VIETNAM: The Complete Story of the Australian War. By Bruce Davies (with Gary McKay), Sydney.
Allen & Unwin, 2012. 704pp. $55
Reviewer: JEFFREY GREY
The recent publication of the final volume of the Australian Official History of the Vietnam War rules a line under a phase in writing the history of our involvement in that conflict. The nine hefty volumes in the series provide a significant resource for anyone wishing to come to grips with our involvement in all its dimensions and an exhaustive guide to the archival holdings that underpin them.
Such labours, and such a resource, are probably best-suited to the serious student of the subject with time on their hands and a deep commitment to the task. The average reader wants a clear summary volume whose arguments and conclusions can be relied upon without the hefty apparatus of foot- or end-notes (and this volume has more than 50 pages of the latter) to clutter things up.
There have been a couple of recent entries in the field - Paul Ham's is well-known, Michael Caulfield's deserves to be much better-known - and the field is now joined by Bruce Davies (pictured).
The result of many years' labour, this is a sprawling discursive mess of a book that badly needed a tight editorial hand to keep its author on message. The author has gathered an enormous amount of material and it simply overwhelms him - and is in danger of doing the same to the unwary reader. The Australians don't get into the war at all until page 64, a hundred pages have passed without reaching the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and 1RAR arrives in-country in 1965 at page 126. In between these early milestones there is a great deal of discussion about almost everything that might in some way pertain to the subject, with the reader left to work out how it all relates.
Bruce Davies served repeated tours of Vietnam. His first-hand insights when married to a clear and comprehensive analytical narrative of Australia's war might have produced a classic for its time. Much of the detailed discussion is interesting and clearly informed - such as his judgments on working with the South Vietnamese military, and his assessments of the enemy. For the latter he is able to draw on both interviews and published sources in Vietnamese.
The key to the book's shortcoming lies in its sub-title. In trying to provide a ''complete'' history he has fallen between the stools. A complete account needs more space than a single volume can encompass, but the attempt to do so means that the text must flit from point to point on an almost random basis in a vain attempt to somehow get it all in. The communist journalist, Wilfred Burchett, makes two brief appearances in this manner, for no real reason and adding nothing to the story.
There are some odd claims as well. Davies' assertion that ''some Soviet advisers'' fought on the ground inside South Vietnam is interesting, if true, but the only support offered for the assertion (which flies in the face of most serious scholarship) is an anecdote about a South Vietnamese farmer asking the author in 1967 if he was a Russian. We have known for a long time that Soviet (and Chinese) advisers worked inside North Vietnam, and may have flown aircraft against US raids over Hanoi or Haiphong, but combat advisers on the ground is another dimension.
Davies' own experiences as an adviser contribute to one of the strongest strands within the book - the treatment and assessments of the South Vietnamese. There is a tendency in writing on the war to assume that the Communist side were the ''real'' Vietnamese and to ignore or denigrate our allies in the Republic of Vietnam. The southern story remains the great and lamentable silence in our knowledge of the subject.
Too little appreciated
The sacrifices made by the soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) are too little appreciated. Davies quotes from a cable sent by General Creighton Abrams in late 1968 after a period of intense fighting across the country:
''The ARVN killed more enemy than all the other allied forces combined. [They] also suffered more KIA, both actual and on the basis of the ratio of enemy to friendly killed in action [because] they get relatively less [fire] support.''
It is worth remembering that except for a few weeks around Tet in 1968, the ARVN took more casualties, week-in and week-out, throughout the American war than any of its allies. Its battles are largely unknown and its dead largely forgotten.
The ''Vietnamisation'' of the war after 1969 was no such thing - it was a process of Americanising the ARVN and, by turn, setting it up to fail when US material support was withdrawn suddenly in 1974. The ARVN demonstrated a law of almost universal applicability: soldiers will fight well when they have good leadership, good training and effective and adequate support. The Regional/Popular Forces at the district and village level were the key to local population security, a point that the Australian authorities in Phuoc Tuy fully appreciated. They received too little of everything, and usually too late, and the Australian force was not really resourced to provide the support in any case.
There is no such thing as a complete history, no definitive account, no ''last word'' on a subject. History doesn't work like that. Instead, it is an ongoing dialogue between the present and the past, with each generation finding new elements and different emphases that reflect its own concerns and contexts. Readers engaging today with the history of Western involvement in Indochina in the 1960s and early 1970s might ponder the manner in which we withdrew from a commitment of our own making, abandoning those local allies whose interests we had made our own while it suited us, and leaving them to a fate which was all too easily predictable.
Jeffrey Grey is professor of history at UNSW Canberra.