Sunday, October 01, 2006
Australian Vietnam Veteran Brian Day
The Vietnam War
It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.
Anonymous: statement issued by US Army, referring to Ben Tre in Vietnam; in New York Times 8 February1968
We are the unwilling, led by unqualified, doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful.
Graffito, Vietnam War, 1970
Anyone who isn't confused doesn’t really understand the situation.
Ed Murrow, American Television Journalist on the Vietnam War 1970, in Walter Bryan The Improbable Irish (1969)
The belief that one Marine was better than ten Slopes saw Marine squads fed in against known N.V.A. [North Vietnamese Army] platoons, platoons against companies, and on and on, until whole battalions found themselves pinned down and cut off. That belief was undying, but the Grunt was not, and the Corps came to be called by many the finest instrument ever devised for the killing of young Americans.
Michael Herr’s Khesanh published in Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism.
They were our best friends and whatever we needed we got, and did not cost a penny. We never made a grant, never made a loan, never made a gift. They bought their planes, ammunition, their guns, trucks, they bought all of whatever they needed to carry on the war for us, and paid a fair price.
Ed Clark, US Ambassador to Australia 1965-68 from the film Allies.
Lyndon Johnson always thought that Australia was the next large rectangular State beyond El Paso, and treated it accordingly.
Marshall Green, US ambassador to Australia 1973-75 from the film Allies.
I remember one night a very senior American officer, who was a close friend of mine, said he had nothing but praise for the expertise and discipline of the Australian soldier. He told me, ‘We really like having you guys here.’ And I said, ’Why’s that? And he said, ‘You’re very good, you’ve helped us a lot….it’s like the British having the Ghurkhas, we have the Australians.
Brian Day in John Pilger’s A Secret Country.
Insanity is a kind of innocence.
Graham Greene’s The Quite American
I interviwed Brian Day for BLUFM in1992
Togs: How far do you think Australia has to go in actually coming to grips with Vietnam and the war in Indochina?
Brian: Jesus! I don't really think that sections of Australian society, political, military and otherwise will ever admit Vietnam was a mistake. They just won't. There is too many people who still believe in the so¬ called ANZAC tradition. Now I have a great belief in certain parts of the ANZAC tradition because the ANZAC tradition was a very hard won honour. For example if you look at our casualties in World War One where the ANZAC tradition was formed and if you look at Australia and New Zealand they suffered the highest casualties of any nations in World War One, per percentage of those put in the field and the ANZAC tradition after World War One. Although a lot of people have tried to put it down; the facts of battle, the things that occurred in battle, the amounts of times the Australians actually did heroic things in battle is well documented and can't be taken away. Where other armies lost places, the Australians took them back and that happened on a couple of occasions. So, the ANZAC tradition was there and the ANZAC tradition should always remain. What I don't like about it is that people tend to use the ANZAC tradition as a form of propaganda to brainwash people into believing that war is good.
So, the ANZAC tradition should be kept within its' correct perspective. The ANZAC tradition is the gallantry of men. The mateship of men. The ability to fight. The ability to stay together and do a job under terrible adverse conditions. Nowhere should the ANZAC tradition say that war is good. Some good comes out of war. It must because the Japanese and the Germans were defeated in World War Two and that was good. So, good does come out of war if the war is just. But I don't think the ANZAC tradition should be used for political or for propaganda purposes to affect the minds of young people. So that they believe one, that we are the best soldiers in the world and all the other soldiers, the Asian soldiers and all these German soldiers and all these others are no good because that's not so. That is not so. The ANZAC tradition should make our youth aware of war. It shouldn't make them want to go to war. ANZAC Day shouldn't make people want to go to war. ANZAC Day should make people aware of war and what war does.
That's the part that upsets me. Is the way that it is used. And the way it was used in the Australian Army to make people believe when they went to Vietnam that what they were doing was correct.
See for example, I just could not believe and found it very difficult in the end to believe that the Australian Army had been used for political and military gain in South East Asia. I always thought the Australian Army would be used for good things. I just didn't believe that our government would have used the Australian Army as a cheap mercenary outfit to run around the world killing people to make politicians happy or more powerful and this security of Australia. That the Vietnamese could ever come down and invade us, you know, the Domino Theory, that was all crap. But people actually used the ANZAC tradition in conjunction with these theories to convince people like myself and thousands and thousands of others that by going to Vietnam we were serving our country and we weren't. We were serving the politicians. We were serving the Americans and we were there basically doing in Vietnam what the Japanese did in Asia and what the Germans did in Europe. We invaded a foreign country to stop those people from having the government they wanted, whether we agree with it or not, surely the first thing is democracy. By going there we were actually killing democracy. We weren't helping people to become democratic.
Togs: There was one documentary that was sponsored by Veteran Affairs and the Returned Services League.
Brian: The Sharp End, that was political.
Togs: Can you explain a bit about that?
