An Unjust War: New Zealand’s participation in the Vietnam War, no matter how marginal, represented a shameful capitulation to American pressure. It was an immoral war which we should never have joined, and the idea of “celebrating” its fiftieth anniversary should be repugnant to all thinking New Zealanders.
PHUOC TUY PROVINCE, VIETNAM, 18 AUGUST 1966. For a period of 48 hours, around one hundred soldiers from D-Company, Royal Australian Regiment, risked annihilation at the hands of a much larger force of Vietnamese guerrillas. Had it not been for the deadly artillery shells dropped upon the Vietnamese positions by Australian and New Zealand gunners, and the crucial air support supplied by the Royal Australian, and the United States’, air forces, the first serious engagement involving Australian and New Zealand forces in the Vietnam War could have ended in disaster. As it was, the 18 Australian soldiers killed in and around the Long Tan rubber plantation on 18 August 1966 only served to deepen the domestic divide between supporters and opponents of Australian participation in the Vietnam conflict.
Quite why the New Zealand Government has decided to “celebrate” the Battle of Long Tan which (the participation of Kiwi artillerymen notwithstanding) was an overwhelmingly Australian engagement, remains something of a mystery. Perhaps it’s because Long Tan represents one of the few examples of Australian and New Zealand soldiers engaging the National Liberation Front (also known as the Viet-Cong) more-or-less independently. As such, it makes it easier to represent the Vietnam War as just another of the many conflicts in which New Zealanders have fought, and its veterans as essentially no different from the participants in all our other wars.
Except, of course, that the Vietnam War was very far from being ‘just another’ war. It was the largest and the most destructive of a series of military conflicts waged to prevent the “spread of communism” in South East Asia.
That the people of Vietnam were fighting for their national independence every bit as much as they were fighting for communism cut little ice in Washington, Canberra and Wellington. The nations of the so-called “Free World” were convinced that the slightest sign of weakness in the face of national liberation struggles backed by the Soviet Union and/or the People’s Republic of China would only result in more and more of the world’s newly independent nations denying their markets to capitalist exploitation. To prevent that from happening the United States was willing to hurl at the unfortunate Vietnamese people all the non-nuclear weaponry it possessed. Millions were killed.
Vietnam was an unjust, ideologically-driven war of aggression against a nation of peasant rice-farmers, and the revulsion it created – especially among the young – gave rise to an international anti-war movement of extraordinary intensity. In attempting to defeat the Vietnamese, the US armed forces committed appalling atrocities and the US Government revealed to the world America’s ugliest features. Eventually, the American people, along with the people of Australia and New Zealand, refused to back the war. With the withdrawal of American military support, the US puppet government of “South Vietnam” collapsed. By 1975 Vietnam had, at enormous cost, finally freed itself from the clutches of western imperialism.
New Zealand’s participation in the Vietnam War, no matter how marginal, represented a shameful capitulation to American pressure. It was an immoral war which we should never have joined, and the idea of “celebrating” its fiftieth anniversary should be repugnant to all thinking New Zealanders. Those who participated in the fighting for reasons of “adventure”, or on account of the “big money” offered, were a far cry from the conscript soldiers of the First and Second World Wars. Their participation in the conflict did, however, leave many of them physically and psychologically scarred. For that they deserve our pity, but not our respect. The cause they were fighting for was not a good one. It should be remembered only as a lesson in the perils of participating in imperialist aggression.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 17 August 2016.
It was a shameful capitulation to US pressure. But to give Holyoake credit – it's about the only time I would ever give him credit – he kept our contribution to the absolute minimum he could get away with. Unlike the Australians who sent conscripts.
Even though you and many others opposed the war, I think is harsh to now say that the soldiers, or rather the veterans, do not deserve our respect.
Many, if not most, were professional career soldiers, (and airman and sailors). As such they were undertaking their governments direction, in the same way as today's professional soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. We do not expect that professional soldiers will basically second guess the decisions of those who deploy them. So long as it looks like a bona fide decision of the government (even if it is politically contested), then the nation expects their soldiers to do what they have joined the armed forces to do.
Though I appreciate that ultimately New Zealand soldiers can resign if they feel so deeply about a specific deployment that it would be unconscionable for them to be deployed. In reality hardly any do, because they have chosen to serve under governments that have been democratically elected and they accept that the judgement of their government is not venal or corrupt (as opposed to being politically contested).
It is well recognised that New Zealand and Australian soldiers fought their enemy, typically the North Vietnamese Army. They were not involved in the general terrorisation of the civilian population.
