By Mia Martin Hobbs


On 18 August 1966, D Company of 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR) clashed with National Liberation Front (NLF) forces in a rubber plantation near the village of Long Tan. Seventeen Australians and one New Zealander were killed, and twenty-four soldiers were wounded, marking the highest single-day loss of life for the ATF in Vietnam. In 1969, members of 6RAR erected a cross on the site of Long Tan, with a plaque dedicated ‘in memory of those…who gave their lives near this spot’. This day marks the 57th anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan, a day that since the 1980s has been commemorated as ‘Vietnam Veterans Day.’

Vietnam Veterans’ Day is commemorated because, in the aftermath of the war, many Vietnam veterans felt their service was unrecognised by the Australian public. They felt the Australian media had failed to capture their warfighting prowess, instead lumping them together with the more brutal Americans. They remember being maligned, even mistreated, upon their return to Australia. It was these memories that prompted veterans to organise a Welcome Home parade in October of 1987 in Sydney. Over 20,000 veterans marched with thousands of onlookers in support. Journalists described the parade as ‘recognition, at last…twenty-five years too late’ for the veterans who had been ‘scapegoats of an unpopular war’. In honour of the day, Prime Minister Bob Hawke announced that 18 August would be known, from then on, as ‘Vietnam Veterans Day’. Over the past thirty-five years, increasing numbers of veterans have returned to Vietnam, to visit former battlefields and hold services at the site of Long Tan. In Australia, the battle has become central to Australian memories of the war – for instance, the first episode of an ABC documentary Our Vietnam War aired this week to coincide with its anniversary.

Yet this commemoration of Vietnam Veterans Day rests more on fiction than reality. In my research with veterans who returned to Vietnam after the war, I found that these memories are part of an ongoing effort to (re)work the story of Australia’s Vietnam through the narrative of the Anzac Legend. This version of the past has become increasingly widespread in Australia, particularly in relation to Long Tan. When veterans return to Vietnam, however, their Anzac memories clash with Vietnamese interpretations of the war, its commemoration, and efforts toward reconciliation between former enemies.


Memories of injustice

Historians generally agree that the Vietnam War was unwinnable, and popular memory holds that it was a brutal and wasteful mistake. Yet Australian veterans I interviewed emphasised their numerous military successes and their harmonious relationship with local Vietnamese people. For example, veterans’ memories of Long Tan reconstruct the battle as a David and Goliath feat. At the time of the battle, Australian forces estimated that they had killed 245 enemy soldiers while Vietnamese sources counted 150 dead on their side, with both sides claiming victory. However, over the years, Australian veterans have begun to inflate the number of enemy dead, along with the strategic stakes of the battle and its significance in the broader war. One veteran, Ray, who was not actually in the battle, said:

Long Tan was the first time that they’d taken on the Australians in a frontal battle. There’d been skirmishes in the first twelve months, but they’d never actually taken us on in a battle. And we know the results, they lost over 800. That was only because of our training. If we were Americans, we’d all be dead. [He chuckled] That’s something I like to say.

In fact, many interviewees argued that Australia had effectively pacified Phuoc Tuy by the time they withdrew, and suggested that had Australia been responsible for all the warfighting in Vietnam, the allies would have won. For example, Ken, an SAS veteran, said that “if [Americans] had been trained the Australian way, and if they had been trained by Australian commanders, yep, would have been different”. This argument neglects the fact that the first Australian soldiers sent to Vietnam were in fact trainers: the Australian Army Training Team deployed in 1962 to train South Vietnamese soldiers. Yet South Vietnamese allies were barely mentioned in my interviewees’ reflections, despite the millions of soldiers fighting for the South for over a decade. Furthermore, when the war escalated and the Australian Task Force was deployed in 1966, they were concentrated in one province, while South Vietnamese, American, and other allies were dispersed throughout the southern provinces and faced more varied and challenging political conditions.

