The view from Billinudgel

The Long Tan dilemma
How should Australians commemorate their battles in other countries?

It is entirely understandable that Australian veterans were disappointed by the Long Tan commemoration stuff-up; it is clear that the negotiations, such as they were, between the governments in Hanoi and Canberra were misconstrued, probably on both sides.

It caused unnecessary grief and irritation, and this is to be regretted. But it is worth looking at the bigger picture: allowing the erection of a memorial cross at Long Tan at all was a remarkably generous gesture by the Vietnamese.

Let’s face it, few nations are keen to honour their opponents in a battle that killed many of their own citizens as part of an undeclared war instigated by a colonial overlord. And when the Australians boast that they prevailed against the odds, that it was not only a defeat but also a humiliation for their then enemies, it doesn’t make the memory more welcome.

It is unimaginable that the Poles, say, would invite the Germans to celebrate the invasion of 1939. Nations have their pride.

It can be argued that there are exceptions to the rule, the most obvious one being Gallipoli; apart from the pressure of numbers, the Turks are happy to allow as many Australians to attend the Anzac Day services as wish to come. But the point about Gallipoli is that the Turks won; eventually the Anzacs retreated, so the Turks can afford to be magnanimous.

In the past the Vietnamese have been similarly charitable – after all, in the end they won too. But that does not mean that they enjoy the prospect of hordes of Australians turning what was, and still is, supposed to be a solemn occasion into something of a party: the equivalent of an Anzac Day reunion, with all the booze and bragging that is part of the ritual.

It is now clear that there was never a ban on veterans, but there was, both explicitly and implicitly, a demand that they tone their gathering down. Fewer numbers, no flaunting of decorations, and generally less ballyhoo.

To their credit, the more serious among them understood and accepted the restrictions, but among others there was indignation: Long Tan was their sacred site, and the locals would just have to wear it. It is, perhaps, a hangover from the divisive days of the war itself, when the soldiers were not always popular at home and made up in bravado what they lacked in universal applause.

But now it is time to get over it. Unlike Americans, Australians are not regarded with suspicion by the Vietnamese; they are regarded not so much as invaders as dupes of the real enemy. But they are still foreigners, visitors to the country.

And if and when they are given special privileges in places like Long Tan, it behoves them to mind their manners and not argue if they are seen to outstay their welcome.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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