Mind you I can appreciate that the Vietnamese government might not be so keen on the commemoration of the Battle of Long Tan in their country at the battle site, even if they rather belatedly came to that conclusion. It is not the same as Gallipoli, for a whole variety of reasons.
"As such they were undertaking their governments direction......."
Classic example of the blind leading the blind. Wake up Wayne there is not a snow balls chance in hell that the Vietnam war can be justified, in any level by any "thinking" person.
And it was all unnecessary in terms of 'stopping the commies' After WWII, the Vietnamese nationalists asked for America's help in their liberation struggle against the French. (The US initially opposed continued French colonialism in Vietnam). The Vietnamese were and remain nationalists a long way first and communists a long way back in second or third place. (See Many Reasons Why - The American Involvement in Vietnam. Michael Charlton and Anthony Moncrieff). I've noticed that ever since NZ changed from sending off troops in support of the Brits to sending them in support of the US, we've ended up in conflicts that seem highly morally dubious and are failures or looming failures - Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.
I think Wayne's point was more that as professional soldiers they were bound to go. A point which strangely enough I have some sympathy. But there is no doubt that many of them wanted to go – as one put it to me – to put their training to some use. I doubt if any of them thought about the political and ethical ramifications. At least not judging by all my military relations.
As some-one who was there in the dying stages I agree with Chris...nothing to celebrate.
All the armchair Admirals who endlessly advocate that it was the right thing to do are talking shit. It was simply propping up a vile dictator who was hated by his own people. Had nothing to do with "stopping 'Communism' spreading through Asia as 'Communism' never existed anywhere.
What is so often referred to as 'Communism' was not - it was/is Fascism but most Yanks wouldn't know the difference. THERE HAS NEVER BEEN A COMMUNIST RUN COUNTRY ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD -- EVER!!
My post was primarily about the veterans and whether they should be respected.
As for the war itself, the US and its allies envisaged a Korean style outcome. It did not happen largely because the South Vietnamese govt was not supported by enough of the South Vietnamese people. A large number supported the Viet cong (and were part of it).
The other analogy was the successful antiinsurgency campaign in Malaya.
Both Malaysia and South Korea are better off as a result of the wars being won. In the case of Korea, the truce line is pretty much the original border.
So I don't say the war was wrong right from the get go. If the South Vietnamese govt had the same level of support as in South Korra or Malaya, there would have been a different outcome.
But each war is different. Decision makers don't always understand what they are getting into. Success is not guaranteed.
In fact the 2003 Iraq war clearly had much less justification than Vietnam. In South Vietnam there was actually a govt that asked for support - admittedly a bad govt, but a govt nevertheless. Iraq was an invasion of an intact country based on a wrong premise. The evidence of the illegal nuclear programme turned out to be false. And even at the time the evidence presented was not overwhelming.
I have worked with several Vietnam vets and know others, the survivors are individuals now, some sick, one “gung-ho” still, some have thought about it and would not go today, and several have visited the place more than once–seeking something other than a budget holiday one presumes!
the soldiers that went were the equivalent of mercenaries for extra pay, technically they did not have to go apart from peer pressure and perhaps some from “above”
military glorification seems hardwired in a section of New Zealanders, the difference between imperialist wars and WWII totally passing them by
It was our government that put our soldiers into Vietnam, have a go at them if you want to but do not abuse our soldiers.
Our soldiers deserve our respect, cheap shot.
"...It is well recognised that New Zealand and Australian soldiers fought their enemy, typically the North Vietnamese Army..."
The usual opponents of the ANZAC force were the VC 275th Regiment and the D440 and D445 provincial battalions. Niether of these formations were part of the regular North Vietnamese Army. Lon Tan was the only battle where main force NVA possibly engaged the ANZACs.
I wish people would take the time to understand the nature of the Vietnamese resistance. The fact that even senior ex-politicians haven't got a clue about the nature of the opposition to the ANZAC force is revealingly racist. After all, they were all just Charlie, right?
Oh and one more reason why it is important to know who we fought. The 275th Regiment and the D440 and D445 provincial battalions were all based in Phước Tuy Province.
The ANZACs enemy were not the sanitised version Wayne Mapp would have us believe of fighting the North Vietnamese regular army, met nobly and honorably on the field of battle. It was the people of Phước Tuy Province, some full time and some part timers, who merged back into the local population when required. We were killing local farmers and local traders who happened to be in an uniform, in order to fight for their independence.
Killing farmers in their own fields simply because they wanted independence isn't a noble thing to celebrate.