Australian interviewees also remembered their role as ‘liberators’ in the war, focusing on ‘Winning Hearts and Minds’. Paradoxically, while veterans downplayed the role of South Vietnamese soldiers in the war, civilians loyal to the Republic of Vietnam were at the forefront of their memories. John W. recalled:

We liberated a place called Dat Do. The kids that went to school, these kids had never even seen the light of day. They’d come above ground at night, when it was safe, or safer, and the school […] We opened the schools, we put a cordon around the village, and we brought things back to normality. To see kids go back to school again, they looked delighted, they thought the Australians were just wonderful, because they had their normal life again. So we were liberating these little kids’

These memories of liberation elide the fact that the Australians were an occupying force, who, in order to secure and cordon off a village, would have searched them for potential enemy forces and often forcibly resettled ‘pacified’ civilians. As Robert remembered:

we did these clearing patrols, clearing the area. We’d put up huts and then we’d go into a village and say “right, we are going to shift you into this lovely beaut place you’re going to live in”. And you’d take them out of there, take everybody out. Then you’d burn ‘em [the villages]…And then you start to hear screaming. And then they’d all come out, because some of them were Viet Cong.

Memories of liberation also imply total support for the South among the villagers they encountered, when, in reality, most Vietnamese in the countryside supported the revolutionary forces. While contact between Australians and revolutionary forces diminished in the latter half of the war, this reduction correlated with the withdrawal of US and its allies from the war. After peace negotiations failed in 1968, newly elected US President Richard Nixon announced a policy of ‘Vietnamization’ from 1969, and Prime Minister John Gorton began a phased withdrawal of Australian soldiers from 1970. Revolutionary Vietnamese veterans claim they were simply ‘waiting out’ the withdrawal, a claim supported by the ‘ease and rapidity’ with which they retook the entire province once the Australians had left.

Nonetheless, Australian veterans felt strongly that the media failed them by not acknowledging their role as liberators. John W explained: ‘we did help. I saw what we did, we did help civilians, and we held our end up well. But that was never reported, we never got that news back here.’ Yet, media coverage during the war was generally very positive toward Australians. While American television footage was shocking because it showed some of the realities of warfare for the first time on TV, the underlying narratives downplayed the effects of US and allied warfare and maintained a sympathetic portrayal of soldiers. Australian news photographers were restricted by the Department of Defence to create effectively promotional material. Australian newspapers echoed this perspective, consistently celebrating Australian soldiers and comparing them favourably to Americans.

Top: Robin Strathdee, ‘The Supermen of Vietnam’, Canberra Times, 7 August 1969, 15.

Bottom: Jon Bennetts, ‘US May Use Diggers’ methods’, Canberra Times, 18 November 1967, 2.


Yet most veterans I interviewed felt that media depictions shaped how they were treated by the Australian public when they returned from war. They remembered that ‘it was the greatest bloody media war out’, that they were ‘absolutely crucified’ by the ‘horrific footage of war.’ They agreed that they were treated as ‘child killers, rapists, because of the media’. These memories reflect a widespread misconception that veterans were mistreated upon return from the war.

Many veterans also recalled that there was ‘no welcome home’, giving rise to the 1987 Welcome Home parade. Yet fifteen of the sixteen individual battalions marched in Welcome Home parades during the war, with thousands of supportive onlookers. 

Above: Footage from HMAS Sydney returning in 1971, Australian War Memorial

Worse than ignored, veterans remember that soldiers were abused upon return. Stories of protesters spitting, harassing veterans at airports, or throwing paint or blood on veterans have circulated since the 1980s. Australian and American historians have researched these memories and found no evidence of this abuse. Instead, these memories fit into a broader history of defeated militaries scapegoating anti-war forces for the traumas and losses of war. In both Germany after World War I and France after Indochina, right wing politicians promoted apocryphal stories of soldiers being scorned and abused by anti-war civilians. In Vietnam, as popular opinion in America turned against the war, the newly-elected Nixon administration falsely painted anti-war protestors as aggressive towards veterans to undermine the growing numbers of radical soldiers joining the movement. After the war, a ‘stab-in-the-back’ explanation for why the US lost the war began to manifest in veterans’ memories through tropes of anti-war hostility. Vietnam War historians agree that these memories of humiliation tactics reflect feelings of emasculation and exclusion, as returning soldiers felt socially displaced by anti-war protestors. The dominant memory of abuse in my interviews suggests that for Australian veterans, this feeling of displacement was exacerbated by their association with American soldiers via the oft-cited epithet ‘baby killer’. One veteran, Ric, recalled:

