The Lesson of Vietnam: How to lose hearts and minds

“Australia has an enduring national interest in ensuring that Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for terrorists.”

That was Prime Minister Julia Gillard delivering a comprehensive statement on Australia’s involvement in the war against Afghanistan and plans to withdraw our troops in a speech to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute this week.

But the problem is, the longer our troops remain there, the greater the risk of increasing the number of Afghan terrorists in Afghanistan. As the Prime Minister said in her address, four Australians died and ten were wounded in 2011 “as a result of attacks by rogue members of the Afghan National Army. Several other nations have also suffered such attacks. These raised legitimate questions about the success of our mission to train the Afghan National Security Forces. I also know that for many of our Defence Force families, the impact of these attacks was especially deep. We are working with our Afghan partners to tighten vetting and screening and to implement a counter-infiltration plan. I can assure Australians – through you – that we will do our very best to protect our soldiers from this threat.” (Full speech:

But no matter how professional and humane our soldiers are (and they are), they are still associated with US troops, and when one of the American troops snaps and methodically slaughters 16 Afghan civilians, as allegedly happened last month, it will anger many civilians around Afghanistan, including some in Oruzgan province where most of Australia’s 1550 troops are based. Update April 19: And overnight, the Los Angeles Times published photos of US soldiers posing with corpses of insurgent suicide bombers, obtained from an American soldier who was trying to draw attention to the safety risk of a breakdown in discipline and leadership. (Here’s the report. The photos are gruesome, and are likely to upset local Afghans, as pointed out by a Pentagon spokesman, Captain John Kirby. He said the conduct did not reflect the character and professionalism of the great majority of US troops in Afghanistan; and he added: “Nevertheless, this imagery – more than two years old – now has the potential to indict them all in the minds of local Afghans, inciting violence and perhaps causing needless casualties.” In February, the accidental burning of copies of the Koran at a US base sparked riots that left 30 dead.

So no matter how effective the vetting and screening by the Australian soldiers and Afghan officials, there is bound to be a Taliban slipping under the screen, or a local turning into one.

Major General Alan Stretton, a former Australian of the Year and army leader during the Vietnam war, goes further. He told the ABC this morning the war has achieved nothing and Australian troops should have been brought home a long time ago: “… what has been achieved? I mean the Afghan army, which we’re supposed to be training is infiltrated by the Taliban. We’ve seen them even opening fire on parade and killing Australian troops. And further I don’t think we are winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.” (AM report:

Hearts and minds, of course, bring us back to Vietnam. Australian troops fought a very different war from their American allies in Vietnam. They knew guerrilla warfare and counter-insurgency were the only ways to fight a jungle war, while the Americans used an Apocalypse Now approach: heavy artillery, aerial bombardment and Agent Orange. In his brilliant documentary shown last week on the ABC, All the Way (8 days left to see it on I’view: ), Paul Ham demonstrates how the Australians took over a province, Phuoc Tuy, and launched programs to win the hearts and minds of the locals. It worked there, even while My Lai massacres were occurring elsewhere.

But the Americans were obsessed with body counts: the more Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers they killed, the more they trumpeted the news in their late afternoon press conferences called the Saigon Follies, and they were quoted on the nightly bulletins in the United States. I remember the “cooked-up” statistics in news bulletins I sent out to ships at sea for United Press International which were published in Ocean Press. (I didn’t know at the time how cooked up they were!)

And in arguably the best Vietnam novel ever, Matterhorn, written by Karl Marlantes, a highly decorated US marine in Vietnam, a Yale graduate and a Rhodes scholar, the main character, Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas, describes what he thinks of the colonels who want to rush his company into battle to take the strategic target of Matterhorn: “The only reason they can’t wait a day is because they’re afraid the fucking gooks will leave.” He filled his lungs with damp cool air and then let it out, trying to control his temper. ‘Fuck ‘em and their goddamned body counts. I’ve counted enough fucking bodies’.” The “f” word is used frequently in war zones, so I left it as the author wrote it. Norman Mailer had used the “f” word in his great World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead, but the publisher didn’t like it because he thought it would offend his mother. So Mailer changed it to “fug,” which became a famous euphemism for the real thing! To me, the really offensive word in the quote from Matterhorn was another commonly used term in Vietnam — “gooks.”

