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Danger Close? The Battle Over Long Tan – tom sear

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Photo: Paul MacMichael, “East of Nui Dat”. During Operation Smithfield, Australian armoured personnel carriers (APCs) of 1 APC Squadron and soldiers on foot sweep along in pursuit of retreating Viet Cong troops in Phuoc Tuy Province. 19 August 1966. AWM. P05655.020

It is rare to see movie reviews on People’s Army of Vietnam(PAVN) related websites but in May this year a post appeared, which translated, declared:

“There’s another war film in the that setting of the American’s war of invasion in Vietnam. The trailer of this film came out on 23/04/2019. The special aspect is that this time it’s not between the American forces and the Liberation Forces of South Vietnam — but about the Battle of Long Tan — a battle between the vassal forces of Australia, New Zealand, and the Liberation Forces — https://youtube/AyUqZLwOo2Y ; They still persist erroneously ((a colloquial expression is used)) — that by counting the corpses spread around, that the enemy force numbered 2,500 troops and lost 200 soldiers. We beat them comprehensively — but looking at their film, it’s a self-conceited and vainglorious claim that our senior cadre were very stupid, risking human-wave attacks — ie having already sprung an ambush, but still assaulting like Japanese troops.”

Blog Post, May 2019, ‘Danger Close: The Battle of Long Tan — Official Teaser Trailer’, from the ‘Discussions on the History of the Anti-American Resistance War’ Page, screenshot July, 2019

This post, in response to seeing the teaser trailer to Danger Close, encapsulates the controversy surrounding one of the most significant and symbolic battles of the Vietnam War for Australia.

The bravery of Australian soldiers in this battle is uncontested. The number of combatants is also contested. The figure of ‘over 2500’ Viet Cong opposing 108 Australians who killed ‘over 245’ Vietnamese enemy is often quoted to depict an Australian victory against the odds.

What is less discussed are the sophisticated tactics and strategy of the opposing Viet Cong forces in this battle and in the context of the greater war.

A new film sacrifices more complex analysis of what actually happened for a sole focus upon a witness mode of storytelling.

‘Danger close’ is the title of a new Australian film depicting one of the most significant battles of the Vietnam war: The Battle of Long Tan.

‘Danger Close’ is a military phrase used in battle – when forward – directing fire onto an enemy. ‘Danger Close’ might also be an apt way to describe what is one of the most controversial battles of Australia’s military twentieth century, but also the perils of producing cinema stories of events in living memory about that event.

On the 18th of August 1966 an isolated infantry company of 108 men from D Company, 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR) and three New Zealanders from an artillery forward observation party of New Zealand’s 161 Field Battery, RAAF helicopters and a relief force of armoured personnel carriers, fought a battle opposing a vastly superior force, in abysmal weather conditions, for an entire afternoon. 17 Australians were killed and a further 25 were wounded, one of whom later died of wounds.

Long Tan deservedly has a place in the pantheon of Anzac history. It has everything: extraordinary bravery, fortitude and coolness under pressure, a phalanx of strong personalities and even, remarkably, a live concert from Little Pattie, Col Joye and the Joy Boys at the Ist Australian Taskforce Base (1ATF) of Nui Dat which could heard in battle ground before it ‘went loud.’

The Company Commander of Delta Company Major Harry Smith and Platoon Sergeant Bob Buick have fought for 50 years to have the Australian Government officially recognise the bravery of those in the battle. The film’s creation mirrors this trajectory. Producer, and former reservist commando Martin Walsh, Hollywood blockbuster writer Stuart Beattie(Pirates of the Carribbean) and auteur of precise and visceral emotion Kriv Stenders (Boxing Day, Red Dog) have created a film which deploys attention to military detail, emotional intensity and conventional cinematic narrative arc and characterisation.

Vietnam veterans have long been wedged in a struggle between an Australia divided over a unpopular conflict, and official culture reluctant to recognise their professionalism and bravery, for a long time excluded from the salve of acceptance into the Anzac popular culture pantheon like Gallipoli or Kokoda. Mainstream Australian popular rock and folk music, with its Celtic tradition of narrative, anecdotal story telling and gritty, ironic collective embrace of bitter irony, and underdog, fatalist national lament (like,Waltzing Matilda) was suitable to recognise the collective pain of Vietnam. Cold Chisel’s ‘Khe Sanh’ and Redgum’s ‘I was Only 19’ are emblematic of this tradition.

But, no major Australian film has tackled Vietnam since The Odd Angry Shot (1979).

Vietnam movies are genre of cinema which has evolved over decades in the United States, however. Danger Close is most closely associated with the memorialising genre of films like Platoon (1986), where the battle ground is imbued with religiosity to facilitate the healing reconciliation of private remembering with higher public concepts of commemoration and sacrifice. When I saw the film in Canberra previews the audience reaction reflected the experience of public rituals like Anzac Day, of profound reverential collective silence broken only by applause as the credits rolled.