‘we were just baby killers, none of our guys killed fucking babies, we helped them for fucks sake. I was a patrol medic in SAS!… if you could help somebody, especially kids, you would, you know? The medical corps, they’d go out and do hearts and minds, it was called. Especially at the orphanages, things like that, do injections. And that was actually saving them, that wasn’t killing them. So that’s what pissed a lot of people off.’

Yet there is no evidence of the term ‘baby killer’ being used by the anti-war movement in archives – not on protesters’ placards, nor reported in newspapers.

Anti-war protests did highlight the killing of children and civilians in war: the chant ‘Hey, Hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today’ followed the American president from the US to Australia on his visit in 1966. But these protests targeted politicians leading the war, not soldiers. My interviewees defended this, differentiating it from attacks on soldiers. John B explained:

‘that’s fine, to have a go at the establishment, government, the people that sent us there, I don’t have any issue with that. But to actually put it on the blokes that actually went there, I think is actually disgraceful to this day’.

Veterans remembered that media coverage of American atrocities fuelled the anti-war movement’s hostility toward soldiers. For example, in 1968, US soldiers massacred over 500 civilians in My Lai. When news of the massacre broke in 1969, the Canberra Times headline was: “Old men, women and babies ‘were deliberately killed’”. This quote was taken from an interview with My Lai veteran Paul Meadlo. An iconic anti-Vietnam War poster set text from Meadlo’s interview over a photograph of civilians killed during in the massacre.

‘… And Babies’, Art Workers Coalition, 1969.


 Although I did not ask about war crimes in my interviews, many interviewees raised the massacre as an example of the unfair association of Australians with American atrocities. John W. stressed that:

‘I don’t know any Australian troop that ever raped a woman. And I don’t know any Australian troop that ever killed a baby. You know? It went on, it most certainly happened, but no Australian troops were ever guilty of that.’

Other veterans echoed this, with John B. claiming that Australian soldiers were so honourable that they would have killed each other to uphold the law:

‘we weren’t like the Americans, who went in there and raped a few Sheilas and shot a few people up, I mean that’s just — it just couldn’t happen in the Australian Army ‘cause we would just shoot the person. But the bottom line is, none of us were like that.’

In fact, this memory echoes the real story of heroism at My Lai, where US pilot Hugh Thompson commanded his gunner to shoot US soldiers committing atrocities while he tried to evacuate as many survivors as possible.

In addition to My Lai, many veterans referenced Nick Ut’s photograph of Phan Thi Kim Phuc fleeing a napalm strike, which won the Pulitzer Prize and was seen the world over. One veteran, Peter, remembered:

I think the images from the Americans were so graphic, you know, that image of the naked girl, running down…And Australians had nothing to do with that. But instantly the anti-war movement grabbed that, and stuck Australian troops in there.


Nick Ut, The Terror of War, AP, 1972


But Ut’s photograph of Kim Phuc was taken in June of 1972, when almost all Australian troops had withdrawn from Vietnam. Australia’s war was over, and the protest movement had melted away.

American historians have argued that the memory of ‘baby killer’ is a shorthand for alienation and stigma, and the term certainly originated in the US. However, Australian veterans’ use of the term insinuates that while they weren’t baby killers, the American veterans were. The key referents that position soldiers as baby killers – My Lai and Kim Phuc – are both remembered as American atrocities (although the latter was a South Vietnamese action), and Australian veterans frequently accompanied these memories with complaints that Australians were ‘tarred with the American brush.’

It is understandable that soldiers and veterans would feel upset that images of children being injured and killed were associated with ‘their’ war. But documenting and protesting the effects of war on civilians is not the same thing as walking up to a soldier and calling them a baby killer.


Memory myths and the legend of Anzac

If these memories are myths, where do these stories come from?

