Australian service personnel. Five hundred and fifteen of these individuals died in Vietnam or died of wounds elsewhere and these persons received appropriate commemoration. However, the defence force was unable to establish the fate of the other six casualties and it would take thirty-six years or more until anybody recovered these six men.

A private organisation Operation Aussies Home Inc., recovered the remains of the first two of the six men in 2007, and set in train a series of events that resulted in the recovery of the other four men’s remains in the space of 27 months—a remarkable turnaround. This paper argues that during the second half of the 20th century, the efficacy of Australia’s efforts to manage the issue of “missing-in-action” (MIA) suffered because of the employment of an anachronistic policy and the failure by the authorities to understand the needs of the relatives and comrades of those not accounted for. To develop this argument, the study draws primarily on the cases of the first two men recovered, along with an examination of the bureaucracy’s initial non-engagement, and the subsequent reactions post 2007.

James Bourke AM, MG was born in 1943 in Ayr, Queensland, where he was educated. After graduating from the Officer Cadet School (OCS), Portsea, in 1964, he undertook two tours in Vietnam, serving first as a platoon commander with 1st Battalion the Royal Australian Regiment (1RAR) in 1965–1966, and subsequently as an adviser with the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV) and 1st Australian Logistic Support Group (1ALSG) in 1968–69. After leaving the Army in 1986, Jim worked with NEC Australia Pty Ltd until 2005. In 2002, he began investigating the cases of the six Australian servicemen who remained unaccounted for from the Vietnam War, and in 2005, he established an incorporated association, ‘Operation Aussies Home Inc.’, to further these investigations. The Association discovered the remains of the first two of the six men in 2007. In 1998, Jim Bourke was awarded the Medal of Gallantry (MG) for his service in Vietnam during the War, and in 2009 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM), for service to veterans and their families. He now lives in Melbourne and, under the auspiced of Victoria University, he is currently researching the behaviours of persons who have experienced having a relative, friend, or comrade declared as Missing-in-Action.

Mark A. Lawrence

Mark A. Lawrence

Associate Professor of History, University of Texas at Austin

Learning from the past, focusing on the present: US policymaking and the legacies of the Vietnam Wars

Ever since the guns fell silent in April 1975, Americans have been trying to derive lessons from the failed U.S. war in Vietnam. The matter has stirred enormous controversy, with some commentators asserting that the United States must be far more cautious about intervening in distant societies and others contending only that the nation’s armed forces must have greater leeway to fight as commanders see fit.

This paper will examine how this debate has unfolded since the 1980s. More specifically, it will explore how disagreements over the appropriate lessons of the Vietnam War affected policymaking with regard to the Central American wars of the 1980s, the Balkan interventions of the 1990s, and the “war on terror” of the early twenty-first century. The paper will argue above all that the debate has grown increasingly disconnected over the years from any accurate sense of the history of the war and become more a reflection of partisan political divides and disagreements about the “Sixties”. The paper will also examine how American policymakers during the 1960s and 1970s thought about the French experience in Vietnam. Why did the French defeat in Vietnam not encourage caution in the minds of U.S. policymakers as they made the crucial decisions to embroil the United States in a major war in Southeast Asia? I will argue especially that Americans, confident of their nation’s anti-colonial traditions, saw no reason to consider the experiences of France as relevant. In this way, the two parts of the paper will highlight the ways in which debates over legacies reveal the nature of American self-perception rather than differences over history per se.

Dr Mark Lawrence is Associate Professor of History and Distinguished Fellow at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin. He received his B.A. from Stanford University in 1988 and his doctorate from Yale in 1999. After teaching as a lecturer in history at Yale, he joined the History Department at the University of Texas in 2000. His research interests include the Vietnam War, U.S. policy toward Third World nationalism during the 1960s, and nuclear history; and he teaches courses on the United States since 1865, the Vietnam wars, American foreign relations, the Cold War in the 1960s, and the nuclear age.

He has published two books, Assuming the Burden: Europe and the American Commitment to War in Vietnam (University of California Press, 2005) and The Vietnam War: A Concise International History (Oxford University Press, 2008). Mark Lawrence is also co-editor of The First Indochina War: Colonial Conflict and Cold War Crisis (Harvard University Press, 2007) and Nation-States and the Global Environment: New Approaches to International Environmental History (Oxford University Press, 2013). He is now at work on a study of U.S. policymaking toward the developing world in the 1960s and early 1970s. Dr Lawrence has been the recipient of the American Historical Association’s George Louis Beer Prize and the Paul Birdsall Prize for his book, Assuming the Burden: Europe and the American Commitment to War in Vietnam. He is also a winner of the President’s Associates Teaching Excellence Award, 2003-2004.