No one doubts the bravery of the men who fought the battle, and the respect they are due. But the film repeats some statistics that are the subject of considerable debate. The failure to acknowledge this debate obscures the complexity of the battle, and the military skill on both sides.

The resolution of historical wrongs has, since the era of the Vietnam war been articulated through personalisation of the past, connecting history with memory and identity. Ironically, some of this change has come about because of the aftermath of the Vietnam war itself. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was only first acknowledged in the Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980. Subsequent long term studies of US Vietnam veterans found PTSD to be as high as 15% in this cohort. The clinical recognition of trauma in war may have contributed to Anzac culture in perhaps unexpected ways. Only 3 women appear in the film Danger Close: Little Pattie and two ‘Võ Thị Sáu Force’ members, but some historians argue women played a key role in how the conflict reframed Anzac culture. As Christina Twomey has suggested the feminist trauma activism around Anzac Day, and the subsequent centrality of the soldier as a victim of state coercion and violence in war, in antiwar protests that focussed on the Vietnam conflict in the 1970s may have been integral to the reinvigoration of Anzac since the 1980s.

PTSD is a condition in which personal experience of an event connects trauma to neurological process of memory formation and retrieval. More recently, trauma, and the personal testimony of the ‘witness’, have taken primacy in historical representation. Rightly so, given victims of the most violet and oppressive twenty century history have often been silenced and their trauma unacknowledged in the public arena. In this sense the film is restorative and integrating of trauma experience. Danger Close enables the members of D Coy 6RAR to own their story and achieve the reconciliation and integration into the Anzac myth. However, personal retellings of a battle where a narrative pivots on an incredible resistance and victory against the odds could also, for very human reasons, be potentially uncritical of the size of the enemy force and casualty figures inflicted to emphasise a dramatic contrast to storytelling or more importantly, have the affect of potentially downplaying any military historiographical critical examination of any such claims.

The Official history To Long Tan estimated 2500 enemy involved in the battle (a figure repeated in the film), but hedging its bets, does confirm only 1000 of this force had direct contact with D Company. The official history states that ‘the confirmed result of the battle of Long Tan was 245 enemy left dead on the battlefield and three enemy captured.’ Danger Close repeats these figures of enemy involment and KIA. Ernie Chamberlain, former intelligence officer and veteran of the Vietnam conflict has produced a detailed monograph on Viet Cong D445 Battalion the opposing force against Australians at Long Tan. Combining Australian research with multiple Vietnamese sources Chamberlain has questioned Danger Close’s figures. Ernie Chamberlain is still researching but has suggested that “the most accurate figure at this time is 1,750 NVA/VC(ie all elements, some probably to the east out of 1ATF artillery range), and about 210 KIA.”

Active historical research into Vietnamese sources continues to be revealing and productive. Chamberlain adds that “the only recently-accessible/available notebook of the 275th VC Regiment’s quartermaster has provided useful new data on the Regiment’s pre-battle and post-battle strengths.”

Indeed, insufficient incorporation of these sources has meant that Australian histories have persistently misunderstand the enemy command structure, and their active role in targeting Nui Dat. Much of this information contextualises just how complex and managed the enemy activity around Nui Dat was. For example, Chamberlain also points out that that the “level of enemy command for the Battle was, in my view, Military Region 7 as that headquarters commanded the Baria Province Headquarters (who ‘owned’ D445) and the 5th VC Division (who ‘owned’ 275 Regiment).” This type of command suggests a picture of complex, constant enemy activity around Nui Dat and which then erupts into what we perceive as singular battle in a single area at a specific time in Long Tan. Rather, than downplay what the combined forces achieved at Long Tan on August 18, this new knowledge highlights just how remarkable the actions of D Company were.

Photo by: Cunneen, William JamesPhuoc Tuy Province, Vietnam. 1966–10. Firing a captured communist Chicom self loading rifle is Private Dennis Graham of Carlton, Sydney, NSW. On his right in the background is test supervisor, 2/7758 Warrant Officer 2 John William ‘Jack’ Kirby.

Understanding the broader context has complexities for specific events which the film depicts. The film fails to acknowledge the depth of the reconnaissance peentration of the enemy and the fact that the mortar shelling depicted in the film was likely coordinated via Military Region 7 higher command. Indeed, despite the propaganda component of the Vietnamese Military website quoted above, annoyance that the film underplays the technical skill of the Viet Cong Commanders has some creedence. There has been a running debate in the veteran community about whether D Company wandered into an ambush. Chamberlain’s examinations of Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) suggest that the battle was a result of a Viet Cong tactic to – “lure the tiger from the mountain” – to fight the force of new Australian base where it suited them. the film depicts wave on wave of VC running at the Australians, seemingly with abandon. But running to the enemy was not a simple case of suicidal madness, it was a tactical technique used by the VC (and PAVN) was to get as close as they could to Australian troops, to compromise artillery support — to literally bring the ‘danger close’. These kinds of depictions are in danger of depersonalising and othering the Vietnamese.