All memories are malleable. Our minds are not archives or film reels, filing away complete, coherent memories to be retrieved in full. Instead, the construction of memory is a fluid, changing process, drawing on different parts of the brain and the cultural materials around us to ‘compose’ memories into coherent narratives that reflects our values. Our memories are strongly influenced by our ‘particular publics’, the smaller social groups that have the most significance in our lives and play the largest role in affirming our memories and identities. Certain stories come to dominate within these particular publics because they resonate with the values of the group – think of stories repeated among family members, or groups of old friends. Yet beneath the cultural and social influences, there remains an individual emotional experience, an ‘underlay’, as fundamental to the meaning of the memory as the references that shape it over time. When we remember things over and over, when we re-remember, there is something about that underlying experience that is significant, and a psychic need to work it through.

For Australian veterans, their memories of Vietnam echo the foundational myth of Australian military history: the Anzac legend. In 1915, the deaths of over 8,000 Australian soldiers during the eight-month siege at Gallipoli were romanticised by war correspondent C.E.W. Bean, hailing the soldiers who ‘died fighting like tigers’.  Bean created a mythic ideal of the Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) soldier, with several key elements: they are ‘good’ soldiers, both in terms of virtue and skill; they are compared favourably with the ally, rather than the enemy; and they are betrayed by political leaders.

Veterans’ memories also draw on American Vietnam War films. Movies such as Apocalypse Now (1979), The Deer Hunter (1978), Platoon (1986), and Full Metal Jacket (1987) emphasised the lawlessness of American warfare in Vietnam, while Coming Home (1978), Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and the Rambo franchise portrayed anti-war protestors abusing returning soldiers to underscore the loneliness of repatriation.

Significantly, it was only after these American movies were released that memories of anti-war abuse became widespread in veterans’ accounts of the war.[1]

Above: John Rambo in First Blood, 1982.


Australian veterans’ memories of war meld together key elements from the Anzac legend with images of American brutality and tropes of anti-war hostility. They depict the Australian soldier as honourable, compare him with the more brutal American, and position him as being betrayed by the Australian public, media, and anti-war movement. South Vietnamese allies, meanwhile, were divided into civilians – whose admiration justified the Australian presence in Vietnam – and soldiers – who were erased from the war in Australian memories. These memories serve an important emotional purpose. Australian soldiers are raised on the Anzac legend, which captures all of the glory and none of the fear, horror, or shame of war. Veterans of all wars struggle with the gap between a heroic narrative and their lived experience, but for Vietnam veterans, this struggle is particularly marked because ‘their’ war was so divisive. Working Australia’s war in Vietnam through the prism of Anzac is a way of making sense of feelings of isolation, exclusion, and pain. By restaging the story of Gallipoli in Vietnam through tropes from war films, veterans lay a claim to Anzac identity.

However, the veterans who repeat these memories are not lying. If we examine individual examples of these myths, we see formulaic, but non-specific language patterns. My interviewees spoke in collective pronouns, and offered vague information: ‘that was because of our training’, ‘we were just baby killers’. They describe a collective experience, or events happening to other people. Some veterans acknowledged this: one veteran, Derek, qualified his claims by saying: ‘I never saw this [anti-war abuse] personally, but of course, through the media.’ Furthermore, because these memories rest on themes of rejection and injustice, they deflect scrutiny and inquiry, which in turn allows them to be more easily repeated by others. These stories have circulated in Returned Service Leagues and Vietnam Veteran Associations for decades now, in the ‘particular public’ of the veteran community, and have increasingly come to stand for the Australian experience of the Vietnam War. They are revived each year for Vietnam Veterans’ Day in media write-ups of commemorations and political commentary on the day. And over the years, as more and more veterans have returned to their battlefields, they carried these memories with them, back to Vietnam.


