Monday, 17 August 2015

We Should Have Listened to Artie

Ruined bridge on the Song Rai - March 1970

Tuesday 18th is Vietnam Veterans' Day.

I'll be working west at that time, so will post this reflection on the Long Tan anniversary early.

I came across an article on Vietnam  by Hugh White the other day, which is well worth a read. In it, he refers to a speech Arthur Calwell, the then leader of the opposition, made to the House of Representatives on May 4, 1965. Calwell was responding to Menzies' announcement of the commitment of the 1st Battalion RAR to active service in Vietnam.

Reading Calwell's speech now, with the benefit of history, is absolutely astonishing. Perhaps old Arty had a crystal ball.

Some extracts -

Our present course is playing right into China’s hands, and our present policy will, if not changed, surely and inexorably lead to American humiliation in Asia.

It looks as if he got the bit about American humiliation right.

If the idea of military containment is unsuccessful, as I believe it will surely prove in the long term, as it has already in the short term, it will contribute to that spirit of defeatism and impotence in the face of Communism.

He was right about the unsuccessful end result, but probably would not have foreseen the divisions the commitment caused in both the USA and locally, and which still linger, so many years after what the Vietnamese call the "American" war.

He well understood the moral corruption that was conscription, and was prescient in warning that the involvement of conscripts would soon be involved.

How long will it be before we are drawing upon our conscript youth to service these growing and endless requirements? Does the Government now say that conscripts will not be sent? If so, has it completely forgotten what it said about conscription last year? The basis of that decision was that the new conscripts would be completely integrated in the Regular Army. The voluntary system was brought abruptly to an end.

He was not to know that conscription in peacetime issue that would divide Australians in a manner unseen since the first World War.

Towards the end of  his speech, Calwell says -

But I also offer you the sure and certain knowledge that we will be vindicated; that generations to come will record with gratitude that when a reckless Government wilfully endangered the security of this nation, the voice of the Australian Labour Party was heard, strong and clear, on the side of sanity and in the cause of humanity, and in the interests of Australia’s security.

He was indeed vindicated, although did not live to see it, (Calwell died in 1973, two years before the fall of Saigon) and as a great Australian, would not have rejoiced. The vindication came about with the withdrawal of Australian troops in 1972. but by that time, irrevocable damage had been done.

I, for one, am grateful to Calwell, even if I don't thank those who refused to listen to him, and by their support of the Coalition in a series of elections, sent a random selection of conscripts off to fight in an undeclared war which became, slowly but surely, a debacle.

These decisions were responsible for the deaths of about 500 young Australians, and the wounding and shattering of the lives of thousands more, many of whom continue to pay the price.

It's a great shame the majority of Australians fell for the "Reds under the bed" narrative instead of listening to him.

Fear usually trumps reason, and It's happening all over again.

This time the fear exploited is Islamic terrorism. Again, there is no existential threat. At least fifty years after this speech was made,  nineteen year old men aren't being conscripted as political collateral.

Perhaps Vietnam has taught us something.

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