Leadership in the face of Anzackery

The continued militarisation of Australian history and the consequent manufacture of ignorance about both our general and our military history suffered a minor setback the other day.

The setback was largely due to the intelligent leadership of someone who knows much more about military history than the politicians who cloak themselves in the flag and foster the myths about Gallipoli as the defining national Australian event. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan – the biggest battle Australian troops have been involved in since the Korean War – and one in which vastly outnumbered troops fought bravely supported by massive artillery support (from the blog’s old Battery, although on an earlier tour than his, and NZ gunners) and armoured personnel carriers.

Amongst much hype some 3,000 veterans were expected to attend an anniversary service until the Vietnamese Government objected. Cue immediate outrage from the usual suspects and even our PM, Malcolm Turnbull, jumped in saying he would talk to the Vietnamese Government about the problem.

But according to Harry Smith, the senior officer at Long Tan, he was disappointed but sympathised with the Vietnamese Government and suggested that Australians would be ‘up in arms’ if Japan asked to have a commemorative service in Australia for the bombing of Darwin. He also clarified that the original idea had been that the focus would not be on the Long Tan battle itself and that one of the more important elements was the opportunity for Australian veterans to talk to their Vietnamese counterparts. But, Smith said, it “all got out of hand.”

How? Well for a start tour organisers got into the act and heavily promoted Long Tan against the express wishes of the Vietnamese Government. Then the numbers spiralled and the Department of Veterans Affairs organised for their staff to go there and provide support and finally the Vietnamese Government called enough.

“The way it’s turned out is that Long Tan has been advertised on tickets and advertised on brochures and various things, which is what the Hanoi government said not to happen. It’s happened and therefore they’ve pulled the blind down,” Smith told The Age (20 August 2016).

Essentially the military commemoration industry – and all those making something out of it – wrecked what would have been an important and significant opportunity for veterans from both sides to get together. Now the blog is sure many of those who set out to organise tours had distinguished military careers themselves but the blog has also noted that some of those who are most gung ho about militarising our history have never heard a shot fired outside the safety of a domestic rifle range or a war film.

Indeed, some years ago the blog was travelling up the Mekong on one of several trips it took (this one heading to Angkor Wat) on the river, with the boat coincidentally scheduled to be on the water on Anzac Day. One of the passengers was making much of things military and the significance of Anzac Day so the blog stayed quiet to avoid getting dragged into unwanted discussions. After several days of the man’s loud sprouting about things military, the blog’s wife couldn’t resist asking the man where he had served. A bit sheepishly he confessed he had never actually served overseas but he did organise tours for veterans. At which the blog’s wife mischievously mentioned, also hoping it might shut him up, that the blog had served in Vietnam.

This was a mistake as the man then wanted to adopt the blog as a long lost comrade and wake the boat staff before dawn on April 25 so that everyone could enjoy a ‘gunfire breakfast’. The blog pleaded ignorance about gunfire breakfasts and insisted he had not drunk at breakfast time since his wild youth at which the tour organiser expressed astonishment and wondered about the blog’s military worth – which the blog concedes wasn’t much in reality but hardly because it didn’t involve gunfire breakfasts.

Thing didn’t get much better as the tour progressed but when we all got to Phnom Penh the loud man refused to leave the bus taking us to visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and stayed in the bus. The guide was understanding but somehow didn’t notice that the bus driver inadvertently left the bus locked on a hot tropical day. Perhaps both the guide and the driver had also had enough of loud military ‘memories’.

Meanwhile those who are most keen to promote military history as defining Australian history are also resisting attempts to bring Australia into line with the UK and the US and allow Parliament to vote on whether the nation goes to war or not. The latest version of their argument, as mounted on a recent Lateline program, would leave the decision with people like Pauline Hanson and Derryn Hinch. Putting aside the Parliamentary numerical unlikelihood of this the blog couldn’t help thinking: would the outcome in such a case be any worse than the outcome of the Bush, Blair, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Howard Iraq decision?