The Malayan 'emergency' was basically an uprising by disaffected Chinese. It failed because the majority Malays didn't support it – partly because they resented the Chinese. But even so, the British and their Malay supporters were able to satisfy the Chinese peasants who supported the insurgency – basically by giving them title to land, and cutting them off from contact with the insurgents. I suspect there was no way that the Chinese forces were ever going to win given the circumstances. Korea was a conventional war with reasonably well defined borders and a hell of a lot less jungle terrain. That was pretty much unwinnable for the North Koreans and Chinese once the US brought its power to bear. The Vietnamese were as much nationalist as communist. And even though the majority were Buddhists they were ruled over by minority Catholics, which they resented almost as much as the corruption I suspect. I don't know if it could really have been won militarily, but the American public simply wasn't willing to put up with losing so many of its young men for such a crap cause. Of course with a fully professional army now the US government can pretty much interfere wherever it likes.
I was aware that the New Zealanders were often fighting the Viet Cong, who as you note were well organised into actual Regiments and Battalions, and were equipped as such. I was under the impression that there was more involvement from NVA units supporting the Viet Cong regiments especially in logistics, support, communications, and the overall battle plan. Without that support the VC units would not have been sustainable
Obviously for my post I did not check the actual order of battle, but I don't see why it is racist not to know that for a post on a blog.
In my post to Kat I acknowledged that the resistance to the South Vietnamese government was much deeper and more comprehensive than in Malaya. The Malayan govt and the Commonwealth forces (about 25,000 Commonwealth personnel from UK, Aus and NZ were deployed) were able to defeat the insurgency in Malaya, mostly because it was a lot smaller, being largely Malay Chinese against indigenous Malay, and because the outside support from the PRC for the insurgency was too far away.
In contrast the Viet Cong were a larger percentage of the south Vietnamese population and had direct support from North Vietnam. As a consequence they were successful. But presumably at some stage (1962 to 1965/68) the US and its allies thought they could defeat both the Viet Cong and the NVA. They were wrong.
The defeat in Vietnam lead to the Powell doctrine (Gen Colin Powell) who had been a colonel in Vietnam. It is best exemplified in the Gulf War of 1990/1991; that the US should only go to war if there is overwhelming public and international support, there is a clear and achievable aim, that the war will definitely be won, and that there is an obvious exit strategy.
But insurgency type wars don't easily fit the Powell doctrine, as has been shown in Afghanistan. They typically take longer, and less is known about the enemy (how many and how they are supported and organised). Ultimately there might need to be a political settlement which gives something to the insurgency. Look at Northern Ireland. The IRA insurgency lasted from 1969 to 1999. In the end the IRA (or their supporters) got a power sharing agreement.
The VC may have been fighting for independence but I'm afraid they didn't get it. They were sacrificed (Tet) or marginalised (when the NVA invaded after the Americans left). It is not a black and white issue. For example, a million Catholics left the North at partition. The NLF ruthlessly purged its non-Communist opponents during the 40s and 50s. And while I'd prefer this event (Long Tan) to be commemorated rather than celebrated, the ANZACS there were directed by their Government, and that's how it should be. I didn't ask to go to Vietnam - but if you're a soldier you go where you're sent. Long may the New Zealand army do the NZ government's bidding rather than deciding which wars it'll fight.
NZ soldiers were regulars - troops doing their job. I had a brother with the first artillery battery in 1965 I think. He was a military policeman,a provost sergeant who looked after kiwi troops in Saigon on leave and to patrol certain areas. The Viet Cong never touched them, Americans would have been blown out of their jeeps. Kiwi soldiers believed in the Govt decision.
Gulf 2 didn't easily fit the Powell doctrine either. Judging by the crap awful mess they made of Iraq. The exit strategy – God words fail me – such as it was left the country in a fucking mess. No other way to put it really. But still, it might be a mess but as Wayne says it's a stable mess. :) Yeah right.
That the people of Vietnam were fighting for their national independence every bit as much as they were fighting for communism cut little ice in Washington, Canberra and Wellington.
and those who protested went on to destroy ethnic nationalism in the west.
9/10 people in NZ want a multicultural society ... but this is when it can become emotional when you feel you no longer belong in a place that was once your home.
In 1956 95% of the population was European: there was a reason we had a poll tax.
Classic example of the blind leading the blind. Wake up Wayne there is not a snow balls chance in hell that the Vietnam war can be justified, in any level by any "thinking" person.
there was the domino theory which went something like "you promised the peasants the earth but once communist you clamped down on comments (like RNZ)" There was more to it than that but In places like NZ we had seen how militant unionists worked and it was believed there was an underhanded exploitative subversion under way.
