August 22, 2016

The view from Billinudgel

The Long Tan dilemma

By Mungo MacCallum
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 was a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Much of his work can be found here: The View from Billinudgel.

From the front page

Image of Anthony Albanese

How to be a prime minister

The task ahead for Anthony Albanese in restoring the idea that governments should seek to make the country better

Image of the Kiama Blowhole, New South Wales

The edge of their seats

Lessons from Gilmore, Australia’s most marginal electorate

Image of Peter Dutton and Sussan Ley

The future of the Liberal Party

Peter Dutton doesn’t just have a talent problem on his hands

Image of Australian Army Cadets on parade. Image via Alamy

Ghosts in the war machine

Does the military attract violent misanthropists, or are they forged in murky theatres of war?

Online exclusives

Image of Australian Army Cadets on parade. Image via Alamy

Ghosts in the war machine

Does the military attract violent misanthropists, or are they forged in murky theatres of war?

Composite image showing John Hughes (image via Giramondo Publishing) and the cover of his novel The Dogs (Upswell Publishing)

A dog’s breakfast

Notes on John Hughes’s plagiarism scandal

Image of Erin Doherty as Becky Green in Chloe. Image supplied

App trap: ‘Chloe’

‘Sex Education’ writer Alice Seabright’s new psychological thriller probing social media leads this month’s streaming highlights

Pablo Picasso, Figures by the sea (Figures au bord de la mer), January 12, 1931, oil on canvas, 130.0 × 195.0 cm, Musée national Picasso-Paris. © Succession Picasso/Copyright Agency, 2022. Photo: © RMN - Grand Palais - Mathieu Rabeau

‘The Picasso Century’ at the NGV

The NGV’s exhibition offers a fascinating history of the avant-garde across the Spanish artist’s lifetime