Long Tan: The Survivor's Account
(55 min. documentary, VHS video). Produced by Media Services Unit, University of Southern Queensland, directed by Bruce Horsfield and Julianne Steward. Distributed by Communication Futures, PO Box 7, Darling Heights, 4350, Australia; 076/301306
Reviewed by Peter McGregor, University of Western Sydney, Australia
This is a fascinating documentary about the famous battle of Long Tan on 17-18 August 1966 in Phuoc Tuy province, (South) Viet Nam, where the Australian Task Force (ATF) was stationed. The film certainly substantiates the claims that this encounter between a mere Company of Australian troops (six Battalion, D Company--108 men) and two Regiments and one Battalion of Viet Cong (VC) troops (regular Regiments 274 and 275 and guerrilla Battalion D445--1500+ troops), was a major turning point in the war for the ATF. It was the first, and the last, major battle between the ATF and the VC. Produced by the Media Services Unit at the University of Southern Queensland, primarily by academics Dr. Bruce Horsfield and Julianne Stewart, the film is conventional in its documentary style. It uses a range of interviews with participants and commentators from both sides to present and oral, chronological account of the battle. Black-and-white archival footage, again from both sides, is shown to confirm the veracity of both the interviews and also the film's narrative "line" on the battle. However, it is unlikely that the archival visuals we see are actually the events being spoken about. Contemporary footage is shot in color. While voice-over quotations from the Australian and New Zealand artillery support troops are in various male voices, such statements by the VC are translated and read by a single (universal?) female voice (echoes of Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket).
The ATF had decided to base itself at Nui Dat, in the middle of VC supply routes. VC officers acknowledge that the Australian troops were a superior antiguerrilla force to U.S. troops. The Australian strategy involved trying to separate the local people from the guerrillas, resettling all villagers beyond a boundary ("line alpha") to prevent VC mortaring of the base, and establishing a Civic Action program (at this point, for instance, we see happy, friendly villagers). The late--and sadly missed--Alex Carey substantively criticized both the morality of such resettlement ("strategic hamlets"--as depicted for instance in Kennedy-Miller's Viet Nam mini-series) and the effectiveness of the Civic Action program during the war. Phuoc Tuy reverted to being a strong VC province once the ATF left. Furthermore, no mention is made in this film of the disastrous mine line that the ATF "built" around itself: a considerable number of Australian troops were killed or wounded by their own mines, relocated by the VC. Nevertheless, the Australian and New Zealand presence in Phuoc Tuy did constitute a direct challenge to the VC. The film claims that the VC had, in 1966, "declared war" on the U.S. and South Vietnamese Government as if the VC were the prime movers and instigators in the whole affair. On the other hand, the film does acknowledge the lack of an official declaration of war by both the U.S. and Australia; remember the difficulties Australian Viet Nam veterans had in obtaining recognition and benefits as "returned soldiers" because of their involvement in an alleged "police action." This level of doublespeak on the one hand minimized any acknowledgment of the likelihood and scale of fighting to be expected, and on the other hand, when such substantial conflict appeared imminent, constrained the response available. Ian McNeill, the Australian Official Military Historian, speculates at the end of the film, about the nature of the Long Tan encounter: was it meant to be a direct attack on the Nui Dat HQ base (as Brigadier Jackson, the ATF Commander, suggested), or an ambush, luring the Australian troops out into battle (as the "enemy"--who?--suggested)?
The VC describe their anti-antiguerrilla strategy--to "fight by holding onto the enemy's belt," to draw the Australian "mercenary" troops out into the heavily-treed rubber plantation by mortars, and then stick so close that the NZ artillery couldn't be used. Despite some effective and innovative work by lower-ranking Australian intelligence officers (e.g., the tracing of VC radio movements and tracks, even the prediction, on 29 July, of an imminent VC attack) the ATF is described a being like the U.S. just before Pearl Harbor. The ubiquitous ex-major Peter Young somewhat disingenuously covers for the military hierarchy and himself, despite admitting this lack of awareness and readiness was one of the biggest intelligence blunders of the Australian war). The elusive D445 is patronizingly described by the Australian troops as the "phantom" battalion. It is also claimed that U.S. intelligence kept to itself knowledge of the movements of Regiments 274 and 275 towards the ATF. In response to mortaring of Nui Dat on 17 August, B Company was sent out without being informed (because of "security reasons") of the possible approach of Regiment 275. Later in the day, D Company (108 men, half of whom are newly arrived conscripts) replaced B Company as Little Pattie and Col. Joye's concert at Nui Dat gets underway. At that time there was no expectation of either an attack on the base or of a battle. The VC are subsequently "encountered"--apparently looking like an Australian patrol! A monsoon sets it, ruling out U.S. air support and 11 Platoon is quickly surrounded by D445. Initially 10 Platoon, and then also 12 Platoon, were both sent in to attempt a rescue of 11 Platoon. Ammunition got low and helicopter from Nui Dat managed to drop extra supplies. Brigadier Jackson at Nui Dat sent A Company and armored personnel carriers (APCs) towards Long Tan; it looked like the whole of D company would be "lost." Eventually as night fell, 11 Platoon--with only twelve out of twenty-eight men left--retreated via a smoke decoy. Altogether there were three drops of extra ammunition; the fighting was fierce and close. The NZ artillery managed to hold the VC back, but the VC launched human wave attacks. As A Company and the APCs arrived, after a three-hour battle, the VC disappeared. The body count: D Company lost seventeen with nineteen wounded (plus one APC driver who died later); the VC had over five hundred dead (other estimates than the film's count only 245 VC dead.) In the immediate aftermath: The VC claimed they wiped out not only just a Company, but the whole of 6 Battalion, Radios Hanoi and Peking announced victory. D Company received U.S. Presidential Citations, while the Australian government refused to allow official South Vietnamese medals to be awarded.
According to McNeill, the VC plan must have gone wrong. Planning a sudden, speedy ambush (a common and reliable strategy) D445 was ready but Regiment 275 arrived late and met the Australian troops in encounter rather than ambush mode. It would have been useful to elaborate on the VC perspective in this film. The undoubted heroism of the Australian troops is stressed, but more balance is needed.
Long Tan is the archetypal instance of the paradigm of western troops winning the battle but losing the war. (Se for instance, the latest Soldier of Fortune 18:1 (January 1993) cover story: "American courage and firepower won the day--even when massively outnumbered--time and again in Vietnam.") While this film does attempt to include the point-of-view of the other side, its focus remains one-sided and militaristic, and it may contribute more to the regeneration of the ANZAC legend than to an understanding of the Second Indochina War (aka "the Vietnam war" or "the American war in Indochina."... definitions are significant in revealing points of view). Perhaps it should be watched in conjunction with reading Terry Burstall's (of D Company) two books: The Soldier's Story: The Battle of Xa Long Tan (1986) and A Soldier Returns (1990). The sooner the Vietnamese official history of the province (1945-1975) is translated, the better--it has been available for several years now.) While this documentary's filmic/narrative strategies are transparent and largely uncritical, it is a significant addition to the debates of the American/Viet Nam war.