Return to Vietnam

In the late 1980s, Australian Vietnam veterans began returning to Vietnam in very small numbers, gradually increasing over the following decades. Meanwhile, in Australia, the momentum behind Vietnam Veterans’ Day fed into a huge resurgence of commemorative activity around Australian war history more generally: the Anzac Revival. In the early 1990s, Australian politicians made pilgrimages to overseas battlefields and performed public rituals that claimed these spaces as ‘in one sense, a part of Australia.’ By the early 2000s, Australian veterans increasingly returned on pilgrimages to the site of Long Tan, occasionally referred to as ‘Vietnam’s Gallipoli.’

When these veterans returned to Vietnam, they found that the Vietnamese welcomed them back with open arms. Australian returnees took this welcome as a mark of respect for the Australian soldier during the war. Ken, for example, told me that Vietnamese revolutionary forces ‘have a huge respect for the Australian veteran’ because ‘we were certainly a force to contend with.’ Others claimed that Vietnamese civilians remembered Australians fondly because of their humanitarianism, and contrasted the Vietnamese welcome with memories of mistreatment in Australia after the war. John W. told me:

‘…he said, “they love us. they really truly love us”. and they do, they genuinely do. These are kids, babies, they know because of their grandparents and their parents have told them what the Australians did, you know? and how the Australians helped them and what they did not just as a soldier, but in other ways, how they helped them out. And we’re to them, are their heroes…I can’t believe this. These are people who treat us better, these people treat us better and respect us better than our own countrymen.’

Many veterans incorporated Australia’s post-war activities into this narrative. When the very first veterans returned, they found their former areas in Vietnam crippled by the legacies of war. Some of these returnees established charities to address these legacies – removing landmines, building schools and medical facilities – which attracted support from AusAID. Over the years, veteran-run tour programs developed, often sponsoring or visiting the veteran-led charities in Vietnam. Most returning Australians engaged in some way with these charities, positioned as a continuation of wartime ‘Winning Hearts and Minds.’ Peter reflected that:

‘We left a lot of goodwill, Australia, I reckon which I’ve talked about, the respect the Vietnamese have got for the Australians. We built orphanages, schools, wells, bridges, the engineers did a magnificent job. So there’s a legacy there. After the war, when Australia could get back in there, they continued to do that type of situation. And that’s ongoing.’

Australian returnees offered scant evidence for this narrative. Broad claims about Vietnamese gratitude and respect for the Australian soldier was not reflected in their memories of return, in which the Vietnamese were simply welcoming and friendly. The only memories of personal thanks were in response to post-war actions addressing war legacies: Ric, who first returned to Vietnam in 2006 to discuss the effects of Agent Orange with the Vietnamese government in Hanoi, explained: ‘the Vietnamese people, they really welcomed me in, because they say “we know you helped Vietnamese people.”’ Others pointed to the absence of Australians in Vietnamese museums commemorating the war, which speaks to the relatively small number of Australian forces involved in the war – 60,000 compared to over 1 million South Vietnamese soldiers and 2.7 million Americans. The key justification for this narrative of love for Australians seemed to be the claim that Vietnamese welcome back Australians but not Americans:  Ken, for instance, claimed: ‘I know they still detest the American with a vengeance, in many places.’

Yet American experiences of return contradict this view. I interviewed American returnees as well as Australians, and they also report that the Vietnamese welcome them back with open arms. In fact, the first veterans to return were American anti-war activists invited by the Vietnamese government to help normalise relations and lift the US embargo on Vietnam. Vietnamese officials explained to these returning veterans that they have ‘never had any animosity toward the American people’ because ‘they were victims of the war like many of our people were victims.’ Over the past thirty-five years, the overwhelming majority of returning veterans were anti-war Americans who wanted to atone for the war, and the consistent response of the Vietnamese government was to offer them forgiveness, solidarity, and friendship. This conciliatory approach was actually a key strategy for the Vietnamese government to retain political legitimacy and moral authority while seeking diplomatic relations with the US through these returning, remorseful veterans. Vietnamese war museums usually have a final exhibit to the ‘American War’ portraying repentant American veterans returning to make amends through charity work or advocacy, and Vietnamese media outlets frequently run human interest stories featuring American redeemers. It is likely that most Vietnamese interpreted returning Australians through the same lens, and extended to them the same welcome of friendship.

