For two days, on Aug. 18 and 19, 1966, Australian soldiers fought a battle at the village of Long Tan in South Vietnam. Though vastly outnumbered, they held their ground. Subsequently, they were given medals for bravery by the then-government of South Vietnam; and in May 1968, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson awarded D Company 6RAR, as they were known, the Presidential Unit Citation, or PUC.

All of this came back to the fore last month, when the 40th anniversary of that battle, said to be the bloodiest fought by Australian troops since World War II, was celebrated in Australia where I am writing this article. Long Tan Day is commemorated here as Vietnam Veterans’ Remembrance Day; and film director Bruce Beresford has announced that he will shoot a big-budget feature about the battle.

On the floor of Parliament in August, Prime Minister John Howard commended the bravery of the servicemen who fought at Long Tan. Australia at the time of the war in Vietnam had conscription, and many of the soldiers who went to Vietnam had no choice but to fight.

Australia has a long history of sacrificing its young men in the misguided national interests of other countries. This nation’s great iconic event is the World War I battle of Gallipoli in Turkey, where Australian (and New Zealand) troops were slaughtered to defend the British ruling class’s sacred notion of “King and Country.”

When it comes to the war in Vietnam, Australians nowadays generally admit they were on the wrong side, though few would acknowledge that they were the wrong side. And now in Iraq, Australian troops are again being sent to fight an unjust war in the blind and brutal service of another.

This all brings up the question of the responsibility of the individual soldier who is called upon to fight in an illegitimate war.

Are soldiers thrust into battle by misguided governments personally responsible for unjustifiable cruelty that they may commit? Should veterans be given bravery awards when they have participated in battles that are arguably war crimes?

Angry demonstrations

In reality, the privilege of having heroes belongs solely to victors. If ex-Wehrmacht soldiers or Japanese heroes of battles fought by the Imperial Army were to march today in commemoration parades, how would the world react? One could expect vehemently denunciatory editorials in European newspapers and angry demonstrations in China.

Yet those soldiers were, in the main, conscripts who were only doing their national duty. Were they any less brave, personally, than Allied soldiers? Of course they weren’t. So why deny them and their families the comfort that comes from having served selflessly and courageously?

I recently read an early novel by German author Heinrich Boell. “The Silent Angel” is a poignant story of a German deserter who survives when another soldier is shot for desertion in his stead. Boell served in the army throughout World War II, and his diaries stand as brilliant witness to the despair of the thinking soldier. His fervent wish was to be captured without having to kill. Yet could he be blamed for using his rifle or bayonet when the situation warranted self-defense?

And what of the millions of Japanese who sacrificed life and limb for the Imperial cause?

I lived for some time in a little mountain village called Kashibara, about half way between Kyoto and the Sea of Japan coastal town of Maibara. My neighbor was an old farmer who had fought for four years on the Chinese front, primarily in villages just like Kashibara. He had spent his whole life in Kashibara, save for the years in China.

“Look at my head,” he said to me the very first time we met. He pointed to his bald head, which was sort of flat on top, and knocked it as if it were a door. “There’s a metal plate in here. They put it in in China after I was wounded.”

He smiled a toothless grin, and I wondered: How many innocent Chinese farmers, just like himself, did he kill? What on earth was this man doing so far away from home? Did he have a choice? Of course he didn’t. Would anyone in Japan or elsewhere call him a hero? Of course not. All he had to show for his contribution to his country was a bundle of bitter memories and a metal plate in his head.

Are all soldiers, on whatever side, heroes of a kind? What of those whose cruelty is deliberate and excessive? Again, it appears as if, for the most part, such soldiers are heroes — if they are lucky to be on the winning side. If they happen to be on the losing side, they are branded “war criminals.”

Writing last month in the excellent Web magazine Japan Focus Newsletter, edited and compiled by Cornell University Professor Mark Selden, Harvard Professor Herbert Bix — author of 2000’s Pulitzer prize-winning book, “Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan” — stated that “according to recently released U.S. Army investigative records, U.S. soldiers committed hundreds of massacres of Vietnamese civilians. . . . Abuses were not confined to a few rogue units . . . ” But Bix continues, “No policy-makers were, or could ever be, brought to justice for having violated international humanitarian law . . . “

Shot in the back

The rule in the U.S. armed services is “Different spanks for different ranks.” When an “injustice” is committed, a senior officer might get a pat on the bum, while a grunt will be whacked into the brig.

There is no such thing as the Tomb of the Unknown General. Rather, the policy in all wars — if the warmongers can get away with it — is B.I.O.G.: Blame It On Grunts.

During World War I, several hundred British Army deserters, or those simply too “shell shocked” to fight, were executed. Only recently have these “traitors” been pardoned, 90 years after their killing by deliberate “friendly fire.”

During World War II, front-line officers of the NKVD (predecessor of the KGB) shot soldiers in the Soviet Red Army in the back if they started to run away from battle. Japanese soldiers were also, in many cases, treated by their superiors with brutality equal to that meted out to the enemy.

And yet, after it’s all over, we deny many individual soldiers their day in the sun, their proud, wounded shuffle down Main Street shoulder-to-shoulder with their senyu, their comrades-in-arms.

As for the real perpetrators of war crimes, they generally have one of two fates. The ignominious leaders on the losing side are dishonored, punished or executed. This, in turn, lets the citizenry off the hook: “Thank God we’re rid of that lot!”

The triumphant leaders ease into the leather armchair of reminiscence, armed with the luxury of writing up “history.” The very privileged among them have their figure immortalized in bronze or stone in parks and public squares.

And the poor grunts, on either side, who did their callous bidding? For the victorious ones, it’s three cheers and a New Year’s card; for the losers, a dead silence.

They have, however, more in common than can be imagined. For both, the sad truth is: It’s a wide road that leads to war, but only the narrowest one leads home again.

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