Peter Edwards

Peter Edwards AM

Australian official historian of the Vietnam War, independent scholar and author

Dr Peter Edwards is an historian and biographer, who has published extensively on Australia’s national security policies, particularly the Vietnam War, the Australian-American alliance, and the policy-making process.

A graduate of the Universities of Western Australia and Oxford, he is currently an honorary professor at Deakin University in Melbourne. As the Official Historian of Australia’s involvement in Southeast Asian conflicts 1948-75 (Malaya, Borneo and Vietnam), he was general editor of the nine-volume series and author of the volumes dealing with politics, strategy and diplomacy, Crises and Commitments (1992) and A Nation at War (1997). He is also the author of Arthur Tange: Last of the Mandarins (2006); Permanent Friends? Historical Reflections on the Australian-American Alliance (2005); and Prime Ministers and Diplomats (1983). He is also co-editor of Facing North (vol. 2, 2003); the editor of Defence Policy-Making (2008) and Australia Through American Eyes (1977); and one of the founding editors of the series of Documents on Australian Foreign Policy. He is currently working on a new book on Australia’s Vietnam War.

A Rhodes Scholar, Dr Edwards has held professorships and research fellowships at several universities and research institutes in Australia and the United States. He was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for his services to history and a Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs (FAIIA) for his contribution to Australia’s international relations. His books have won several major literary awards.

Ashely Ekins

Ashley Ekins

Military historian, Australian War Memorial

Echoes of Vietnam—“lessons” from a long war

Almost half a century ago, in early-1965 the Australian and United States governments each made the decision to commit combat troops to the war in Vietnam. The nature of the decisions and the rationale for the commitment of combat forces have long been the source of debate and controversy in each nation.

At each stage of involvement in the war, Australia’s military commitment to Vietnam shadowed that of the United States. The first battalion of Australian ground combat forces entered the war in tandem with American forces and became integrated within an American brigade. Australian combat forces were built up to maintain pace with the massive increase in American forces: both reached their peak simultaneously in mid-1969. By late-1970, a wind-down and withdrawal of both American and Australian forces was underway and was finally completed by mid-1973, 40 years ago, following the Paris Peace Accords and the Australian government’s declaration of cessation of hostilities in Vietnam.

Towards the end of the withdrawal of the Australian task force, in September 1971, Australian soldiers fought their last major action in Vietnam. Handicapped by their lack of armour, Australian infantrymen narrowly avoided a disastrous defeat in a fierce clash with strong North Vietnamese Army forces. Meanwhile, their desperately needed tanks, together with other vital support elements, were being shipped home in line with their government’s phased withdrawal of Australian forces. This protracted process had begun over one year earlier, against the advice of senior soldiers and despite warnings of the strains and dangers a piecemeal withdrawal would impose on soldiers.

The inconclusive battle underscored the problems and challenges of carrying out a reduction of forces while the outcome of the conflict still lay in the balance. Communist insurgent forces were biding their time and looking to exploit opportunities; and uncertainty remained over the preparedness of South Vietnamese forces to take over as the Australians left. The manner of the withdrawal also exposed the underlying flaws in Australia’s strategy in Vietnam as well as enduring weaknesses in the structure of the Australian task force that stemmed from the initial commitment of Australian combat forces over six years earlier.

Drawing on the research and findings of his official history volumes, On the Offensive (2003) and Fighting to the Finish (2012), Ashley Ekins will explore these and a number of related issues, including some of the longer-term consequences of the commitment.

Ashley Ekins has worked as a military historian at the Australian War Memorial since 1990 and was appointed Head of the Military History Section in 2007. A graduate of the University of Adelaide, he specialises in the history of the First World War and the Vietnam War. He has published widely, delivered numerous public presentations and research papers at international conferences. His most recent books include 1918 Year of Victory: The end of the Great War and the shaping of history (edited, 2010, shortlisted for the Templer Medal); War Wounds: Medicine and the trauma of conflict (co-edited with Elizabeth Stewart, 2011); and Gallipoli: A ridge too far (2013). He also compiled and wrote the introduction to the Memorial’s third edition of The Anzac Book (2010). He researched and wrote two volumes of the Official History of Australian Involvement in Southeast Asian Conflicts 1948-1975, covering Australian Army ground operations in Vietnam: volume eight, On the Offensive: The Australian Army in the Vietnam War, 1967-1968, co-authored with the late Dr Ian McNeill and published in 2003; and the ninth and final volume in the series, Fighting to the Finish: The Australian Army and the Vietnam War 1968-1975 (published 2012).


The conference was convened by the Australian War Memorial.

The conference was proudly supported by Boeing Australia.

The support of the Australian Government through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs is gratefully acknowledged.

This conference is proudly supported by Boeing Australia. The support of the Australian Government through the Department of Veterans’ Affairs is gratefully acknowledged