In this context, it seems that the Australian story about Vietnamese love and respect most likely originated within the ‘particular public’ of Australian veteran community itself. It is a story that interprets the Vietnamese welcome in such a way that coheres to the Anzac narrative. The traits that veterans claim the Vietnamese associate with the Australian Task Force are all qualities of the ‘Anzac digger’, and they touch on those broader memory myths. There is therefore a fundamental conflict between how veterans position themselves – as commemorating and continuing their Anzac service in Vietnam – and how the Vietnamese interpret returning veterans: as repentant redeemers. This conflict between Australian and Vietnamese perspectives is most apparent in the commemoration of the Battle of Long Tan.


Long Tan

After the war, the Long Tan Cross was removed from the site and lost for years. In 1986, Long Tan veteran Terry Burstall returned to Vietnam with a view to understanding the Vietnamese perspective of the battle and the war. He found the Long Tan rubber plantation ‘clean and working’, and asked about the whereabouts of the cross, which was still unknown. When he returned the following year to continue his research, his local guide had a surprise for him: the cross had been located as the headstone for the grave of a local Catholic, while the plaque had been turned into a barbeque plate. Both were now in Bien Hoa Museum. In 1989, in response to increasing visits from returning Australian veterans, the Long Dat People’s Committee erected a replica cross on the site.

In 1990, veteran Graham returned to Vietnam, and asked if he could hold an Anzac Day ceremony at the site. The Local People’s Committee were divided on whether to allow this service, but a Viet Cong veteran, Mr Huy, argued passionately for Graham’s case:

He explained who he was, he reminded people that he’d fought against the Australians, but the war was past, the war was over, and he thought it was – He argued with his colleague that it was time for us to never forget those we’d lost, our loved ones, our family members, but it was time to move on, it’s important that we – that they moved on, he said it’s time for us shake hands with the Australians and welcome them back, if not for our own sakes, for the sakes of our children, and the future.

Mr Huy and several other Viet Cong veterans joined Graham in holding the service, afterwards helping him find the location where he had lost his legs to a landmine. Evidently, holding commemorative services to foreign forces was a sensitive issue, but one that the Vietnamese agreed to for the sake of reconciliation.

Graham’s ceremony at Long Tan in 1990 established a precedent for other Australians. As the Anzac Revival took hold and increasing numbers of Australians returned for commemorations, they became concerned about the condition of the cross and site. Members of 6RAR and representatives from the expat-charity Australian Vietnam Veterans Reconstruction Group (AVVRG) formed the Long Tan Cross Memorial Fund to maintain the site. The replica cross was restored by the Fund and erected in 2002, and the AVVRG established as ‘custodians’ of the site. Local authorities incorporated Vietnamese memorial practices by adding an urn filled with sand for incense sticks to the site and put visitation rules in place to protect the private property on which the cross stands. Pre-scheduled visits and small-scale, unofficial commemorations were permitted, and revolutionary Vietnamese veterans sometimes joined returning and expat Australians for private services. South Vietnamese soldiers, meanwhile, are still excluded from these reconciliation events by the Vietnamese government and scapegoated by Australian veterans. When I asked Rod, a veteran now living in Vung Tau, if he ever met with South Vietnamese veterans, he said ‘no, you meet the odd one occasionally but it’s not a – They probably don’t have a lot of respect for the Australian soldier, because they didn’t want to fight…I won’t say they were cowards or anything like that, but they didn’t really want to be in a fight.’

Australian Army veteran Rod Harlor with North Vietnamese Army veteran Vo Xuan Thu at the Long Tan Cross in 2016. Photograph by Kate Geraghty.


Over time, returning veterans began to push the boundaries of Vietnamese conditions at Long Tan. Expatriate veteran groups began to run tours to Long Tan without permits, and contested Vietnamese history on their tours. The Viet Cong advantages were overstated, and the number of enemy dead inflated. After returning on tours, some veterans argued that the entire war pivoted on the battle, claiming that if the Viet Cong forces had won at Long Tan, the South Vietnamese government would have fallen. Heroic narratives about the battle fed into the Australian consensus that the Vietnamese welcome them back because they respected them as opponents. Many veterans interpreted the fact that the Vietnamese allowed a memorial at Long Tan as a sign of this respect for Australian soldiers.