Brian: Well, you've only got to look at people that appeared. What happened, it originally came out in the RSL papers and the Veteran Affairs paper. They wanted people to volunteer to be interviewed about Vietnam and of course many thousands of people volunteered to be interviewed and I think it was a half hour show. From that they did their selections and interviewed 400 people. So, they cut the numbers down dramatically then. Firstly, they selected who they wanted then out of that 400 people. They then selected enough people to speak in a thirty minute period which bought it down then I think to twelve, fourteen people. So, they picked those that they wanted to hear speak. They picked those that spoke favourably as to the war. I think if you look at rank structure of those who spoke and from memory most of the speakers were very, very senior Army, Navy, Air Force officers with a very pro Vietnam theme and pro Vietnam attitude. People don't like to admit they've been conned and I would say the higher you were up the ladder the less you want to admit that you were conned. And of course, there are people who like to believe and many of these people would probably sincerely believe from what they did was correct, that the communist bogey was there. "I would rather be Dead than Red", is an actual reality and one that all things socialist, communist or whatever are bad.
And they're also some racist overtones in that too. Australia can be a very racist society and I remember people saying, "Oh they are all the same and they're all tarred with the same brush." And they see a Vietnamese, a Laotian or a Cambodian or Chinese or Japanese or Korean and they wouldn't know the difference. They would not have a slick where they come from.
Togs: What were some of the things you thought about when you got back from Vietnam; about the whole involvement?
Brian: I never really gave it a great deal of thought when I came back because I was still in the army and I considered Vietnam was really a matter for the politicians and the Australian people to sort out. The Australian Army has always been taught or in my era was always taught that Australian soldiers were non political. That once you allowed the military to become a political force, well the army to become involved politically you would end up with Banana Republic type coups and so forth. But I can remember being told as a young soldier; don't get involved in politics, "Its' got nothing to do with us, we're soldiers not politicians." So, the whole political aspect of Vietnam I pushed aside because I didn't understand it and I really didn't want to have anything to do with it. On the military side I considered it a disaster and that was because I felt that the leaders of the day, both political and military, more so the military, in my mind had badly managed the whole show.
Togs: Are you talking about the American military?
Brian: Yes, because Australia basically served under the American military leadership although we had our areas. All the American leadership did was expand on what the French did and it had not been successful with the French. And all the Americans were doing were pouring in kids. Having served with the American army which I did for a year in Vietnam, with Special Forces who were the American regular army, the professional army and their standards were quite good. They were quite high and very professional but around me of course were the rest of the American Army that were smoking dope and having Afro haircuts, wearing peace beads, Black hand gangs. People were going out and not fighting and sitting around for two or three days eating their rations and sending back grid references which were not true. An army in decay and that's exactly what it was. By the time I was there in 1971 72 the American was an army was in decay and the American Air Force too. Whereas when I was there in 1967, I served for a brief period of six weeks.
The American Army was very professional in 1967, their discipline was high and the difference between 1967 and 1971 was remarkable. It was a different army. It had just completely collapsed. The best portrayal of the American army I have ever seen in Vietnam was the movie Platoon. That showed how the American Army was. How the American Army had disintegrated and decayed into this mad rampant gang warfare type organization. It was actually hopeless.
Togs: What was it like for the Vietnamese?
Brian: The Vietnamese Army depended on the quality of the leaders. The Vietnamese Army was not good because the leadership was not good. Every time you changed the president of Vietnam, he changed all the generals. There were so many coups between 1960 and 1968. All presidents of Vietnam immediately surrounded themselves with military power.
So their cousins and uncles and brothers, friends and neighbours and who they knew and trusted became commanders. For example Big Mien, he changed all the generals, Kahn changed all the generals, Ky changed all the generals, Theu changed all the generals and all these corps commanders, people commanding different sections of Vietnam would be changed. You get new four star generals come in. Now all the four star generals would then bring in all the people they wanted under their command so they change half of the two star generals who in turn would change half of the one star generals who in turn would change half the colonels. Although, that didn't really matter. Majors and captains just do what they're told. So you had this complete change in leadership and the soldiers down the bottom know those at the top were not there because they were good soldiers or good generals or good colonels or anything else. They were there because the politicians in Saigon had put them there.
Togs: Was the Army of the Republic of Vietnam dominated by the Catholic officer structure power elite over a largely Buddhist army?
Brian: Yes, I don't know of any Buddhist officers. There were obviously Buddhist officers but I just didn't
know them. The hierarchy of the Vietnamese worked on who you knew, who you were, what family you belonged to and who was in power at the time and that's how it worked. And I'm talking colonel and above.
Togs: What about the National Liberation Front?
