Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Dust of Uruzgan

Reviewing music performance is a novelty for this humble blogger, but I'll  give it a crack.

You, gentle reader, can give me some indication of whether I should do it again. 

A little while ago, my bride and I went to a local concert by Fred Smith, of "Dust of Uruzgan" fame. This bloke has led an interesting life, and he was interviewed on Richard's Fidler's Conversation programme, which piqued my bride's interest.

I had heard and enjoyed his music, so off we went.

He delivers a pared back, low key performance. He is a competent musician, and a great story teller, rendered both through his lyrics and on-stage patter.

He also has an eye for irony and the bitter contradictions of modern anti-insurgency warfare. Much of what he covered had eerie echos of Vietnam.

The stories are stark and the metaphors vibrant. Whilst the delivery was laid back, the content wasn't. 

I'd recommend both his live performance, and the CD of the same name.

If there is no other reason for buying it, remember that a proportion of the proceeds are directed to Mates4Mates, a very worthy cause.

Below are the lyrics.

Dust of Oruzgan

In the ring they called me “Warlord”, my mother calls me Paul
You can call me Private Warren when your filing your report
As to how I came to be here, this is what I understand
In this hospital in Germany from the Dust of Uruzgan

I had just turned 28, just bought a new car
When I joined the first Battalion of the Big 1 RAR
We were next up for deployment into south Afghanistan
To combat the insurgence in the Dust of Uruzgan

It took seven months of training just to get into the joint
There were pushups and procedures there was death by Powerpoint
Then the RSOI course in Ali Al Salaam
But nothing can prepare you for the Dust of Uruzgan

Me and Benny sat together flying into Kandahar
Sucked back on our near beers in the Camp Baker Bar
Then up at 0530 we were on the Herc and out
In twenty flying minutes we were in to Tarin Kowt

We shook hands as the boys RIPped out from MRTF 1
And pretty soon were out patrolling in the Afghan summer sun
Walking through the green zones with a Styer in my hand
Body armor chafing through the dust of Uruzgan

We started up near Chora working 14 hours a day
Mentoring a Kandak from the Afghan 4th brigade
Down through the Baluchi into eastern Dorafshan
Working under open skies in the dust of Uruzgan

It’s a long way from Townsville not like any place you’ll see
Like suddenly you’re walking through from the 14th century
Women under burkhas, tribal warlords rule a land
Full of goats, and huts and jingle trucks is the Dust of Uruzgan

And the Education minister can neither read nor write
And the Minister for Women runs the knock shop there at night
They’ve been fighting there for ever over water, food and land
Murdering each other in the Dust of Uruzgan

There’s nothing about this province that’s remotely fair or just
But worse than the corruption is the endless fucking dust
It’s as fine as talcum powder on the ground and in the air
And it gets in to your eyes and it gets in to your hair

And it gets in to your weapon and it gets in to your boots
When bureaucrats all show up here it gets in to their suits
It gets in the machinery and foils every plan
There’s something quite symbolic ‘bout the Dust of Uruzgan

Still the people can be gracious and they’re funny and their smart
And When the children look into your eyes they walk into your heart
They face each day with courage and each year without a plan
Beyond scratching for survival in the Dust of Uruzgan

But the Taliban are ruthless, keep the people terrorized
With roadside bombs and hangings and leaving letters in the night
And they have no useful vision for the children of this land
But to keep them praying on their knees in the Dust of Uruzgan

It was a quiet Saturday morning when the 2 Shop made a call
On a compound of interest to the east of COP Mashal
We had some information they were building IED’s
So we cordoned and we searched it in accord with SOPs

I was on the west flank picket, propped there with Ben
There to keep a watchful eye out while the other blokes went in
We looked for signs of danger from the TTPs we’d learned
But the Nationals were moving back and forth without concern

We’d been standing still for hours when I took a quick step back
Kicked a small AP mine and everything went black
Woke up on a gurney flat out on my back
Had to ask them seven times just to get the facts

