Nicole Trian; 27/12/09; The Tiger Man of Vietnam; Frank Walker; (Hachette, $35)
In 1963, two years before the first Australian combat troops arrived in Vietnam, a young Australian soldier was seconded by the CIA to train a guerilla force of indigenous tribesmen to take on the growing threat of the Viet Cong. Barry Petersen was a 28-year-old erstwhile trainee of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, an untraceable body of spooks whose existence the Australian government had long denied. Fears that communism could threaten Australia if its spread were not stemmed in Vietnam were backed by the US government’s Domino noteory, one by one, south-east Asian nations would fall to the red scourge. Amid the political urgency, Petersen was assigned to Vietnam’s remote Central Highlands.
The Sun Herald, No Internet Text
Concealing the infamous Ho Chi Minh trail, used to smuggle supplies and communist infiltrators into the south, it was an area critical to the West’s war effort. What Petersen achieved here is legendary: he transformed 1200 Montagnard tribesmen into a fearsome militia. Known as the Tiger Men, they made the Australian their chief and consistently defeated the Viet Cong while using diplomacy to win over the villagers.
But two years into his mission, Petersen’s success soured. He refused to take part in a CIA plan for assassination squads as part of the notorious Phoenix Program. He was fired. The CIA claimed that the man dubbed Lawrence of the Highlands had “gone native” and it was the Vietnamese government who wanted him out because he was too sympathetic to the Montagnard, who agitated for independence.
Rumours even emerged that the CIA wanted him dead.
Walker, a former Sun-Herald journalist, has hit on an extraordinary yarn. Petersen’s life among the Montagnard and his experiences with the CIA, Vietnamese authorities, US military and at times shoddy treatment at the hands of Australian bureaucrats are symptomatic of how the war degenerated into a military fiasco.
Drug runs made in American planes, the proceeds from which were used to bribe Vietnamese officials, and the Phoenix assassination squads – that indiscriminately targeted civilians to meet US army killing quotas make discomfiting yet compelling reading.
Parallels are drawn between the strategic flaws of Vietnam and the modern-day war on terrorism. In asking the question “Where are they now?” former CIA operatives from Vietnam are linked to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some were coaxed out of retirement
to resurrect Phoenix under the Bush administration. Heading its reintroduction, this time in Iraq, was defence secretaryDonald Rumsfeld, who championed Phoenix while an adviser for president Richard Nixon.
Supporters argue Phoenix never used mercenary tactics and was only ever an intelligence operation.
Looking back, Petersen, now 74 and living in Bangkok, says: “The Vietnamese knew all along how to fight that war better than the Americans. A war of that nature is best fought by the people themselves, not by foreigners.”
In this context, Walker’s finely researched book goes beyond the biographical account of an Australian war hero. It’s testament to the proverb that history repeats.