Brian: Well the NLF, most of their commanders came through the ranks. If you look at General Vo Glen Giap. He started with a platoon of twenty four. I think out of the survivors of that original twenty four every one who survived eventually become a general because they came through this process. I've actually spoken to North Vietnamese Army and South Vietnamese Army and NLF generals and commanders. One of them actually started running in the jungle against the Japanese under Archimedes Petty, the American OSS [later to become the Central Intelligence Agency]Major, and Giap, and Ho Chi Minh when they first started their anti Japanese campaigns as a guerrilla force and he was something like sixteen. He then retired in 1980 or 81 as a major general and during that time he fought the Japanese, the French, the Americans, the Khmer Rouge and his last battles was against the Chinese on the North Vietnamese/Chinese border in 1978. Now how could you question really the ability of the person whose command structure had come with experience and obviously with ability over such a long period of time? Most of the NLF people came through the system as soldiers and were promoted through the system as soldiers. The same as the North Vietnamese Army, most of those came through the same way.
Togs: What about the war itself? You've made the point how the Vietnamese couldn't understand the Americans, in regard to their own history with their Revolutionary War of Independence, becoming involved in Vietnam?
Brian: I had that said to me by NLF people and they said we could not understand really why the Americans opposed us, when all we wanted to do was have our independence from France the same as America wanted its' independence from the British. And we were really fighting an anti¬-colonial war one hundred two hundred years after they had fought an anti colonial war. We just think the Americans were very unfair. They didn't consider us in that light and of course the explanation is not that simple, because you've got look at the politics of the day. And the politics of the day was the Cold War and the fear of China. The fear of the Domino Theory which of course was always garbage but it was a good thing for politicians to hang their hat on and it sounded good.
Togs: What was it like at the time?
Brian: I can remember as a kid in Sydney seeing these posters on walls and fences and things of Australia down here at the bottom. All these arrows coming down from the north, from China, and all the Asian regions.It was like gravity. You were waiting for all these people to pour in and they were saying, "The Asian Invasion" and the Yellow Hordes from the north.
"The Northern Defence Strategy" or something or other. The Bamboo Curtain because you had the Iron Curtain that suited Russia. They were industrial nation so China had the Bamboo Curtain because they had more bamboo than Russia. There was this enormous propaganda which was enormous. You had the propaganda of the Korean War of Chinese Communist forces and North Korean forces and the American film units that were in there as part of the American/United Nations war effort and they used to be showed at the cinema. I'd go to the movies every Saturday; no TV in those days, the Korean War period. You go to the movies and there would be news footage. You see all these documentary type reporting, very slanted of course and we were winning. How we were teaching them a lesson. How our soldiers were far superior. How our gallantry and heroics of our men in the field was winning the war. How the enemy was running away. How they were badly trained and badly equipped and couldn't shoot; were bad soldiers and the ANZACs were killing them left, right and centre. All this was very, very well done and then after that you had the Malayan Emergency. Once again, the Australians were in the jungle defeating the Communist Insurgents. The Communists were coming into the villages and plantations doing terrible things to the people. Our role in going there was really to save the people following that of course was Vietnam. Well, by this time I was in the military system and had been in Malaya and the enemy had changed in Malaya and Borneo. He was no longer the Communist Terrorist, it was the Indonesians, Surkano and the Confrontasi as he called it.
The propaganda element, I think, America learnt very well from the Germans, from Gobbels and his crew. The power of the radio, the power of the cinema, and latter of course, the Americans simply adapted that to television. The power of television was enormous but what happened then is that the television people showed too much and people started to see through what the American government wanted to be released. What you could actually see because to me, television bought a great area of freedom of information, because everything on television can't be governed. A lot of it can but most of it can't be governed if it is news for example. They can cut news and they can slant news but if you get people like Neil Davis, the Australian reporter who made their private documentaries and then sold them or who worked for NBC or ABC. A lot of those people put on the screens exactly how it was without cutting the footage. A lot of that really told the truth. So, the propaganda machine went the other way because the power of television, of people seeing the horror of war in their own lounge rooms, it never happened before.
Togs: What about the Tet Offensive? Like before Tet, I've seen the accounts written by journalists even network producers saying they only covered one third of the war and that was the American Military third. They were also dependent on the US Army for getting out to the battlefield and when they arrived the battle was over. With Tet, the war was outside their hotel rooms in Saigon.
Brian: You see, the American Army, Westmoreland for example was their shining light and of course they didn't want to appear like the Vietnamese. They didn't want to continue changing their Generals. The hierarchy incompetence in the Vietnamese army became laughable. It was just a joke. The Americans didn't want it to happen to them. Well, of course who did they have? Most of them World War Two generals, simply incapable of running anything like Vietnam anyway. It was just too big. It was just too huge. Remembering that five times the amount of explosives munitions were used in Vietnam than in World War Two. Westmoreland was basically finding his way. Where they went wrong, in my opinion and many other peoples' opinion, is the Americans went in and the Australians went in to fight the war for the Vietnamese and they just simply got bogged down. What they should have done was go in and assist the South Vietnamese fight their war. Then they would have found out that most Vietnamese didn't want to fight the war anyway. They really didn't want to fight.