That I lived to tell the story through a simple twist of fate
The main charge lay ten feet away from the pressure plate
You see the mine was linked by det chord to a big charge laid by hand
Hidden there under Benny by the Dust of Uruzgan

I was a Queensland champ Thai Boxer now I look south of my knee
And all I see is bed sheets were my right foot used to be
Benny’s dead and buried underneath Australian sand
But his spirit’s out their wandering through the Dust, the Dust of Uruzgan

Now I’m going back to Townsville it’s the city of my birth
Some go back to Ballarat and some go back to Perth
I’ll be living with my mother who’s still trying to understand
Why we’re spending blood and treasure in the Dust of Uruzgan

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Follow the Finns

This is worth a look, gentle reader, although it is obviously a gross over simplification.

The bottom line, when it comes to the success of the Finnish system, is that it is child/student centred.

The other feature of the Finnish system, is that education belongs to the teachers, not the politicians.

Oh, and there is no system mandated standardized testing (NAPALM NAPLAN).

We could learn a great deal from the Fins.....

Sunday, 7 May 2017

2017 David Hack Meet

This year's David Hack meet was up to the usual standard.

There was the usual variety of classic machinery, both automotive and aircraft, and I took a few shots. They're presented here, gentle reader, for your edification.

1942 Buick

Hudson Terraplane Ambulance

Jag XK 150

Yep - it's a Caddy - 63 I think.
Lovely little Datto (Fairlady)
ND Mazda MX-5 Cockpit
Ford Galaxie - just for Cav
Lancia Monte Carlo
63 Valiant. My high school chemistry teacher drove one of these.
Beautiful interior in this Model A Ford.
WW 2 GM Blitz (RAF livery)
Blitz again. Note Holden badge above and left of instrument cluster.
There were lots of planes - Victa Airtourer.
Apparently this thing flew - I don't know how well - 1932 Stipa-Caproni.
And there's always Mustangs.

Studebaker Admiral

Monday, 1 May 2017

ANZAC - Myth & Reality

First Op - March 1970

Thailand is a beautiful and tolerant land, but watch that tolerance evaporate if you criticise the royal family.

A few visiting Australians have discovered that.

This country also has a reputation for easy going tolerance, but there are some mythologies that are so powerful, that challenging them is not for the faint-hearted. The Anzac Myth is one of those.

Just ask Yassmin Abdel-Magied. 

She had the temerity (or perhaps the effrontery) to use the phrase ‘lest we forget’ in reference to asylum seekers and Syrians on Anzac Day.

That was nearly a week ago, and the howls of outrage continue to reverberate. What she posted was at most insensitive, and at least careless, but it created such a tidal wave of offence taken, that something more than bizarre has been revealed in our national psyche. 

We heard (in quick succession), calls for her to be sacked and/or deported, and the abusive pile-on was taken up by shock jocks and opinionistas all over the place. Apparently, it caused deep offence. It did not offend me. Nor as far as I can tell did it offend the ex-service personnel I marched with on the One Day of the Year.

The conversation in the ranks when I marched on Anzac Day was not about Abdel-Magied. We put shit on each other as we usually do, inquired about the health of those not fit enough to march, and made comment about the flyover.

It was a very good flyover in our provincial city this this year, nine choppers (Kiowas, Tigers and MRH-90s) in groups of three flew over the memorial during the service. There weren’t any Iroquois – they’re all decommissioned, but the Kiowas with their two-blade rotors do pretty good Huey impressions if you close your eyes and listen to the sound.

But I digress….

I shouldn’t have been surprised – about the reaction to Abdel-Magied’s post, that is.

Let me say up front that Anzac Day is for me, very important. 

For a hiatus of fifteen years post-Vietnam, like many other Nashos, I ignored the commemoration. Somehow, marching with the other returned service men and women (including my father) didn’t seem right, when both the war and those who fought in it were treated with disregard because it culminated in a defeat for the side we supported. We were, for a while, airbrushed out of the history.

