Robert O'Neill (Australian Army), Counter-insurgency

Running time
2 min 26 sec
Department of Veterans' Affairs

Bob O'Neill served as an intelligence officer in Vietnam. His work in counter-insurgency took him out into Vietnamese villages gathering intelligence.


When Bob O'Neill went to Vietnam in 1966, counter-insurgency was an established strategy in the Australian Army.

"Counter-insurgency is a process of trying to build popular support for the government of the day or whoever the military force from outside is supporting."

As an intelligence officer, Bob depended on Vietnamese villagers as his main source of information about the enemy.

"The local Vietnamese people let us know very quickly whether they liked us or not; we'd get groups of people coming in from particular villages bringing gifts "" bringing chickens, vegetables, fruit and so on and they would stand around and have a chat with us. That made the gathering of intelligence so much easier because they thought about us in positive terms rather like themselves, not just a bunch of foreigners in strange uniforms speaking a different language who'd come to oppress them. And above all, you did not want to be associated with destruction unless it was absolutely essential.

There was a tendency amongst our allies to see us as overly soft in our methods. There's something about Americans; they're brave people "" when they get mad they really go after what is making them mad. We tend to be a bit cooler in our approach."

Though the strategy was successful in Phuoc Tuy Province, by the time he left, Bob was unsure of the future.

"We went away feeling that we had accomplished something but, whether it would be good enough we just didn't know, and of course when the Tet Offensive came along, that was just such a smack in the face to all of the foreign troops who were in Vietnam that one became very despondent thereafter."

Bob O'Neill became Professor O'Neill, a renowned scholar of military history, but Vietnam is with him still.

"Really this was a highlight of our lives. We didn't particularly like it at the time but you come to know people so well, and that was great."

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