The system that the British used in India, where they had white officers and I'm not trying to be racist here. I'm trying to talk about a military and a political solution to that particular problem at that time. When the British Army went into India, the British army itself, as the British army didn't do much good. When the British Army went into India and had Sikh battalions, for example under white officers and other Indian battalions like the Bengal Lancers and the Skinner Horse. Where they had the black soldiers or the Indian soldiers and the white officers they did much better. In Vietnam Special Forces units and the Mai force units who had American and Australian commanders with Vietnamese soldiers did much better than Vietnamese units with their own officers because the incompetence amongst their own officers was enormous and soldiers don't like fighting and dying for incompetent officers. So, if we had gone in as a complete advisory force rather than a ground force and had the Americans as an advisory force and not a ground force. If you had say, Australian and American sergeants as platoon commanders, American warrant officers as captains and such as company commanders, then the South Vietnamese would have either fought or wouldn't have fought. And I think the war would have either been won much earlier, won meaning the South would have remained the South and the North remain the North, or would have fallen much sooner because most of the South Vietnamese did not want to fight.
Togs: What about the whole creation of the South Vietnamese state?
Brian: It was a false state. It was a created army and a created police force. A created presidency created by the Americans. It was all artificial. It was like the economy. It was all artificial. South Vietnam had no economy whatsoever and it was all built because the Americans wanted it built and they built it. It was just false and most of the generals were false.
Most of the generals were put there because their family had position and friends of the original Diem or they came from a prominent Catholic families. Quite a lot of the officers were young officers whose families had moved from the North who were Catholics. Because you've got to remember about two million moved to the South.
People like President Ky of the South Vietnamese Air Force for example, he was actually born eighty kilometres from Hanoi. He wasn't a South Vietnamese. Madam Dinh, the Vice President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam now, everybody thinks she was a North Vietnamese. She was born in the South and went to Saigon University. Lee the General Secretary of the Communist Party is a Southerner. Vo Gan Diem, Prime Minister is a Southerner. So this north and south is an artificial concept.
Togs: Can you explain the whole setting up of the state from the Vietnamese community in France.
Brian: Bo Dai he was a prince. He came from a very prominent Roman Catholic family. He was very French orientated. In fact, he used to make a lot of speeches in French because his Vietnamese was so poor. He basically lived in France, most of his life in Paris. He was the traditional king of Vietnam. His brother was the Archbishop. His brother was very high in the Catholic Church in Vietnam also. So, when they had the 1954 Geneva Accords, when they separated the North and the South, this was done for a four year period. The agreement was four years. There would be a separation of the two states, and for so many days, I think it was ninety days, those that wished to go the North could do so and those that wished to come to the South could do so. The American Central Intelligence Agency stepped in at this stage and dropped massive leaflets from aircraft talking about what would happen to you if you stayed in the North. You know if you're a Catholic, if you had French connections, if your family had been part of the French administration and this frightened people terribly. So, two million came south. Without the use of propaganda no one knows what those figures would have been. What they don't say is about a million and a half went to the North without the aid of propaganda. Separation was a temporary issue. All the Viet Cong units in the South were asked to go to the North during that four year period which they did, most of them did. At the end of that four year period there was supposed to be general elections through out Vietnam supervised by the United Nations where anybody could elect anybody they freely wanted to elect to be the leader of Vietnam. That division between the North and South in Vietnam would then cease at the completion of those elections. But what happened was the Americans moved in and said we can't have this because they will all vote for Ho Ch' Minh because there is no one else anyway. So they had to find someone. So they found Diem and his brother and his sister in America. They were good Catholics. He was in a seminary so they found him and he appeared to be the right man for the right job at that time. So they went to France. They went to Paris and they tracked down Bo Dai and they said to Bo Dai we are going to start a new state in the south in Vietnam so it will not become communist because if the communists get in your going to lose everything. You're the King and remember what the communist did to the king of Russia/the Czar. What we're are going to do is set up a state in the South with good Catholic people. And Bo Dai was all for this, he had Catholic connections. And we would like you to sign over executive powers, not as king, you'll remain the king and prince and all the rest of it but you've got to put up with a president and prime minister. And therefore, what South Vietnam needs is a constitution and we've prepared that and if you sign here we will bring that constitution into force. We will pay you a million US dollars a year to keep you in comfort in France. So he did. Then of course America quickly manufactured a small army and small police force and they got the old princes palace in Do Ap and the one in Saigon and they then became the presidential palace and presidential residence and they created this army, police force and administration and a bureaucracy and then flew Diem in. When Diem actually got to the airport in Ton Su Lut just out of Saigon, when he arrived as the president of South Vietnam, most people in South Vietnam did not know who he was. Who is this man? What is he doing? Oh, he has been put there by Boi Dai and that made it legitimate. Therefore the Americans actually created a government and a president and a prime minister and everything else in South Vietnam. By 1958 when there was supposed to be these free elections the president of South Vietnam said, "No. These elections are unacceptable because I have an obligation to the Vietnamese people not to allow them to fall under communist rule." So they boycotted the elections and therefore that border which was supposed to be there for that period of time. That four years actually remained for another seventeen years until 1975.
