In these two books, Australian historian Paul Ham comprehensively covers two subjects which may not be well known outside Australia. Prior to reading these works, I knew that Australian troops had served in Vietnam, but didn’t know any details, and while I knew about the Second World War battle of Milne Bay (briefly covered in Kokoda), I’m not sure if I was aware of the Kokoda campaign at all. Length is the primary reason I’m recommending these books to history and topic enthusiasts, rather than to a general audience; the audio version of Kokoda is over 21 hours long, while Vietnam: The Australian War is over 31 hours.
Kokoda covers the Japanese WW II attempt to capture Port Moresby by landing on the northern coast of New Guinea and attacking overland through Kokoda, followed by the Australian and Allied counterattacks. Here are a few random interesting things I found in the book:
- The different types of terrain in New Guinea
- Differences between the Australian militia and the veteran troops returning from fighting the Germans and Italians in the middle east
- Australian dock workers going on strike (also occurred during the Vietnam War) – what were those guys thinking? Australia was threatened with invasion by some really nasty fascists.
- Natives of New Guinea working as carriers for supplies and wounded soldiers.
Vietnam: The Australian War covers the entire Australian experience in the war, as well as some politics at home. After some early activity in support of US forces, the Australians were given independent responsibility for a province of South Vietnam (just south of Saigon), and the majority of the book deals with their actions there.
There is some America-bashing in the book, but the author also points out Australian screw-ups, particularly a long and narrow barrier minefield that they laid to prevent communist movements. The communists lifted the mines out of the ground and placed them on paths used by Australian troops, causing numerous wounds and deaths.
I was also surprised to learn several things about the American experience in Vietnam, despite having watched countless American TV documentaries on the subject. If you were to read an American history textbook today, it would probably focus heavily on the My Lai massacre, where around 200 civilians were killed by American troops. That same textbook would probably not mention civilians executed by communists, which Vietnam: The Australian War estimates at over two hundred thousand, including several thousand in one city (Hue) during one battle (the Tet offensive).
I was also completely shocked to learn that the North Vietnam may have been at risk of collapse near the end of the war. Apparently almost every civilian job in that country was being done by Chinese laborers provided by the communist Chinese government, so that all of the young and healthy North Vietnamese could be sent south to fight or transport supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Every day that the war dragged on probably put the North Vietnamese government at greater risk of becoming a Chinese puppet state. The North’s government also stopped notifying the families of those who died in the war, believing such notifications reduced morale; of course, that action eventually reduced morale even further, as the entire population then assumed their loved ones serving in the South were dead.
As I mentioned earlier, each book provides comprehensive coverage of its subject, but the length may turn off some readers. The author also doesn’t appear to take into account that the majority of his books’ readers are probably not Australian; he often writes about Australian politicians, generals, or political parties as if the reader is already familiar with them. I had never heard of any Australian public figures before reading the books, so I don’t know if his treatment of them is valid, but he paints a very negative picture of some of them, using language that seems more opinionated than objective.
Paul Ham has written several additional history books which I haven’t read yet:
Sandakan: The Untold Story of the Sandakan Death Marches, a story of torture and murder of allied POWs by the Japanese
1914: The Year the World Ended, based on the premise that European leaders intentionally pushed their nations towards war.