Barrier thinking

IN VIETNAM, MINES accounted for half of the Second Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (2RAR) soldiers killed in action. Two of those killed on mines were among the nine South Australian members of the Battalion who died on active service, and who are listed on the memorial in Adelaide that was dedicated to them in April 2014. The invitation, which Tom Young extended to me on behalf of the Battalion Association, was to speak at the dedication on why I wrote my book, The Minefield: An Australian Tragedy in Vietnam (Allen & Unwin, 2007). It was indeed an honour, and I became all the more mindful of that tribute when Tom, who worked for some three years on the memorial project, sadly died a few weeks before he could see it realised.

In Australian culture, memorials have long tended to have a dual function. They are sites of remembrance for everyone; but for the families of the fallen and members of the wider unit family, they are also sites of sorrow. Grieving for loved ones and mates may be eased over time, but will never end.

People reserve a special kind of pride in, and sorrow for, those whose lives are tragically cut short by war. The fact that their names are embossed on metal and set in stone shows that their lives and deaths were special. Tom Young believed this. And so it makes sense to imagine that those who pass this monument a hundred years from now will still read the names and imagine that they must have belonged to special people – or ordinary people who did special things.

In that sense, I can now answer Tom’s question by saying that I wrote The Minefield in order to make a memorial for Vietnam veterans. Not one set in stone, although I hope that the weight of the research might make it as durable. The memorial I had in mind was a story that would give Australian Vietnam veterans, and others interested in their war, an independent context in which readers could judge for themselves what happened.

TO DO THAT, I chose to write about the minefield. At the time I began my research, ‘mining’ was still thought to be a subsidiary form of warfare and was, without doubt, a darkly unglamorous one. In the Second World War, land mines had been used in a defensive role. Large ‘barrier’ and ‘defensive’ minefields were laid to channel, block or impede armour and infantry assaults. In Vietnam, the Australian approach to mine warfare had not significantly changed. Yet the small-scale, irregular dimension to the war in Vietnam would have unforseen consequences for a large ‘barrier’ minefield laid there by First Australian Task Force (1ATF) in mid 1967, consequences that, though increasingly perceived by members of the force as calamitous, were still not clearly understood twenty years after the war.

Beginning in the late 1990s, The Vietnam Veterans’ Federation – led by Tim McCombe, who was seriously wounded on a mine with 2RAR in 1967 – had been dealing with veterans who had been similarly wounded and asking questions about ‘the minefield’. These questions, which revolved around the fact that the enemy had been able to enter the minefield, lift the mines and use them against 1ATF, remained unanswered. As I looked into the issue, I became convinced of the need to bring ‘the minefield’ out of the historical shadows. Far from being a secondary form of warfare, it became clear that the mine battle associated with that minefield epitomised Australia’s involvement in Vietnam.

The minefield was a projection onto the battlefield of the barrier mentality that established Australia’s strategic settings in relation to Asia in the 1960s. The 1ATF was deployed to Vietnam to help establish a strategic barrier against the perceived downward thrust of communism in the region. In Vietnam, the Nui Dat base was established in central Phuoc Tuy Province as a barrier to protect the main population centres in the south-west of the province from the regular Communist Main Force units entering it from the north-east. The eleven-kilometre barrier minefield, containing twenty thousand powerful M16 mines, was designed as an extension of the barrier base into the south to further protect those population centres, mainly the village of Dat Do.

The minefield immediately revealed the fatal flaw in that barrier thinking: the commander who ordered the laying of the minefield, and those superiors who concurred with his plans prior to the mining, had not sufficiently realised that the people he was trying to shield in those villages were also potential enemies. Indeed, village people – initially young women from Dat Do – entered the minefield from the west, from within the villages the minefield was meant to protect. Once in the minefield, these villagers lifted between three and five thousand mines and turned them back against 1ATF. Arming otherwise lightly armed irregular peasant fighters with powerful ordnance caused heavy Australian and allied casualties. The disastrous oversight in the plan could not be clearer: the enemy proved to be on both sides of the intended ‘barrier’.

One can criticise the decision to lay the minefield from many angles, but the overriding point is that the Australian commanders of the day did not know who or where their enemy was.

IN THE SECOND half of the book I attempt to clarify the disaster: the mine incidents, casualties and tactical problems stemming from that astonishing, high-level battlefield ignorance. A total of 521 Australians were killed in action in Vietnam. The battle encounters that killed most of those Australians were mine and booby trap incidents, including those on M16s. All up, mines and booby traps claimed 121 lives. Of those, M16 mines lifted by irregular enemy fighters from the minefield killed at least fifty-five members of 1ATF, just under half of the total Australian mine and booby trap fatalities – almost certainly including Lance Corporal RM Woodford, and possibly Private JC Rivett, who are listed on the Adelaide memorial. The fifty-five soldiers (at least) killed by ‘our own’ M16 mines compares with the seventy-seven Australians killed in bunker fighting. ‘Our own’ M16s also killed a further forty-two allied soldiers and civilians – mostly Vietnamese, and a small number of Americans.