Togs: What was the role of the CIA?
Brian: To stop it from being a communist state. To counteract the insurgency they bought in the American Special Forces. Quite often the American Special Forces had been used as the military arm of the CIA. At the same time in Laos for example, Laos was a problem. The CIA started a private army in Laos with CIA commanders and American military commanders on loan from the American military. They actually bought a private army to fight the Pathet Lao in Laos. That was the secret war, no one really knew much about that until after it was all over and of course bits and pieces have come out. I know for a fact that many, many Special Forces were lost in Laos and lost in Cambodia and I can show you documents on that.
Togs: What about where you fitted into, as an Australian soldier, in US Special Forces?
Brian: Well, what used to happen is, every year, the first advisers went there in 1962, and because there was only thirty of them and their administration was rather difficult. How do you administer thirty people in a foreign land and a foreign army? It's crazy, so what they did, was those thirty people were then actually allocated to the Americans to become part of the American system called M.A.C.V. Military Assistance Command Vietnam. And then you were, in principle, handed over to the Americans and what followed that is you were paid by the Australians and the Americans ration allowances and such. You were fully equipped by the Americans and the Australians probably looked after your mail and your pay book. That was about it.
Togs: Did the Australian military command know where you were?
Brian: Well, they knew were I was because I was there later in the piece but in the early days they didn't know really. The only people that knew, probably, were the people in Vietnam at the time. Even Sir Thomas Daley said, "Once the Australians went in amongst the American Forces we really did not know their day to day employment or exactly what they were they were doing." They were allocated to an army and the army used them. If some worked for the CIA well, so be it. We had no knowledge of that at the time. So, remember it started off with thirty and over the years, it gradually increased until the end of the war, 1972 73 when we pulled out. There had been exactly one thousand Australian and New Zealand advisers go through the system. Now, it depended on your background, on where you went in that system. If you went over as adviser and your background was in armour, you would then go and work with armour people. If it was artillery you would probably go and do the same, go to artillery or engineers or other things. If you were Australian army and served in one of the Special Forces type units and if you were Australian Army and had airborne training, or if, you had counter insurgency training or jungle warfare, training such as, Malaya or Borneo or Vietnam, before or on your second trip, then you would probably be sent off to a Vietnamese Army unit as an adviser or you could be sent to Special Forces. If you were sent to Special Forces, you then did the same job as every Special Forces soldier did, being Americans or others. In my case, the way the rotation went, I ended up with the Cambodian Army.
Togs: What were the Black Operations?
Brian: The first Black Operations which is a very broad term, were Operation Phoenix. The Americans formed this system where they tried to do what the Viet Cong/National Liberation Front were doing. In other words, annihilating the key enemy. The Viet Cong were very good at that. They would annihilate village chiefs because, remember, the NLF and the South Vietnamese, in many cases considered they were fighting a nationalist war. The same as the French underground considered they were fighting a nationalist war against the Germans during World War Two. So, the parallel was there. They looked upon the Americans and others that came to Vietnam as invaders, the same as, the French looked upon the Germans, or the Russians looked upon the Germans as invaders. They looked upon anybody that worked with those people as being traitors, the same as, the French look upon those that worked with the Germans. The Vietnamese NLF, the nationalists, looked upon South Vietnamese who played the game with foreign armies in that way, as traitors. So, they did what all countries do to traitors. They shoot them when they have an opportunity to do so. Phoenix, brainchild of the CIA, was that they would turn that around and they would penetrate the NLF hierarchy and military commanders and so forth, and they would annihilate them. But, of course, the
y didn't understand the Vietnamese very much because it didn't really work that well. People were getting shot and blown away on a say so and hearsay. So, you may have had two colonels applying for the position of brigadier general which was one vacancy, in one area, and the first colonel to the gate would say, "Oh he's NLF, Viet Cong, double agent." So, the hit teams would go and blow the other colonel away because this bloke would then get promoted. Now, that's a pretty basic example but that is the sort of thing that, therm occurred.
The reports are, that they knocked off twenty eight thousand people in twenty four months. Now, I know the Phoenix programme caused damage to the NLF. I know that, but how much damage is debateable. They said they wiped out a lot of the infrastructure at village level. It did cause the NLF problems but the expense of that was to kill twenty eight thousand people. Now, how many of those people are innocent and how many of those people are actually on your side, is unknown. We just don't know. So, whether it did more good than harm, or more harm than good, no one knows. But, it was stopped in the end. It was just outrageous and it had to be stopped. So, officially it was stopped. What occurred then, was you had Black Teams which continued under the direct control of the province chief and they were his sort of pet little squads. Their role was not as active in the Phoenix Programme but some of these little squads were maintained, and it was their job to knock anybody off that the province chief said was a double agent or black marketeer or Viet Cong, and that was their jobs. They were commanded by Special Forces people with Vietnamese or Thai or Chinese mercenary soldiers.
