Thursday, August 25, 2016

THE UGLY AMERICAN REVISITED

I was happily sipping a very cold Fiji Bitter by the pool at the Westin last Friday when I decided to take a quick look at whatever 'Friday Fulminations' had to offer.

First up was a post by David calling on Vietnam veterans to stop whinging because the Vietnamese government had called time out on a range of activities proposed for an estimated 1,000 Oz and Kiwi veterans who had made the journey to Vietnam to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the battle of Long Tan.   My good friend Adolf took issue with the post.

This is one of the few occasions where Adolf and I will have to agree to disagree.

But my real anger is directed at whoever organised the event.   Did they not consider for a moment how ordinary Vietnamese (let alone the government) might view those sort of numbers of Uc Dai Loy and quan dao Tan tay lun descending on 'their' country to commemorate a battle where 42 members of 1st Australian Task Force were either killed or wounded against an estimated 595 from the VC 5th Infantry Division killed/wounded (and 3 captured).     Ok, I understand that the organizers had invited some of our Vietnamese adversaries to share in commemorations (which included a concert and a 'gala' dinner) but that really is beside the point.    It was crass, insensitive and a down-under version of Eugene Burdick and William Lederer's Ugly American in play in spades.

I have been to the Long Tan battle site.   It's off the beaten track in the middle of a rubber plantation and you have to cross private land.   It would be nigh on impossible to accommodate 1,000 all at once.   I still have the receipt for 250,000 Dong I paid the local communist party office for a guide to take me there.    He stood aside to allow me to pay my respects but 'no photographs please'.   You have to respect that.   How were the 'organisers' to manage 1,000?

The whole thing was a debacle and poorly thought out by people who forgot that those attending were the guests who may have won a battle (if you win battles) but lost a war in someone else's country.

9 comments:

Gnr39 said...

I have been involved in this for almost exactly two years, at Govt level. We knew then that the Vietnamese Govt was not going to allow any sort of formal commemorations at the site, and so did the Australian Govt.

alwyn said...

I agree with everything in your comment except for describing it as being like the Ugly American.
The "Ugly American" in Burdick and Lederer's book was the GOOD guy. He was genuinely there to help the people of the country.

The Veteran said...

Gnr39 ... my understanding is that the Aust government was well aware of the sensitivity of the issue and declined to get actively involved ... that it was a travel company(s) that picked up and ran with it without doing their homework. I further understand that after the Vietnamese had made their decision to pull the rug Malcolm Turnbull intervened at the eleventh hour with the Vietnamese government for them to allow 'small' groups of Vvets to visit the battle site. Good on him and good on the Vietnamese government for allowing this to happen ... but it should have never come to this.

Alwyn ... my recollection of the book is that the central character was always trying to do the right thing but approached it from a Western perspective without understanding the local norms and sensitivities ... similar to what happened here. The organisers thought that inviting former foes to join in the commemorations and all would be well. Doesn't/didn't work that way.

alwyn said...

From Wikipedia.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ugly_American
In particular
"The "Ugly American" of the book title refers to the book's hero, plain-looking engineer Homer Atkins, whose "calloused and grease-blackened hands always reminded him that he was an ugly man." Atkins, who lives with the local people, comes to understand their needs, and offers genuinely useful assistance with small-scale projects such as the development of a simple bicycle-powered water pump."
and
"According to an article published in May, 1959, the "real" "Ugly American" was identified as an International Co-operation technician named Otto Hunerwadel, who, with his wife Helen, served in Burma from 1949 until his death in 1952. They lived in the villages, where they taught farming techniques, and helped to start home canning industries."
and
"After the book had gained wide readership, the term "Ugly American" came to be used to refer to the "loud and ostentatious" type of visitor in another country, rather than the "plain looking folks, who are not afraid to 'get their hands dirty' like Homer Atkins" to whom the book itself referred."

The Veteran said...

alwyn ... thank you. I bow to your superior knowledge. Clearly my recollection was more directed towards the contemporary descriptive.

Anonymous said...

I think you might like to revise the casualty figures as well veteran........

Lord Egbut

The Veteran said...

Egbut ... I'll stick with those figures which are taken from the official Australian Army history. My good friend and classmate, Brigadier Ernie Chamberlain, who spent his career as an intelligence officer and is fluent in French and Vietnamese covers off the question in his latest book 'Viet Cong D445 Battalion: Their Story (and the Battle of Long Tan)'. He debunks the claim that Chinese records show 1,632 VC as KIA as "patently false and fabricated and should be discarded". He also questions the claim by the Vietnamese Commander, Nguyen Thoi Bung, that he lost 500.

Ernie lists the number of VC Killed as 176. He lists their names and personal details. It could be that he is right given that many of the bodies buried at Long Tan had been mutilated by Artillery Fire and in bits and might have been counted twice.

But for now I'll go with the official figures.

Shelldrake said...

The real culprits are those involved in selling the tours. They were only too happy to get their cut from the bookings but like do many tourism ventures worldwide they didn't deliver. The standard rationale is too bad, beyond our control, and by the way read the fine print (font size 3) in the Ts and Cs.

By the way , to parody Julius Caesar, we came, we saw we buggered off with our tails between our legs. We should be thankful that the Vietnamese let us in at all.

The Veteran said...

Shelldrake ... you've nailed it.