Saturday, 15 April 2017

It's Time to Say "Sorry"

The Kiwis are a pragmatic lot. 

This pragmatism is reflected in the way they play Rugby. If you’ve ever watched the All Blacks, you’ll know that they play a no-frills minimalist game. That’s why they win.

Their soldiering is similar. Australians who served with Kiwis in Vietnam will remember that well. Their politics is also pretty straightforward and no-nonsense. 

Back in 2006, Helen Clark, the then New Zealand Labor Prime Minister, stood up in their parliament and made a public apology to New Zealand Vietnam veterans for their treatment during and after the conflict. She was followed by John Keys, the then leader of the National opposition, doing exactly the same thing.

The apology was bi-partisan, and strongly supported by the Kiwi media and returned service organisations. It went down very well across the ditch, but barely raised a ripple in the Australian media.

Certainly, John Howard spoke on the floor of parliament on 17th August 2006, expressing regret at the way in which Vietnam veterans have been treated, and Kim Beasley (then leader of the Opposition) read a letter from Graeme Edwards, Vietnam veteran, and then member for Cowan to express bi-partisan support.

It was not however a dedicated apology, and I doubt most Australians would be aware that it happened. It was not given much prominence in the national media.

In this country, during the last decade, apologies have been made to indigenous people, victims of institutional child abuse, and members of the stolen generation. These apologies have generally been well accepted, with the exception of ill-informed commentary from a few shock-jocks and politicians mired in their own self-importance.

Which brings me to consideration of our Australian Vietnam veterans. 

This cohort of our community was abused by government and community for a very long time – fifteen years, at least. This abuse remains a stain on our national psyche. The “Welcome Home” march served to assuage some of the national guilt, but that didn’t happen until 1987, and Australians had been in Vietnam since 1962. A lot of damage was done in those fifteen years.

For some veterans, it continues to rankle.

 Those abuses include the political rationale imposed for the commitment in the first place, the use of conscripts to provide the capacity to make that commitment viable, and the treatment handed out to the soldiers by both sides of politics and the wider community during and after the war.

To analyse the substance of these abuses, we need to consider the historical context.

Bob Menzies (who resigned his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Melbourne University Rifles during the First World War, when so many of his peers volunteered) introduced the National Service Act in 1964. It was a unique piece of legislation. For the first, last and only time in our history, it made it legal to send conscripts to fight overseas. We were at peace at the time. 

Conscription has an interesting history in this country. Two referenda on conscription were defeated during world war one, despite the energetic support of Billy Hughes, wartime Prime Minister. Opposition led by Cardinal Daniel Mannix influenced the results. The brutality displayed by the British in their reaction to the 1916 Easter Rising put a great number of Australian Catholics of Irish heritage offside. 

In the Second World war, when Australia was under existential threat from Imperial Japan, conscripts were used, but only in Australian mandated territory. Their deployment was not considered overseas service. These same conscripts, derisively labelled “Chocos”, acquitted themselves with honour on the Kokoda Track.

Conscription in the sixties was particularly abusive because of its unfair random structure. It had something of flavour of the ancient Roman military practice of executing one in ten men to keep the remaining nine in line. Put simply, 8% of the twenty-year-old population was singled out and treated very differently from everyone else. What made this small cohort different was their date of birth. Of that fraction, only 18,654 (2.3%) actually served in Vietnam.

Universal conscription would have been fair, but the army didn’t want it, and it would probably have been more politically unpalatable than the ballot option, so the government hit upon this unjust and inequitable compromise..

Public support for the war was initially in place, if lukewarm, but by the time of the Moratorium marches, it had dissipated. Anyone looking across the pacific would have been able to see this coming. Trends in Australian opinion in relation to Vietnam always followed those in the USA by a few years.

This opposition was initially about the injustice of conscription, but it quickly became conflated with general anti-war sentiment. The Coalition government of the day doubled down, and accused the anti-war and anti-conscription movement of treason. The nation was split – never a good result when troops are in the field. The 1970 Moratorium marches (the first of which took place whilst I was in Vietnam) represented the largest mobilization of Australian public opinion in our history, if the numbers who took to the streets is any measure. One hundred thousand marched in Melbourne.

This heightened level of partisanship had many negative outcomes, but the worst of these was the derision inflicted on returning Vietnam veterans. Both sides of politics shared the responsibility for this tragic state of affairs. The Coalition for the ill-considered deployment which put the soldiers in this position in the first place, and the opposition for their criticism of the policy which morphed into mistreatment of the soldiers, who were not responsible.

The conflict became politicised beyond redemption, and serving soldiers suffered as a result.

By the time of the Australian withdrawal in 1972, the die was cast, and Veterans lived with this until 1987. Some of them never recovered from that fifteen years of Limbo.

In summary then, I contend that an apology is necessary, and way past time. 

That apology should have a number of components. It should acknowledge the treatment of both regular soldiers and Nashos for being asked to put their lives on the line in a conflict which lacked the community’s support.  

It should also acknowledge the treatment given to both Nashos and Regulars on their return. Many felt so degraded by this that they refused to admit to their service. There was no debriefing, no pre-discharge counselling, and rejection by ex-service organisations was common.

Finally, those Vietnam veterans who were conscripted are owed an additional apology.

Whilst once in service, the conduct of Nashos and Regs was indistinguishable, the Regs, at least, had a choice.

Acknowledgement needs to be made that the Nashos were given no real choice. They could opt for two year's service, or fronting the magistrate and possibly jail. They were singled out on the basis of their birth dates, and condemned on return for fighting in an unpopular war, without choice.

Those calling them "baby-killers" made no distinction between Nasho and Reg.

As Paul Ham put it – “a unique aspect of the Vietnam War is the collective cruelty of a nation that ordered, with the threat of a two-year jail term, a 20-year-old lad to go to war – then damned him for going”. 

In other words, the country took a whole war’s worth of young men and did the emotional equivalent of taking to their knees with an auger bit. An apology may prevent many of these men, who are no longer young, from taking this deep anger and hurt to their graves.

We could learn from the Kiwis in terms of the actual conduct of the apology. Like theirs, it could be straightforward and pragmatic.

It could be made on the floor of parliament at a significant time (say Vietnam veterans’ Day). It could be made both by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in tandem, and the template of the Stolen Generations apology in 2010 could be followed in terms of ceremonial and attendance.

The Prime Minister should apologise for his party’s conscription of twenty-year-olds in peacetime, maintaining the commitment of troops in a conflict lacking popular support, and the disregard of the needs of veterans 1962 – 1972, and 1975 – 1983. 

The Leader of the Opposition should apologise for his party’s encouragement of the treatment given to returning soldiers by the anti-war movement, and that same disregard of Vietnam veterans between 1972 – 1975 and 1983 – 87.

I’d be there. Let’s hope it happens in my lifetime.

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