The “Welcome Home” march in 1987 seemed to change that.

These days I always march, and have traveled as far as Sydney to do so with members of my rifle platoon. There are no members of my unit living in home city, so marching here lacks something. I did, however, encounter an ex-Nasho who marched for the first time last week. For him and his family, this crossing of the threshold of grief and bitterness was very important.

I would be the first to admonish anyone whom I believed was dishonouring the memory of the people I served with, but Abdel-Magied’s brain snap wasn’t doing that.

She was, like many Australians including myself, expressing shame at the cruelty inflicted on asylum-seekers (or country shoppers if you like) who are locked up offshore without any real future. She was also referring to the millions in Syria who have been dispossessed by the conflict there, a conflict whose roots lie in serious historical miscalculations by our allies and our governments in 2003.

What I find much more offensive than an ill-considered Facebook post, are the many venues, holiday accommodations and sporting clubs who exploit Anzac Day to improve their bottom line. One motel in Brisbane was running an  “Anzac Weekend” accommodation campaign with intensive TV ads for about a week during the lead up. 

Much of this exploitation seems to be tolerated. If I was cynical I’d assume that gender and religion had something to do with the pile-on directed at Abdel-Magied.

But I’m not cynical. What set the hounds baying here was a perceived attack on the myth.

By way of explanation, I’ll recount a personal encounter with the mythology that happened a few years ago. I was invited to give a talk on Anzac Day at my old school, Downlands College. I prepared diligently, researching the Anzac Day commemoration website.

On that page I came across the statement that every National Serviceman who served in Vietnam was a volunteer. I found this passing strange, given that my experience and that of most of the men in my intake was very different.

I phoned the secretary of the commemoration committee and inquired as to the source of that information. I was told that it was a “well-known fact”. I pointed out that if it was indeed a correct statement, primary sources should be available verifying the statement. He fobbed me off.

As a teacher, this was not good enough for me. If we are developing resources to be used in schools, (and that is the purpose of the website) those resources need to be accurate. Anything else is indoctrination.

I began to do some research of my own through the Australian War Memorial. The anecdote trotted out most frequently to support the “every Nasho was a volunteer” narrative talks about “opt-out parades”. 

It goes like this – prior to embarkation, a unit parade of National Servicemen would be called and those who did not want to serve in Vietnam would be asked to take one pace forward. If they did so, they would be marched out to join a unit not warned for Vietnam service.

I had no memory of this, and the Nashos I served with, although they had heard the story, vowed that it had never happened to them. I then began the arduous task of ploughing through the battalion records held on-line at the AWM. Every parade, including those held prior to embarkation, was recorded for every infantry unit.

Nowhere was there a record of such a parade. I gave up after looking through the parade records of four of the nine battalions in existence at the time. It was an entirely fruitless search.

This is hardly surprising. If these parades had been held, the Commanding Officer of the unit in question would have been in breach of the National Service Act. Perhaps there were “unofficial” parades mounted by some units – but to say that “every” Nasho was a volunteer is simply not truthful.

“Every” means “without exception”.

Armed with this evidence, I got back to the committee. I'm not sure whether my contact had anything to do with it, but eventually, the offending phrase disappeared from their website. I took this as a small victory for truth. It took them about six months.

The reason for this variation from the reality and the insertion of it in a resource intended for school use is, I believe, caught up in the Anzac myth. The notion of noble sacrifice doesn’t sit well with conscription, so conscripts become “volunteers”. It adds a layer of sweetening to help the harsh medicine go down. 

Until we embrace the reality of our history, warts and all, our nation will not develop beyond its adolescence. That reality saw Australian conscripts killed in Vietnam.

To deny that truth dishonours those men. It assumes that there was a distinction in the field between Nashos and volunteers, and that the service of Nashos was somehow less honourable because they did not volunteer.

Why else would the myth seek to convert us to volunteers?

When it come to the Anzac myth, it’s time we grew up and confronted the reality of war in all its ugliness. Truth and remembrance go hand in hand.

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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