Togs: Looking at, back in hindsight, what are your feelings about the whole war itself?
Brian: Well, the whole thing was a shambles. The whole thing should never have happened. The politicians and military leaders, of the day, were either very stupid or very cunning, and I think they were cunning. Casey and other chiefs of general staff at that time, and Menzies. I'm quite sure they knew what the whole thing was about, even though, they were a product of their age and all the rest of it. But, they still must have been able to know more than what I knew as a seventeen, eighteen year old soldier. The Australians basically encouraged, at every step, the Americans to go into Vietnam. I think, in some cases, they probably went further than just encouraging. They actually advised in many ways that the Americans should go in. I think they should have known that most of the so called National Liberation Front people were more nationalist orientated than communist orientated and their fight, their struggle was really a continuation of the French war and that was, to get rid of foreigners and foreign domination. Even the French now, Mitterand, he and others have said the folly of the French Expeditionary Forces in Vietnam was a tragic mistake. It should not have happened. The French war in Indochina should not have happened. I don't think the American war in Indochina should have ever happened either. These wars should not have occurred. You see World War Two, you could not have avoided World War Two. No one could live under the systems being imposed by the Nazi regime or the Japanese Imperial Navy and Army. No one could live under those systems, it was just impossible. So there was really no alternative to war but in Vietnam there was an alternative. But no one wanted to take it. Whether they were still in a World War Two mind, I don't know. There was no need for that war. It should not have occurred. People just wouldn't talk to each other. When Ho Chi Minh tried to talk to the French they went and bombed Haiphong Harbour and blew it up.
When they were going to have elections the Americans wouldn't listen. The Americans didn't want elections so they did this little scheme where they created a South Vietnamese government. So, politics has a great deal to answer to. All the people that were killed. No one really knows how many died in Vietnam because the registry of births, deaths and marriages, in the period of time, just didn't exist in a village level or outlying districts.
Togs: So, the figure of two million Vietnamese killed could be quite a conservative figure?
Brian: I think so because if you napalm a place, a village of a thousand, if you hit it with B52's how are you going to do a body count? Was it 1,000? Was it one thousand two hundred? Was it eight hundred? You don't know. All these casualty figures that the Americans put out, I just wonder if they were computer figures or factual figures. At one stage, they worked out, on the computer figures, they wiped out the North Vietnamese Army about three times by the body count which was quite unbelievable. The Americans worked on a system of body count because they had nothing else to work on. How else could they win the war? It wasn't a war for ground. When your advancing through Europe or the islands, when you occupied an island or going up through Sicily, you occupied a town or village, it was an advancement wasn't it, towards Germany or Japan? In Vietnam, you weren't going anywhere. Where were you going? You weren't going to invade the North. You weren't going to invade Cambodia. They already done that anyway, secretly. So, in the end, ground really meant nothing. So, all they did was blow everything away and they had nothing to gauge their advancement so they created the body count system. And, the more bodies that were created the better the winning looked and the more medals were handed out. See, if you're in charge of a platoon as a young officer and over your twelve month period you could actually chalk up thirty five bodies of the enemy and have lost three soldiers yourself they would say, this guy is a good soldier. This guy is a good officer. He is a good platoon commander and they give him a medal. That's the American system so he'd be a decorated officer which ensures his future career. If you don't get decorated in the American system you don't get promoted. How many officers created their own career paths? How may colonels? How many generals? How many captains created their own career paths by their own decorations? And how many battle decorations were given out for each other? You put me in for one and I'll put you in for one next time. Oh, we got forty, no make it fifty. So, the whole thing was set up. It is just a joke.
Togs: What was the response to Vietnam Veterans when they came back to Australia, and how did you go about setting up the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia?
Brian: The Vietnam Veterans Association was formed, out of a need. And that need was the traditional veterans welfare. Care organizations had failed and I speak of the Returned Services League. The RSL did not support Vietnam Veterans at branch level. At some of the branches, some of the people they assisted Vietnam veterans individually. So, you can't knock the sub branches. I wouldn't knock the branches of the RSL but the hierarchy of the RSL just whitewashed the Vietnam Veterans completely. When I came back from Malaya because I was in Malaya as part of the Strategic Reserve and under the Commonwealth Brigade System England, Australia, New Zealand, Ghurkhas and so forth, I was entitled to join the RSL. The first people who came back from Vietnam were not entitled to join the RSL. This, of course, was later changed. The RSL people said that it wasn't a war. The old hands of the RSL said it was merely a police action. Oh, you only lost five hundred dead and two thousand three hundred wounded. We lost that in one day in Bardia or Tobruk or in Crete or in New Guinea or whatever. So, the Vietnam Veterans were not looked upon as being Veterans in that sense in the true military sense.