In sum, M16 mines from the Australian barrier minefield killed at least ninety-seven Australian and allied soldiers, while another four hundred and twenty were wounded – most seriously, and many dismembered as a result of the exploding mines.

Those casualties meant the mine battle was central to 1ATF history. In failing to realise that his enemy included peasants in the villages, and by unwittingly arming them with thousands of M16 mines, the 1ATF commander did something else he had never imagined: facilitate the irregular enemy’s radical transformation of mine warfare.

By taking advantage of their extensive surveillance network, the irregular peasant forces were able to move the mines around the battlefield. Through laying and re-laying the mines in the paths of 1ATF patrols, that enemy had transformed the inherently defensive nature of mine warfare – as Australians understood it – into an essentially offensive strategy. The remarkable fact was that the irregular peasant forces were able to target 1ATF patrols using high explosive mines lifted from the Australian minefield with much the same effect as they would have had if they had been firing artillery. Thus, for example, in the so-called Battle for the Box between 8 May and 15 August 1969, 1ATF’s battalions were engaged in something unheard of: a ‘deliberate mine battle’, in which patrols were under attack with pilfered M16 mines. That attack resulted in 54 per cent of the total thirty-five killed and 141 wounded in 1ATF during the fifteen-week period.

Overall, the rate of M16 mine casualties fluctuated according to many variables, especially time and location. When 1ATF’s battalions operated outside Phuoc Tuy Province or in its lightly populated northern area, M16 mine casualties were low, beneath 5 per cent. But when they operated around the main population centres in the province, which the minefield had been laid to protect because they constituted the vital strategic areas, or around vital enemy base areas the M16 mine casualties rose vertiginously – to over half of the total and could, for short two or three week periods, spike at around 80 per cent. That was what happened in the Battle for the Box. Something similar also happened in the period from 22 February to 28 April 1970, when 1ATF casualties resulting from M16 mines were comparable.

The point is that the laying of the minefield had turned the areas of strategic importance in the Australian province into a vast explosive trap. This meant that the prospect of even higher casualties restricted 1ATF’s tactical movement and skewed its operations in those vital areas. The progress of infantry patrolling was in some cases reduced to twenty metres an hour to allow for careful ‘prodding’ and checking for mines. ‘No-go areas’ were identified; one of the most important was in and around the Long Hai Hills – a key enemy base area, defended with M16 mines lifted from the Australian minefield. When, belatedly, the problem was officially acknowledged, a major allocation of men and engineer resources was also necessary to clear the remaining mines from the field between mid-1969 and mid-1970.

I IMAGINED THE minefield as a metaphor for the incongruity of the Australian barrier strategy in Vietnam, which has never been well understood. The regular big-unit warfare passed down to Australians through Anzac folklore from the world wars did not jell with the requirements of counter-revolutionary warfare in Vietnam. There, as indicated, the revolutionary strategy involved a complex combination of interacting regular big-unit and irregular small-unit wars, which varied according to circumstances.

In Phuoc Tuy, the Australian decisions to construct the barrier base and barrier minefield arose from strategic assumptions geared for big-unit war against regular enemy main force units. Such big-units sometimes entered Phuoc Tuy, but the Australian barrier assumptions were still unworkable in a province where support for those big-units was widespread in the villages, and irregular small-unit war stemming from them was by far the most common form.

The 1ATF was heavily armed and well trained and, for those reasons, able to fight whatever was in front of it. Operations adapted to small-scale enemy action were the norm; relentless, silent patrolling typically went on in a war without fronts and flanks. Occasionally, the silence was broken by thirty-second contacts. Ambushing was a common 1ATF tactic. More protracted skirmishes, bunker contacts and even larger battles sometimes developed with indecisive outcomes. Meanwhile, for long periods between mid-1967 and mid-1970, the M16 mines kept exploding during 1ATF operations in the vital areas of Phuoc Tuy Province. Like a ribbon of death, that long chain of detonations reminds us that successful tactical adaptation did not necessarily mean strategic comprehension.

In the face of a complex and dangerous no-win situation, the staying power of 1ATF became the obvious silver lining in the story. It remained a disciplined and coherent fighting force until it was withdrawn. Its units continued to fight with tactical prowess and function in the face of the mine terror, each operating for the notably protracted period of a year.

There is no doubt that 1ATF’s general resolve was aligned with the inspiring aspects of the Anzac tradition. Although partly conscripted, Australian servicemen in Vietnam were still imbued with the independent egalitarianism and mateship of the Anzacs and its values: loyalty, courage and persistence in the face of adversity.

The Minefield is a story of strategic self-destruction. My intention was not to mythologise that painful reality; it was rather to carry the story of those who perished and suffered on the minefield and mines generally into the future. Because their suffering went to the heart of the 1ATF’s presence and experience in Vietnam, I wanted my book to give them a stake in their own history. In relation to this, the existence in Adelaide of a uniquely South Australian memorial reminds us of the strong communal feeling that the dead should rest among the living.

This essay was originally delivered as an address at the dedication of the memorial to the South Australian members of The Second Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, who died on active service.



Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review