The historical evidence does not support this. William Logan and Andrea Witcomb investigated the history of the Long Tan Cross(es) – both the original in Bien Hoa Museum and the replica on the original site. They found the original inventory sheet for the original cross in Bien Hoa, which states that the cross ‘is evidence of the crime and utter defeat of the American Empire and its allies involved in the war in Vietnam’, and spoke to museum staff who explained that the replica cross was intended as a gesture of goodwill. Furthermore, the Long Tan Cross is not the only memorial to foreign forces in Vietnam. There is a memorial to French casualties at Dien Bien Phu, and a plaque in Ho Chi Minh City commemorating US servicemen killed in the Tet Offensive. Neither is about the warfighting prowess of foreign forces. Instead these memorials promote the memory of Vietnamese resistance while extending a benevolent gesture of reconciliation toward former enemies. Long Tan serves a similar function: Australians originally memorialised the battle in 1969 because so many soldiers died, and the Anzac Day service that Graham asked to hold likewise was a commemoration of lives lost, not battles won. The addition of the urn also shows an effort to commemorate losses on both sides. In this context, Vietnamese permissions for Australian commemorations at Long Tan are likely a part of their national narrative of forgiveness and reconciliation with returning (in their view) redeemers.

This conflict between Australian and Vietnamese interpretations came to a head for the 50th anniversary in 2016. The anniversary had been planned for months between the local Vietnamese officials, Australian veterans, and Australian government liaisons. After a ceremony at the site, there was to be a Friendship Dinner held with veterans from D445, the battalion Australians fought against at Long Tan. In August of 2016, over a thousand Australian veterans returned to Vietnam for the 50th anniversary of the battle. The day before the anniversary, the Vietnamese government cancelled access to the site and prohibited speeches at the commemorative events, citing ‘deep sensitivities.’

Australians reacted strongly to the cancellation. Many veterans I spoke to felt it was a deliberate, spiteful act by the Vietnamese government to remind Australians who won the war. The cancellation was framed as a ‘kick in the guts’ by Minister for Veterans Affairs Dan Tehan, and positioned broadly in Australian media as yet another betrayal faced by Vietnam veterans.

But this interpretation omitted the behaviour of returning veterans in Vung Tau. The Vietnamese conditions of access – low-key ceremonies, no fanfare or political speeches were deliberately flouted in the lead up to the anniversary. The local expatriate community had a concert planned, with hundreds of attendees. A veteran tour leader gave a presentation at the Grand Hotel, in which he claimed that the Australians had killed over a thousand Vietnamese soldiers at Long Tan – leading other veterans to repeat this ‘fact’. Another veteran of the battle, Bill, told me on the morning of the anniversary itself that many veterans hoped that in honour of the day, the Vietnamese would finally admit defeat:

…like tonight we’ve got that Friendship Dinner. Now its hopefully then that the Vietnamese will open up and say “well actually, this is what happened”. They’ve been most secretive about it because to them, Long Tan is still a victory. You know? They find it very hard to admit that they were beaten there. And you know, look, things happen in war that nobody, really, wants to have bragging rights, so to speak, to get up in front of former enemy and say “we beat you, we killed a thousand of you”, and so forth, you don’t do that. But you acknowledge the fact that this is a big battle and we didn’t win it. We won the war, but we didn’t win this particular battle.

The Vietnamese cancellation was a direct response to Australian ‘triumphalism’, generated by increasing adherence to the Anzac narrative of Australia’s role in Vietnam among veterans. In the end, the Vietnamese government relented at the last minute to small numbers at the Cross in staggered visits. Busloads of veterans lined up on a main road nearby, allowed in one at a time to hold small ceremonies. Most eventually turned back without attending the cross. The concert was cancelled, but the Friendship Dinner went ahead.