Secondly, when the Agent Orange question came up. The question of the use of chemicals in Vietnam. The RSL refused to back any Vietnam Veteran against chemical warfare. It was said, time and time again by the government, I think it was actually said in the house by certain politicians, Australians soldiers were never exposed to chemicals. They were never near an area where chemicals were used which of course now we know as lies.
Whether the person said that at the time knowing it was lies or what that person really believed we don't know but it was still misleading the house and still misleading the Australian public.
So, a group of Vietnam Veterans got together and said, the only way we are going to do any good is to go political. So, the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia was formed out of the need and it's grown ever since and it's still growing now. We've had a senate inquiry and a royal commission. We've actually changed the system of repatriation and care for veterans which was changed in 1986, as a result of initiatives of the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia. The controversy still continues about the chemicals, whether it will be ever proven or not, I don't know, it's hard. Most of the veterans who are sick are receiving treatment under the heading of "stress related illness" because Vietnam was a very stressful war. The circumstances surrounding service in Vietnam are very stressful but was also probably equally stressful as the circumstances surrounding Veterans when they came home and the system to which they were bought home. There was no debriefing. All sorts of problems.
All the chemicals that we mentioned in our royal commission and in our senate inquiry saying were harmful were then normally used in Australian agriculture and one of the things used against us. Why shouldn't they're be a problem here if their a problem there? That was ten years ago. Now most of those chemicals are banned in Australia because they have found out since that time that most of these chemicals were harmful. The RSL has turned a little bit. A Vietnam Veteran is national president now but we've got to remember he was a general [Alf Garland], a brigadier general. He has no sympathy for the AVVA. I think he was there, in my opinion, as a token Vietnam Veteran. It's like a lot of committees oh, we have to so many women on committee. I don't object to women being on a committee. I don't object to men being on committees but I just don't like tokenism on committees. I feel the national presidency of the RSLis tokenism. They put a Vietnam Veteran to shut everybody else up but it didn't work. Because, I reckon that the person they put there is not representative or symbolic of the Vietnam Veteran because the man was a professional officer all his life and finished up as general and most Vietnam veterans don't believe that he shows what a Vietnam Veteran should be.
So, it's a lost cause. The RSL made a bad mistake. Quite a few up and coming people in the RSL now, who are Vietnam Veterans of the younger generation of the RSL, are now starting to realise the RSL caused fragmentation in veterans' communities. By their attitudes to Vietnam Veterans they are trying to bring us back together. I hope that happens in time because everyday the RSL numbers are being reduced by death. Because World War Two blokes now have got to at least 68 [81 in 2005], and they can't last forever. Ten years down the track the only real veterans you'll have are Korea, Malaya and Vietnam Veterans. Now, if those small three campaigns and I talk small in comparison to World War Two and what's left of the RSL, don't get together and don't fight together and put up a united front the veterans' benefits', veterans' care will collapse. Because they'll be unable to fight the government and there won't be enough votes there to worry about.
Your veterans' community is coming smaller and smaller everyday, even with Gulf, even with Somalia, even with Cambodia. Your talking hundreds and that won't make that much difference. So, if there is not a united veterans' movement within the next ten years, veterans care, pension benefits and other privileges, and they are privileges earned by veterans because of their service, will be lost.
Togs: You've played an important role in the aid programmes to Vietnam after the war? How do the Vietnamese see this of work from Australia?
Brian: See, in most of Vietnam, people don't even know who Australians are. They don't because the Australian army's total commitment was fifty odd thousand in a ten year commitment. The only people that went out of Saigon, Phuc Tuy province which was the so called Australian province and Vung Tau were the Advisers and there was only a thousand of them over ten years, all over South Vietnam. So, for example, Play Que there were six Australians in Play Que.
In Play Que. where I was, there were six Australians in eighteen battalions. That's not many Australians. In Ben Dein province when I moved down to there, I think there were seven of us in the whole of the province. So, you know, most Vietnamese look upon Australians as just Americans because they didn't know them. But, in the area where Australians were concentrated such as Saigon, Vung Tau, Nui Dat area they actually had a name for the Australians which was Ock meaning country down south and the people from the country down south. Whereas the Americans were known as the iak ee Americans from that part of the world. So, that is the only places where Australians were, in a military sense, were known.
So, any future connections with Vietnam I've always maintained and pushed this Foreign Affairs and others, it should be maintained in the areas where we were known during the war. Because to go somewhere else, although the aid and whatever we are doing would be appreciated, it would simply be somebody else coming in who has no real significance whatsoever.
Whereas, I feel, by concentrating our aid into the Australian areas of the war, what we are doing is healing the wounds of that war with those people. If you take it down to the grassroots levels, we're talking at people level. We're now dealing with and meeting and seeing and talking to the children of many of those who we killed. Because it's been that long, we are now talking to adults who were children when Australians were burning down villages and shooting members of their families.