What the VC command lacked in armour, air power, logistics, decent communicationss they made up for in discipline, skill and many more years fighting in Phước Tuy Province than the three months Nui Dat had been fully occupied by 1ATF. But what the VC command did do was ‘spend lives’ to overcome those disadvantages, and this why such body counts should be considered relative to a strategic objective.

Long Tan was a battle with a political objective. As Tom Richardson has noted if D coy had been eliminated there would have been poltical repercussions in Canberra. There were political goals in Phouc Tuy for the enemy, and for the broader war in Vietnam as well. The strategic objective of the VC command was certainly an attempt to inflict a serious defeat on 1ATF (destruction of a company) and thereby influence the citizens of Phouc Tuy province in the lead up to the National Constituent Assembly elections due on 3 Sep a little over 2 weeks later. Long Tan was declared a victory both on Radio Hanoi and Radio Beijing, suggesting it was at least considered within a wider strategic framework beyond the fight in the rubber.

None of this discussion is to suggest that the film is not interested in historical fact or detail, quite the opposite. Danger Close reveals an obsession military detail within unit level tactics. In some areas, the film has pursues granulations of detail only generally accessible in footnotes in the many written histories of the battle. Rather, the purpose to the examination of figures and strategy and intelligence in historical context here is to emphasise what type of details the film focusses our gaze upon, while avoiding others.

Storytelling in Australian military history tends to valorise tactical confrontations — individuals and small units engaging in direct hostilities to defeat enemies and hold terrain. Danger Close is emblematic of this type of ‘closed world’ narrative of unit cohesion, but without the psychological complexity and maturity of other Vietnam cinema in this genre, like Full Metal Jacket (1987), for example. Certainly telling a human level story this framework is exceptionally effective and the skills of the Director and writer in conveying this reality is effective. Recent engagements Australia has been involved will when their stories are told in cinema be equally amenable to this narrative deployment. But purely this aesthetic and cultural attachment to small unit actions might not be the best way forward for understanding conflict on a personal or political level as we move into an era of strategic great power competition.

Histories of Australia’s Vietnam war are being told through the tools and understanding of more contemporary militaries. Veterans of Vietnam have teamed up with those from the Afghanistan conflict to use geospatial data visualisations of every ‘contact’ to tell a different, non-narrative version of Australia’s Vietnam War. Such approaches have led to genuine collaborative efforts, sharing data to help a contemporary Vietnam solve its own ‘Wandering Souls’ Missing In Action (MIA) challenge, building trust and collaboration with Asia into the future.

Such approaches are indicative of braoder intellectual as well as military trends. Recent historiography of the Australian experience in Asia explores how the post WW2 proxy counterinsurgencies, and forward bases like Butterworth in Malaysia, can now in hindsight, be seen as tentative — albeit ambiguous- Australian presences in Asia, preceding the 21st century dominance of the Indo-Pacific region in global politics.

Recent interventions and modes of deployment will require new commemorative storytelling challenges. Since Vietnam the Australian military has an active involvement in global activity Beyond Combat, and in periods of continuous military operations of unconventional warfare now longer than Vietnam, such as Afghanistan. Just as these conflicts are instantly commemorated in a social media era. Now, the future military lifts off, away from the ‘dust at Nui Dat’ and the ‘Dust of Uruzgan’ into a changing world where the older dichotomous concepts of peace and war are breaking down. We are headed towards an era of Accelerated Warfare likely to occur in complex mega-cities and the cyber domain, and in a new environment of political warfare in Australia. In this urgent context, arguably, Danger Close has missed a great opportunity. In this emergent wider strategic and social context, the film repeats disputed facts and interpretations, while the emotional force of its compelling story risks cementing in Australian culture this version as the only view of Long Tan. Battles like Long Tan need to be explored in a way that incorporates the Anzac Digger myth into new contemporary realities, in the interests of both our service-people’s wellbeing and our evolving cultural identity.

It’s easy to say it’s a fictionalised movie, not a documentary, and cut Danger Close some slack. Sure. But how do we want to frame the stories we tell ourselves as we face a complex, uncertain future in our region?

Putting Australia’s Vietnam War on screen is way overdue. Commemorative storytelling is essential to heal wounds of the past. But Australian culture must begin to frame war stories with an eye to the present and future too. Perhaps the popular success of Danger Close might encourage the portrayal of these new stories on screens. There are other versions of “Anzac courage” that might be set in Timor-Leste, Rwanda, Iraq, Afghanistan, even cyberspace, and new narratives that might accurately reflect the complexities within future conflict.

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Thanks !

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