In 1969, Major D.K. Atkinson of the Australian Army suggested that Vietnam might be “The Unwinnable War” in the pages of the RMCS Journal, the professional magazine of the Royal Military College of Science at Shrivenham, UK. (Now — God help us — an institute of defense management). His British peers at the college, and the journal editor, had pestered him for insights about Vietnam. Turns out, he had them — he was straight off a tour in-country as an operations officer with the Royal Australian Regiment — but he also had insights that are just as functionally utilitarian today. For example, one of the downsides of a free press:
It is the lack of definition of terms and a lack of public education in the United States and in Australia which may prevent us from winning. Peace is an attractive word to everyone but does the word mean the same thing to a Communist Party member and to the well-meaning clergyman marching beside him in the same demonstration? It is in this field that national mass communications media can he of the greatest assistance, or do the most harm. At the moment. through either deliberate editorial policy, ignorance. or a plain desire to make money. the press inhibits our capacity to win.
An example of distorted reporting was the Viet Cong Tet offensive in January and February 1968. The majority of enemy objectives were known and allied forces were redeployed to meet the threat approxi- mately one week prior to the offensive. The 1st Australian Task Force moved from its normal base area in Phuoc Tuy province to cover approaches to Bien Hoa approximately 100 kilometres away. The ofiensive was a military disaster for the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong. Returning from the operation after three weeks we had our first opportunity to read the world press. There was no doubt that by incompetent. inaccurate and hysterical reporting we s u l k e d a propa- ganda defeat. A typical example of the irresponsibility of the press was a front page headline in a Melbourne paper – ‘Australian Battalion Wiped Out.’ The three paragraph report gave details of a supposed action in which 7 RAR had been lost. The last sentence admitted that the report was unconfirmed. In fact, the battalion had five men killed.
He goes on to describe actions in country, including a day-long fight when an Australian unit thought it had latched on to a local force VC company, but had actually come to grips with a main force NVA battalion.
And he goes out with another poke at the media:
One of the first Viet Cong acts in the attack on Saigon was the ruthless massacre of the families of South Vietnamese soldiers in a barracks there. Presumably this act of terrorism was designed to further destroy the morale of the army. I saw many photographs of buildings full of slaughtered women and children; of soldiers crying over the dead babies in their arms. I didn’t see any of these pictures published in the national press. What I did see was the photograph of the Police Chief summarily executing a Viet Cong. It was not a nice picture and was extensively used in anti-war propaganda. But what that picture did show was the hate, the fury, the ruthless determination of these people to rid their country of the terrorists, stand-over men and murderers that are the Viet Cong.
Maybe one of our down-undrian readers can explain what a “stand-over man” is.
In the end, of course, the USA, Australia, and most of all the RVN all lost. Re-education camps, Montagnard massacres, and the Boat People all lay ahead.
The quotes are from Australian Army Journal, No. 253 (June, 1970), in which Maj. Atkinson’s article is reprinted on pp. 3-8. (Here’s a link to the magazine in .pdf).