IT’S HOW YOU LOOK AT THINGS
Continued from front page
Conscription has muscled its way into one third of Australia’s 101-year military history. Ever since its induction in 1911, the majority of Australians have always accepted conscription so long as it has been restricted to young men for military service inside Australia.
Conscripted soldiers or Nasho’s (National Servicemen) served in the defence force for two years during the extensive assault against the Communist Viet Cong in Vietnam. They were selected by a birthday ballot, referred to by former Labor Opposition Leader Arthur Calwell as “the lottery of death.” Young men registered in the year in which they turned twenty (less than two months for me) and if their birth date was one of those pulled out they were ‘in.’ Most twenty year olds did register. Some, however, decided to resist.
The resistance movement and opposition to the Vietnam War was largely focused around two main issues: 1/ ’Australia should not be at war in Vietnam, the war in Vietnam is a civil war and we should not be involved. However, if the Communist rule in North Vietnam overpowers South Vietnam, then it will be like communist dominos and one is bound to land on us eventually. We are scared and plus we have the ANZUS and SEATO treaties to fall back on.’
2/ ’Conscription is the invasion of persons right to exist freely. I will not be forced to fight or be involved in a war that I do not believe is just. I will do everything in my power to avoid serving in the Australian defense force. I will protest my beliefs against yours, both organized and unruly. I am prepared to go to jail to uphold my ideals, values and beliefs.’
Resisting conscripts who refused to attend medical examinations and refused to obey call-up notices faced fines and up to two years in jail.
The November 1964 announcement that 20-year-old conscripts would be sent over to fight in Vietnam was the initial ignition in an explosive home front war between Australia’s youth, police, politicians and soldiers.
However, the protest movement against the war was only part of a much wider process of social change in Australia in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Attitudes to authority were certainly changing and most things were beginning to be questioned, especially by the young. Popular music took new forms and lyrics with performers and songwriters bellowing out their ideals and beliefs, and in doing so, influencing a transforming generation. Styles of dress for men and women changed radically as alternative lifestyles and new religions attracted attention.
For several years from 1965 to 1972 (and arguably beyond), the anti-conscription and anti-war movement became the fixed focus of the Australian university student. Blatantly armed with a rebellious thirst and loaded with the ideals and morals of a revolutionary generation, the ‘resistance’ was beginning to make an impact on Australian society by the late 1960’s.
Most university campuses were declared sanctuaries for the students at their own discretion and those who followed the path of the resistance went ‘underground’ to hide from the authorities. Universities in Melbourne were riddled with secret underground organizations, capable of moving resistors interstate and enable them to speak at public, university and union meetings.
However, protestors reviewed their methods after becoming discouraged and frustrated by the Liberal’s 1966 pro-conscription victory. Some contemplated new and more direct methods, involving violence, whilst others were quite content to protest behind jailhouse bars.
In the mid 1960’s, the Draft Resistor’s Union put out this statement to underground, anti-conscription resistors:
“To enable young men who have resisted in this way to continue to pursue an effective campaign against conscription there has to be established a chain of sanctuaries for them to live and even work. They will be under the protection of citizens, mainly older, who feel strongly opposed to the injustices and immorality of the (Conscription) Act.”
The Australian Union of Students offered some further, more practical advice. In their ‘Anti-conscription Kit’ it simply states that “If all this sounds a bit up tight, then smoke plenty of pot and soon you won’t give a damn.”
For most Australians, however, they could not help but give a damn. The years between 1968 and 1970 were an intense period of concern. Protestors invaded the American consulate on the 4th of July 1968. Support for Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War had become a minority.
The war was at its peak and images of young men, some bloodied and some dead, flooded across television screens nation wide. Images of burnt, naked children were thrusted in the air by youthful protestors, mothers and ordinary blokes. Arguably the most influential man in the resistance movement was Dr. Jim Cairns, a Labor Member of Parliament and leader of the protest group, Moratorium.
The climax of the protest movements came in 1970 and 1971, with a series of ‘moratorium’ marches. Friday the 8th of May was to be Moratorium Day in Australia. Over 100,000 Melbourne workers stopped work in an anti-war protest. Dr. Cairns and the Vietnam Moratorium Campaign sent this message to the Australian people in the overcrowded streets of central Melbourne.
“Stop, think again and realize what is being done in Vietnam in your name and for which you are responsible. Since Australian troops were sent to Vietnam, nearly one million Vietnamese, mostly civilians, have been killed, as many maimed for what life is left for them, South Vietnam has been bombed and burnt halfway to the Stone Age, and many of its people have been corrupted or turned into prostitutes. The killing and devastation is not declining. It is spreading and increasing…”
There was great hostility to the proposed Moratorium. The Minister for Labor and National Service, Mr. Billy Snedden, called the Moratorium organizers “political bikies pack-raping democracy.” New South Wales Premier Sir Robert Askin, who, when confronted by young protestors lying on the road in front of President Johnson’s limousine, said “Run over the bastards.”
Public scrutiny played a major role in the withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam. In April 1970, Australian Prime Minister, John Gorton, announced that 900 Australian soldiers would come back home. In December 1972, under the new Labor government, less than one hundred remained in Vietnam
But for a young bloke called Peter Burns, the Vietnam War was not about protest, but survival. The 20-year old SEC linesman was conscripted for National Service duty in 1966 and he was put in the Army. They trained him in stevedoring and seamanship gave him a job cleaning mess decks and sent him to Vietnam- twice.
“In situations like Peter Burns, you worried constantly about the bullet or rocket with your name on it. There was never a night of restful sleep. You were in the front line 24 hours a day,” said Bernard Clancy, Vietnam veteran and author of the Vietnam War novel, ‘Best We Forget.’ (The Age, 17/8/2001, pg.15).
Clancy explains that Burns came home in 1968 a very different young man. Suffering post-traumatic stress, he went back to the SEC and became a qualified linesman, but hit the bottle hard. Sober he was a nice bloke, but after a couple of beers he turned into a madman.
His wife Pat recalls that it was “pretty scary after being married just six months. This wasn’t the same man I’d married.”
For his initial psychiatric treatment Burns received weekly shock therapy- that is, electrodes attached to his head, which zapped him unconscious- at least he thinks.
“All I can remember of it was them saying ‘You’ll feel a peppermint taste in your mouth, count to 10 backwards slowly. I’d get to about eight and then pass out.”
Not surprisingly, six weeks of shock therapy only made him worse. According to Pat, “He was like a zombie he was so drugged up.”
Peter Burns had more hospital stays, sometimes as long as three months. At 40 years of age he quit work and the following year in 1987 he became TPI (totally and permanently capacitated). He was diagnosed four years ago with multiple sclerosis and doctors are currently monitoring a ‘monoclonal gammopathy’- a condition which could lead to bone cancer.
Bernard Clancy understands the pain of Pat and Peter Burns. He explained that it was only after the pair joined the Vietnam Veterans Association in 1983 for a bit of support, that they finally realized “there were others paddling the barbwire canoes upriver against the detritus of life, exactly the same as they had been doing for so many years.
Not many blokes have been dealt such a stacked deck and come out the other end still smiling so broadly. As his days- and the days of many of his mates- draw inexorably towards dusk, perhaps we could help make the sunset, at least a beautiful one.”
In the 30th year since Australia ended its involvement in the communist fuelled war in Vietnam, we must reflect on our past experiences- all of them- so that we never make the same mistakes again. I hope that we have learnt enough over the years- the years spent searching through the dark shadows of life, trying to find the light. Only time will tell.