Think Piece: In the War Engine Room

michael_von_berg 2016Much has been written about wars, conflicts and battles. But how many historians, authors or commentators, drill down into the engine room of any conflict that is the lot of the soldier, airman or sailor? That lot is not only the engine room, but is at the heart and soul of a unit – one, that if properly lead, has proven to deliver extraordinary and outstanding results in all wars.

You’ll find them in the jungles and rice paddies, in the air with the choppers and fixed wing of the RAAF and Army Aviation, as Navy Clearance Divers doing their dangerous and essential work, or like I did, as part of the wonderful hospitality and friendship of the crew of HMAS Sydney on the homeward journey.

Having had an opportunity to be engaged with these incredible individuals, it is appropriate to express gratitude to all soldiers, airmen and airwomen, and to our Navy sailors who have served – and in particular to those of my generation who fought in the Vietnam War.

An infantry platoon or company (my level of expertise and experience) is a “minestrone” of people, metaphorically speaking – from all walks of life. Any student of sociology or anthropology would struggle in an academic sense to identify what molds and glues this group into an effective fighting force, and in a relatively short period of time. (Here we need to acknowledge our national servicemen who were conscripted and who have done us proud).

What is it that drives an ex-postman, farmhand, student, bricklayer’s laborer, lawyer and some from the wrong side of the tracks, to work together in a completely foreign and unfamiliar environment for a common cause? Take the postman, for example: delivering the post on one day, getting the ‘call-up’ none-too-enthusiastically the next; recruit training at Puckapunyal; Corps training at Singleton, and then posted as a rifleman to an Infantry Battalion in the climes of South Vietnam. A pretty startling change of lifestyle from delivering the mail in West Ryde, and having a beer with your mates in the local pub on a Friday night!  Yet this postman, and 19,000 other national servicemen like him, went on to serve in Vietnam, and with distinction.

Under considerable duress everyone worked well together. One would like to think that it’s our training and leadership that ensured this. But it’s much more than that. It’s something more innate and spiritual. Innate in one’s values and character; spiritual in its search for meaning in the strange new environment of life and death. It’s the egalitarian character and newly formed friendships and the wanting to belong to a clan or tribe that being part of an Infantry Platoon or Company is really all about – thankfully today without spears and shields.

The aforementioned mix of individuals and their pre-enlistment employment is a small example of the soldiers of almost any platoon that fought in Vietnam; all simply amazing. It’s appropriate now – 50 years since we served in that tribal environment – to recognize all soldiers who served, no matter what their corps or task.

The most important asset of any commander is his/her soldiers, and in my case the private rifleman. You have to ask yourself…what is it that makes the private rifleman go forward under fire to provide covering fire for a mate or commander?  To crawl forward, still under fire, to recover a wounded mate or his weapon. To join in a sweep, still under fire, to flush out the enemy. To crawl into a tunnel to clear it, consider a full frontal attack to close with, and kill the enemy. What is it that drives the rifleman to do these things?

Much has been written by non-military academics about this. The prevailing doctrine of why men fight is stressed as “comradeship” and “group cohesion theory” shared across time and battles and supported by the popular literature and anecdotal stories of men fighting in warfare.

There is no question that soldiers have a deep understanding of passion and pride in their unit; a strong sense of belonging to a tribe. That it was because they cared for the men in their unit that they did these things is a given. But the real constant, from a personal and observational perspective, is simply a mutual desire to survive. This desire transcends rank, religion or ethnicity. Doing a job is one thing. Achieving the military objective is another. But coming out the other end alive, has to be the end game for all of us.

The infantry training our soldiers received before Vietnam, and the specialist training provided at the Jungle Training Centre was, at the time, as good as any in the world. Not just individually, but in section, platoon and company with each in an Infantry Battalion given a specific task to perform. The success or otherwise of the whole, depends on the cohesion of the parts; on the capacity of those tasks as defined by the various commanders of each section to be well executed by the soldiers and NCO’s to whom they are assigned.

Although when on operations, soldiers, in an ideal world, are cross trained (many on the job), a specific task is allocated to a soldier on patrol. Be it forward scout, machine gunner, No2. on the gun, tail end Charlie, section 2IC, or Commander, it is up to the individual to accomplish the specific task, at the time and under the conditions within which it is given. However, the soldiers’ primary task above all else is always that of survival, with the best way to achieve the units’ goals, as well as the individual’s personal goal, always to work together to survive.

In short, soldiers need each other to perform their tasks so they can survive. Through the chain of command, soldiers are constantly reminded by their immediate superior, that their best chance of survival is to ‘be alert, to be on the ball, to stay focused, to be sharp and to concentrate on the task at hand’. It is this feeling of the soldier having at least some control over their own survivability, through their own actions, executed to the highest professional standard, that they have the highest chance of surviving. This is manifest in all our military training and cannot be underestimated.

However, as we know, in the chaos and sheer terror of war, continual exposure to combat (as was the case with most Infantry soldiers in Vietnam) a soldier begins to realise survival is not just based on his or her ability to accomplish the tasks as trained to do, but also too, can come down to sheer luck. Should luck too therefore be a principle of war?  Yes.

What too accounts for those acts of “heroism” where an otherwise ordinary soldier chooses to perform a task that diminishes their own personal chance of survival? Many of those heroic acts, and the reasons that drove the individual to perform them, will never be known. In many cases they were killed in the act. When questioning those that survived, many cannot clearly articulate what drove them to do what they did. Where there is no conjecture or ambiguity, it becomes clear, they acted to ensure the survival of the tribe, at the risk of their own personal safety. We will never likely know what innate triggers lead them to take the actions they did in that split second of decision making that lead to their selflessness. Hence, our elevating those whose acts we know of to hero status, despite their protestations. Not to mention the many we don’t know of, or ever will.

What we DO know is that, in this, the 50th year since the Battle of Long Tan – and the anniversary of the death of first National Serviceman, Errol Noak, killed in Vietnam at the start of our major presence in Phuoc Tuy Province – we need to acknowledge and salute ALL soldiers, airmen and airwomen, and naval personnel in whatever role they played throughout this period.

We may not have won the war in Vietnam, but we won the respect of our allies and the people of this wonderful country, many of whom are now a part of our veteran community here in South Australia. Like so many of us, I am extremely proud and humbled to have served with so many marvelous individuals who made the experience, irrespective of the outcome, a very memorable and rewarding part of my life’s journey.

Lest we forget.


Mike von Berg served with the 1st Battalion RAR before attending Officer Cadet School, Portsea, graduating in 1965. In 1966/67 he saw active service in Vietnam with Reconnaissance Platoon, 5th Battalion, RAR during which time he was awarded the Military Cross. This was followed by service in the Special Air Service Regiment, Commandos, RAR and Staff Postings before resigning his commission in 1973.  Michael lived, studied and worked in the UK, Germany, Austria, USA, South Africa and Kenya before returning to Australia in 1984 to take up his position as a director of The Hardy Wine Company. He established his own strategic management consultancy in 1991, which operated for some 20 years before retiring in 2011. Mike is the President of The RAR Association (SA). He is also the National Chairman of the RAR Corporation and Council, and a member of the Ex Service Organisation Round Table (ESORT) at federal level. He currently sits on the Prime Ministerial Advisory Council on Veterans’ Mental Health and on South Australia’s Veterans Advisory Council. He is a life and hall of fame member of South Australian Rugby Union, and past director of the Australian Rugby Union. Mike was recently awarded an OAM for his services to Rugby.