So, I think what we need firstly, we owe an obligation to those areas because of our previous military involvement and secondly, I feel we need to go back and show a better image. When we go back to these places now with an aid project say for example, I was in Vung Tau last year and spoke to the Peoples' Committee and as a result of that, the Vice Minister of Health that governs the southern area, around that area, sent me a nine page document of their present health problems and their projected health problems over the next five years. So, as a result of that, I then made a submission to the Australian government.
Now when this aid starts to come through, it has been approved. There's not a problem there. When this aid starts to come through, it will come through strictly as Australian aid. It won't come through as anything else so that the people receiving it and we are talking at people now, the people in the villages in that province, the people in the towns, the people who go to the hospitals, they will be able to turn around and say, "Well this is coming from the Australians. The same people who we fought against. Isn't it good that those people have now come back in this way and help us."
That's why I think our aid projects should be directed into the areas where the Australian military had an involvement during the war because I think it means more. There is going to be a lot of aid units and projects and such, go from all nations into Vietnam when the embargo is lifted, some bigger, some smaller than ours. But I think part of the arrangement must be the significance of the aid and I'm a great one for medical aid. I push for medical all the time because medical is desperately needed. They've still got malaria problems. They've still got ancient equipment, French medical equipment. They've got some left over from the Americans but it doesn't work because they can't get parts because of the embargo.
I believe medical comes first and that includes nutrition, and so forth, and the education comes second. That's the two that I look at because once you've got those two you've got the basis to do other things.
Togs: Do you think the embargo will be lifted by the United States?
Brian: See, the embargo will be lifted not because the Americans have any desire to lift it for any compassionate or moral or any other reasons. Because in that sense, by lifting the embargo, they're basically saying all is forgiven the MIA [Missing In Action] POW program will then die a natural death. The Americans have held on to that for a long time because it gives them so called legitimacy for embargo. Once the embargo is lifted there's no further purpose so it will die. But, if they don't, what your going to have is the Japanese, Taiwanese, Australians, Canadians and French.
Mitterand has just been there and signed six deals worth millions of dollars in aid and investment projects. If they don't the Americans economically will miss the boat, commercially they miss the boat.
Because believe it or not the finest equipment, some of their medical equipment is excellent. Their computer equipment is very good. The Americans are so far advanced over most nations in technology that they've got to go in so that this technology is sold.
And by the Americans lifting the embargo the international banks, The International Monetary Fund they'll come in and they'll lend money and they'll fund projects and America wants to get a piece of that pie. The projects pie because although the Vietnamese have not got any money to buy these things but the IMP will finance the rehabilitation of Vietnam.
So, if the Americans are in it they say Vietnam needs to computerise their medical system. Whose computers will they use? They use American and who will pick up the tab? The IMP. So, for financial considerations only, America must lift the embargo and enter Vietnam in the next six months.
Togs: What did you think of the monument to the Vietnam War being unveiled in Canberra last year?
Brian: Well, it's a monument that has been put down there because that part of Canberra is now, has been allocated for monuments. If you go down there and have a look the Air Force has got a monument, the Royal Australian Regiment has got a monument, the Light Horse has got a monument, the Navy has got a monument and it is sort of an avenue of monuments. I think they are trying to follow the Americans a bit.
I think the word monument was a bad term. You have your War Memorial and I think the War Memorial is the significant place for Veterans, soldiers and families. With these other things they are really glorified little statues and statuettes that were done in World War One in every village and town in Australia. You've only got to look at every village in the mountains and there is a stone or a monument or a small dedication to soldiers that went away in World War One. Now because, for example in the Air Force in World War Two people came from everywhere, people in the Army in World War Two came from everywhere, people in the Navy came from everywhere, people in Vietnam came from everywhere.
What they have done is create this corridor of memorials because they can't put one in every town. I think it is symbolic in the sense that they have recognised everyone that went to Vietnam. I don't think they should have played on it, as far as, putting the names of the dead, they shouldn't have done that. That should not have been done. The names of the dead, they belong in the Canberra War Memorial with the names of the dead of every other serviceman and servicewoman who has ever served Australia are. They shouldn't be separated. The Air Force haven't got their names in their memorial, the Royal Australian Regiment haven't got their names, the Australian Light Horse haven't got their names, the Navy haven't got their names. So, I think they took it too far. They made it a symbol. l think that was done for political purposes. l have no objections to having something put there the same as I have no objection as the Air Force or the Light Horse has something. It should have simply been a monument or a symbol or service. It should not have been done like it was done. It sort of created a very bad impression amongst a lot of Veterans, in the sense that, they thought it was all over, that they could now be recognized. Now, go to the Department of Repatriation on Monday morning and say, I'm sick and have been sick for years, now help me. It is all forgiven, we all together again and then of course they get kicked out the bloody door and rejected as they always have been.