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Historians in Hot Water

Recently, Vietnam Official Historian Ashley Ekins had one of those embarrassing experiences. In discussing one of the Australian Army's three fragging incidents in the Vietnam War, he quoted the defence counsel at the court marshal as arguing that the unit concerned, 106 Field Battery, was a "slack battery".

Understandably, veterans of this unit were pretty upset -- perhaps outraged would be a better word -- that their grandchildren would now read that they served in a slack battery. Part of the outrage they felt was on account of the source of the remark, which was a defence counsel (and also was trimmed to be more damning). Unlike the witnesses, counsel are not under oath and generally feel free to tell whatever stories they think will help get their client off. In other words, it violates one of the disciplines of the historian, which is to use sources with due care and consideration of their origin. You don't quote liberally from media releases, for example, because the authors are known to play fast and loose with the facts.

Lost of course is what should have been the centre of interest of the account. Fragging is often regarded as a visible symptom of the US Army's decay in the latter part of the Vietnam War, when most of the incidents occurred. It is used a metric, although the people who actually commit such crimes always seem to be real nut cases, so a top notch psychiatric screening system - which neither Army possessed - could significantly distort this figure.

If Ekins' intent was to demonstrate that the Australian Army had the same discipline and morale problems that affected its American counterpart, then all well and good. But the reader knows that the US Army in Vietnam was much larger than the Australian, so whether three incidents is better or worse is not conveyed.

Ekins accepted the figure of 786 incidents in 1969-71. Accurate figures on this issue are notoriously hard to find. But if we accept the figure and we guesstimate the number of American Army personnel who served in Vietnam in this period as 1,200,000 based on the figures in the chronology, and the Australian as 20,000 we find that the US Army was 60 times larger. At the Australian rate the US force would have had 180 incidents. So it seems that the proposition that the Australian Army had higher morale and discipline incidents is substantiated. Nonetheless, it also points to cracks in Australian discipline that are not generally or properly acknowledged.

If the real issue is lost in the controversy, it is doubly Ekin's fault, for his text reads exactly that way. He does not introduce the statistics that the reader needs to understand the issue, and he introduces comments about 106 Field Battery that imply that this was an exceptionally poor unit - incorrectly, but you'd need still more statistics that he does not provide to know this.

All in all, I think that Ekins deserves the feathering and tarring that he has gotten.