The Long Tan anniversary scandalised Australia for a week or so before fading away. In Vietnam, however, frustrations between the expatriates and local government persisted, and the government maintained their ban on official ceremonies at Long Tan for Anzac Day in 2017. The following November, Vietnamese officials quietly gave the Long Tan Cross to the Australian War Memorial.

The myths behind Long Tan Day should cause us to question the meaning and purpose of heroic war narratives. The Anzac story of the Vietnam War is a way of making sense of the disillusion that many soldiers felt after being raised on the Anzac legend, fighting a lost war, and returning to a country that no longer felt the war was justified. The Anzac story of Vietnam has become increasingly widespread in Australia, but fractures emerge when veterans travel back to Vietnam and expect that their former enemies adhere to the same story. The myths behind Long Tan Day myths perpetuate a nationalistic legend, frame peaceful protest as betrayal, and pose a real challenge to reconciliation with former enemies.



Cover image copyright Australian War Memorial via


Reading List

Curthoys, Ann. “‘Vietnam’: Public Memory of an Anti-War Movement”, in Memory in Twentieth Century Australia, eds. Kate Darian-Smith and Paula Hamilton (Oxford University Press, 1994): 113-130.

Dawson, Graham. Soldier Heroes: British Adventure, Empire and the Imagining of Masculinities (Routledge, 1994)

Dean Jr. Eric T. ‘The Myth of the Troubled and Scorned Vietnam Veteran’, Journal of American Studies 26:1 (1992): 59-74.

Dixon, Chris. ‘Redeeming the Warriors: Myth-making and Australia’s Vietnam veterans’, Australian Journal of Politics and History 60:2 (2014): 214-228.

Grey, Jeffrey. ‘In Every War But One?’, in Zombie Myths of Australian History, ed. Craig Stockings (University of New South Wales Press, 2012): 190-212.

Logan, William and Andrea Witcomb, ‘Messages from Long Tan: Memorialization, Reconciliation, and Historical Justice’, Critical Asian Studies 45:2 (2013): 255-78.

Martin Hobbs, Mia, “We went and did an Anzac job”: Memory, myth, and the Anzac digger in Vietnam’, Australian Journal of Politics and History 64:3 (2018): 580-497.

 Martin Hobbs, Mia. Return to Vietnam: An Oral History of American and Australian Veterans’ Journeys (Cambridge University Press, 2021).

 Roper, Michael. “Re-remembering the Soldier-Hero: The Psychic and Social Construction of Memory in Personal Narrative”, History Workshop Journal, 50 (Autumn 2009): 181-204.

Schwenkel, Christina. American War in Contemporary Vietnam: Transnational Remembrance and Representation (Indiana University Press, 2009).

 Stevens, Rachel. “‘Captured by Kindness’: Australian Press Representations of the Vietnam War, 1965-1970”, History Australia, 3:2 (2006): 45.1-45.17.

Thomson, Alistair. “Anzac Memories Revisited: Trauma, Memory and Oral History”, Oral History Review, 42:1 (2015): 1-29.

Twomey, Christina. ‘Trauma and the reinvigoration of Anzac: an argument’, History Australia, 10:3 (2013): 85-108.


[1] These dramatic depictions of anti-war abuse stand in contrast to the Australian film The Odd Angry Shot (1979), which portrays the muted reality of returning home: ‘it’ll be just like it’s been after every other war…a few blokes will come up and pat you on the back and tell you what a great bloke you were, that will last about a week, and then nobody will want to hear about it.’


Mia Martin Hobbs
Mia Martin Hobbs

Mia is an oral historian of war and its legacies. Her research interests include the Vietnam War, the War on Terror, memory, trauma, place, gender, peace and security. Mia completed her PhD in History at the University of Melbourne in 2018. Her first book, Return to Vietnam: An Oral History of American and Australian Veteran’s Journeys, was published by Cambridge University Press in October 2021. Return to Vietnam won the Oral History Australia Book Award for 2022 and was shortlisted for the Memory Studies Association First Book Award in 2023. Mia is currently undertaking a new oral history project with women and minorities who served in the British, American, and Australian armed forces in the so-called War on Terror.