I don’t know if Julia Gillard and Australian Defence Force officials have read Matterhorn or seen All the Way, but if they haven’t, they should do it as a matter of urgency, and think carefully about how long we stay in Afghanistan – before we start counting the bodies of Australian soldiers killed in the transition to Afghan control of the war. There are two other reasons why we should bring the troops home as soon as possible: reducing the number of potential victims of post-traumatic stress among our soldiers who are serving or will serve there, and the number of potential recruits to the Taliban from a war where civilians on both sides are getting killed. In other words, the only lesson we’ve  learned from Vietnam is that we’ve learned nothing from Vietnam.

Retired Major General John Cantwell told ABC Lateline last night many soldiers returning from Afghanistan are likely to suffer from stress problems: “Roadside bombs do ugly things to your mate if he steps on one and a lot of our soldiers have been exposed to those gruesome sights and the terrible reality of war. But even those who are not directly involved in combat, say in Tarin Kowt … they are routinely rocketed and mortared.” (Interview here:

Maj Gen Cantwell said he had experienced it himself and, of course, it’s happened to many American soldiers. The prestigious Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting was awarded this week to David Wood of the online news site, The Huffington Post, for “his riveting exploration of the physical and emotional challenges facing American soldiers severely wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan during a decade of war.” (The Huffington Post report on David Wood:

Wood spent eight months in the past year, reporting extensively on the lives of severely wounded veterans and their families. Let’s hope there is no Walkley Award for reports on wounded Australian veterans this year, simply because there are no more wounded Australians (yes, I know, that would be a miracle).


And on a lighter note, more in my campaign against ugly words and phrases. This week, it’s “progress the issue.” I first heard it on Fran Kelly’s Radio National Breakfast program on Monday but forgot to write down who said it, although the talent said it twice in one sentence (and it wasn’t Fran – despite all the words she uses all week, she never speaks an ugly one!). So I googled the phrase and came up with three examples. The one I like most comes from a Queensland Government Public Service directive called: “Escalation of workload management issues and dispute resolution.” It says: “To effectively address or resolve the escalated issue the ACC/LCC may recommend that: Action may be taken at a local work level between manager/supervisor and employee/s as a preferred first option; or Other relevant actions are taken to progress the issue.” I think that means the workload issue should be worked out between the boss and the employee first, and if that doesn’t work, try something else. And that would save a lot of space in the directive.

Secondly, a joint media release last July between Deputy PM Wayne Swan and his NZ counterpart, Bill English, about a meeting with the NZ Climate Change Minister about climate change policy and Australia’s Carbon Pricing Mechanism: “This included how the two schemes might be integrated, with ministers noting that a senior officials’ working group on the potential linking of the two mechanisms will progress the issue.” I wonder if they have “progressed the issue” ten months later!

And finally, the International Civil Aviation Organisation Chief, Raymond Benjamin, quoted on the Air Transport World website, talking about the dispute between the European Commission and opponents of the EC’s unilateral imposition of an emissions tax. Mr Benjamin said he preferred not using Article 84, which gives the ICAO council the authority to decide on disputes that cannot be settled between member states.

Are you ready? Mr Benjamin said Article 84 would not progress the issue and would deviate resources. Hmm, no comment …

2 thoughts on “The Lesson of Vietnam: How to lose hearts and minds

    • Thanks, Bill. I updated the piece this morning with the news about the photos of US soldiers taken with the corpses of suicide bombers, obtained by the Los Angeles Times. It’s the last thing US and Australian soldiers needed to hear, but it’s relevant to my argment that the continued presence of our troops is likely to create more terrorism, than lessen it. As someone said on Twitter last night: “It’s time to get out of Dodge City.”

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