Historian Humphrey McQueen writes:

“Another Vietnam” 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 home.

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.”