Don't forget that regardless of the support for the Viet Cong communism was the Soviet Union (Stalin) and Maos China from the Americans and their allies point of view. Over the border in Cambodia we saw the madness in all it's glory.
Perhaps Mr Key is preparing the nation for the next such deployment we don't know about yet.
Cheers David J S
The domino theory actually said that if one country in Southeast Asia went communist, it would export its communism and convert the rest. It had absolutely nothing to do with clamping down on comments. So you are correct about there being more to it than that. How's about you moderate for accuracy and clarity Chris?
And we should probably ask ourselves why people would go for a political ideology like communism in the first place. We could perhaps mention the rampant corruption, the lack of democracy, and particularly in parts of Southeast Asia, the lack of land available for peasants. If you are going to compete with communism, you have to have a system in place that makes it look bad. The US was supporting a system that made it look good to many. After all, people don't take up arms for trivial reasons. Except perhaps in the US. :)
I will spell it out again in case people have missed it. There has never been a Communist run country ever in the world. Those countries that are referred as 'Communist' are/were, in fact, FASCIST!! Learn the difference people! If Mao's China was 'Communist' there would have been no poverty there, no peasantry and everyone would have had a job.
Politico-economics is circular and there further one goes the more like the opposite side they become. Where Socialism and Capitalism meet you get FASCISM!!Social Fascism is what Stalin's Russia was and Capital Fascism is what Mao's China was. China still is to a degree.
Vietnam was about propping up a dictatorial regime that was hated by almost everyone in the country, not all were Viet Cong, most were ordinary people who wanted freedom from a despotic ruling regime, first put in place by the French and kept there by the Yanks. It was doomed to failure from the start. Had the Yanks helped the Vietnamese set up a true democracy then the situation would have been different. Everything the Yanks touch turns to poison but they don't care.
When you are in the business of making missiles and bombs, the last thing you want is a peaceful world. No market for your companies products. Hence the endless Yank wars that are continuing to this day.
"I will spell it out again in case people have missed it. There has never been a Communist run country ever in the world. "
Please stop saying this. We are simply using the word Communist as a shortcut description for the regimes in Russia China and Vietnam. And as it is Marx never produced a really coherent view of what a communist society would be like anyway – it's scattered throughout his writings both early and late, and it's quite difficult to put together and sometimes contradictory. So you're sort of getting yourself into a stew about nothing.
Fair enough GS. But why not use the proper term...Fascist? To use 'Communist' instead just shows a lack of knowledge or even understanding. Communism is where the workers own the means of production; they own the farms, the factories, the shops and stores. In the countries mentioned the Govt. owned everything and the people were serfs.
I* read the comments by the Armchair Admirals here and I realise that they simply are talking crap as if Vietnam was a causus nobilae but it wasn't. There was nothing noble about that stupid conflict that should never have happened. People talk about stopping the spread of Fascism throughout the region but propping up a hated regime is not the way. A true democracy is.
"In the countries mentioned the Govt. owned everything and the people were serfs."
Fair point. But if we used fascist none of the armchair admirals would understand what we meant :).
Ha ha! True enough GS!
T'would be interesting to see how a genuine Communist run country worked (or not), no-one can say as it has never been tried. That way it could be evaluated properly and fairly.
Whilst no country has tried a strictly communist approach, one could look at an Israeli kibbutz as an as close representation of it.
One has to wonder though, how well will communal decision making scales up from a possibly 8000 member kibbutz to a multi million populated country.
The kibbutz was my first thought. But apparently they decided it wasn't an 'efficient' way of doing things. It really is a pity that Israel has abandoned those social experiments. They were an inspiration to me in my youth, and if kept up might have had some moderating effect on the apartheid state that Israel seems to be developing into. But as you say Gerrit, scaling the decision-making up to nation-state size might be a problem.
What about the Basques? Isn't that where Mondragon co-op is, and no doubt has had many meetings with heated exchanges but has soldiered on and through and appears to have both a moral and business compass.
We are still looking for our compass which got dropped overboard on one of our virtual phishing trips where 'our' people were trying to get trade or other advantages by hook or by crook. Now we are the hub of anything goes.
Which reminds me of a great applicable song. Enjoy while you watch fetching little NZ stripped.
Yeah Co-ops are a form of soft Communism. Even Fonterra started out as a dastardly "Commo" Organisation.
Farmers Markets, Producer Markets, etc. are all communistic in operation.
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