COLD WAR AUSTRALIA - MINEFIELD
is how strategists summarise the quagmire into which US forces are
sinking in Iraq.
“A story of strategic
self-destruction” is how Greg Lockhart sums up his study of the
minefield that Australian forces laid across Phuoc Tuy Province in 1967.
The parallels that Lockhart draws run backwards to Gallipoli. His book, Minefield,
is published today by Allen & Unwin.
The Commander of the
First Australian Task Force, Brigadier Stuart Graham, knew that the
Menzies government had not sent him enough troops to secure his sector.
To compensate, he ordered the building of two 11km-long barbed-wire
fences, 100m apart. At one end, they ran down to the sea.
Throughout May, sappers
laid 20, 292 US M16 “Jumping Jack” mines. The risk was built into
the plan. The minefield appealed to Graham because he did not have
enough troops. Equally, he did not have enough soldiers to protect the
mines against theft by the Vietnamese.
In 1972, Lockhart
arrived as a training officer. By then, 55 of our troops had been killed
and some 250 maimed by mines redeployed by enemy combatants. “Almost
certainly” is the official phrasing for the causal relationship.
Lockhart does not
absolve Brigadier Graham from responsibility. Rather, he places the
Commander’s brilliance and stubbornness within a flawed strategic
outlook. For a century, Australia’s political and military leaders
have hoped to set up a defensive barrier, preferably as far from
Australia’s coast line as possible.
Hence, the urge to send
forces to the Middle East in 1884, 1914 and 1939, throughout the 1950s,
and into Iraq in 1991 and 2003.
The commitment to
Vietnam was a variant on this “minefield” approach to national
security. The Chief of the General Staff, Lt-Gen Sir John Wilton, had
tried to use his troops as a barrier across Vietnam. As Lockhart puts
it, Graham followed Wilton “down the garden path”. The
“minefield” was a microcosm of political and military postures back
One more comparison
remains with Iraq. The minefield was supposed to protect the villagers
from the enemy. They were that enemy.
Lockhart opens his
study with a reflection from Orwell which is not always evident around
Canberra: “If the war didn’t happen to kill you, it was bound to
start you thinking.”