Launch Address by Major General Peter Phillips

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Launch of the ADFA Website on the Operational History of Australian Involvement in the War in Vietnam

Remarks by Major General Peter R Phillips AO MC (Retd) – 27 May 2015

I recall reading not too long ago that there are more than 1.3 trillion gigabytes of data on the internet.  That amounts to over 75 billion fully loaded 16-gigabyte I-pads and the scary part is that it is growing at over 60% per annum.  It is said that we humans will create more data in the next couple of days than was created in all of human history.

Leaders in the computing industry confirm this.  They are telling us that there will be further massive growth in data, new digital technologies, and in roles that involve data analysis.  Leaders in industry and commerce are looking at productivity gains in the order of 25% per year … and they know that better data management and analysis is the way ahead.

Little did I expect to see that, among the leaders in this field, would be a group of military historians at the Australian Defence Force Academy who have developed a digitised history of Australian operational incidents in the Vietnam War.  This is a huge data base by any reckoning – but also a basis for analysis of the Vietnam War operations that is a worldwide first in the field of history.

I was staggered at the sheer immensity of the task, with over  4500 incidents recorded, including major battles, smaller contacts, mine incidents, friendly fire incidents, and much more, representing over 95% of all the combat incidents of the 1st Australian Task Force. The website can be interrogated over a wide range of parameters and layers.  For each incident, the website presents information about the date, time and place, the unit involved, the resulting casualties, a description of the incident and references to various official and secondary sources where more information can be found. All of this is plotted on maps and timelines so that each incident can be seen in the context of the campaign as a whole

Some of this work dates back to 1991 but the bulk of it has been done here in the last three years.   It is a great achievement with more still being added, including AATTV, naval and air force operations.

I salute Professor Tom Frame and his team at the Centre for Armed Conflict and Society who have done all this.  The long list of project contributors includes: Dr Bob Hall, Dr Andrew Ross, Dr Amy Griffin, Mr Derrill de Heer, Mr Peter Kimberley, Dr Tim Turner, Mr Barry Smith, and Mr Jeff Doyle who have brought to the task their special skills in military history, operations research, geographic information systems and information technology.  Well done!

But where will this omnibus drive us?  Who will use the database and to what purpose?  As a veteran of a small part of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, of course, I am pleased to see the history of Australia’s almost longest war accurately collated from official sources.  We already have a wealth of official and unofficial histories written against many different agendas.  I do not denigrate any of the great work done by the likes of Ashley Ekins, David Horner, the late Ian McNeil, Jeffrey Grey, Lex McAuley, Gary McKay, Paul Ham and many more … but it is good for us to have ready access to the unvarnished history recorded in official records.  And it makes me wonder how the great official war histories, like those of CEW Bean, would look now if their authors had had access to this sort of resource.

I am pleased to see that the designers of this site have allowed for veterans to add their stories in a quite separate section set apart for anecdotal material.  I know from my time as National President of the RSL and ten years chairing the Veterans National Aged Care Forum just how important telling one’s story is to the well being of ageing veterans.

Families and posterity will also be interested.  When the team first showed me the power of this site, they used as an example the record of a relatively minor incident on 13th May 1968 which occurred after the Battle for Coral and before the Battle for Balmoral.  My company, D Company 3RAR, was occupying a night position near Fire Support Base Coogee when one of our finest soldiers, Sergeant Peter Lewis, was killed by an enemy sniper while positioning Claymore mines.  His platoon commander, then Lieutenant Mark John MC, is here tonight and he could tell far better than I what a devastating effect the incident had on us all.

I met with some fifteen members of that platoon a few months ago here in Canberra when they gathered for the funeral of another member of the platoon.  Many of us also met in Sydney to see a preview of a television documentary about our experiences at the battle of Balmoral.  Titled, “The Crater”, it was shown on the ABC on 23rd April.  Indeed, there has been a veritable flood of books and documentaries as the nation commemorates the centenary of ANZAC and World War I operations.  Interestingly, the last serving Vietnam veteran in the Australian Defence Force, Major Lester Mengal, recently retired in Queensland after 45 years service.   I am sure that he and many other veterans of combat in Vietnam, like the members of D Company 3RAR from 1968, are a tight knit “band of brothers” and, while their tales grow taller with the telling, most respect the need for truth.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has done some good work in this regard and I commend its AIF Project.  More recently, it has launched ANZAC Portal which opens many other doors on the web.   For Vietnam veterans, revisiting the history of that war can cause emotional upsets and divisions so it is important that they have ready access to unarguable history as we will see in this new website.

I foresee that this tool will have uses in data analysis that will extend well beyond battlefields and the domain of military history.  Policing and border operations are obvious areas which lend themselves to meta-data analysis.  And, as more and more operations are recorded for history in real time, so the opportunities for prompt and searching analysis will grow. CCTV, helmet cameras, GPS and satellite imagery and so on will make leaders and managers more instantly accountable.  It may even cause them some angst but hopefully the end result will lead to greater efficiencies and fairness.

I think the team here at ADFA has done the world a great service and I anticipate that what they have achieved here will be taken up by other nations and a variety of organisations for the better good of us all.

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