Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

Unapologetic insolence from an aging subversive

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.

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.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Fear and Loathing in Oz

I couldn't resist this.

It's from the current issue of The Monthly.

Cartoonist is Neil Moore.

Nuff said.

Friday, 31 March 2017

A Lumpy Truck

This week I had the opportunity to cover 1000km in a lumpy truck.

It was an Isuzu MU-X (where do they get these model names?) and I finished up with it because the hire company had run out of Outlanders. It was, apparently, an “upgrade”.

This is the second time this has happened. The last time I was upgraded to a Toyota Prado, so comparisons were possible.

The Prado comes across as slightly up-market, especially comparing the interiors, but there’s not much in it. The MU-X is, for mine, a more useable vehicle. It is comfortable, very easy to drive, and feels every bit as strong as the Prado is reputed to be.

And best of all, it doesn’t smell like a Toyota. It must be the glues they use, but you could blindfold me and I would be able to pick a Toyota immediately by its distinctive pong.

The best feature of the MU-X is its motor. It feels unburstable, but at the same time, discrete and in the background. There is a slight diesel clatter, but noticeable only when cold. It’s the kind of diesel that you can start up at 5am in the motel forecourt without stirring the somnambulists. 

Like the motor, the transmission (in this case a 6-speed auto) is also discrete, but it kicks down with alacrity when booted. It overtakes well. 

It handles as you would expect – the separate chassis and off-road engineering creates a lolloping gait, but the steering is communicative and stability is fine. At no time, did I feel insecure at speed, something that was occasionally an issue in the Prado.

Whilst the interior is a sea of hard dark plastic, it is laid out logically, has plenty of storage, and looks easy to clean. The AC and sound systems were simple to use and the Bluetooth straightforward. The only negative aspect I encountered was the AC. It took a long time (minutes) to get the interior comfortable after parking in full sun. Maybe I wasn’t setting it up properly.

Probably the most sales worthy feature of these Isuzus is their value for money. They come in at over $7000 less than the comparable Prado, and are available with 4X2, for about ten grand less and Isuzu always seem to be prepared to offer deals. The 4X2 is rapidly becoming the weapon of choice for grey nomads towing tandem axle vans. 

They also have a strong reputation for reliability, if you read the forums. They seem to be matching Toyota in this respect.

The fuel consumption readout had me confused for a while until I realised it was set up for kms/litre.
Who uses that? 

After a little bit of maths, it became apparent that the thing was turning 8lit/100kms on a mixture of commuting and cruising. A fill-to-fill calculation across a 350km open road trip turned 7lit/100kms - not shabby.

In summary, these things are user friendly, non-nonsense, and good value for money. The one I drove was a genuine seven seater, with a DVD player folding down from the ceiling to keep the sprogs entertained. 

If you were contemplating a trip across the Nullarbor, or from Brisbane to Mt Isa, with a family of small children, this would be the weapon of choice.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Vietnam Veterans' Panel Discussion

I found this a fascinating discussion, gentle reader.

Most of the issues touched upon by these people are familiar to Australian Vietnam veterans.

I hope you find it as interesting as I did. The references made to the suffering of the parents of draftees resonated with me. The inclusion of the partners was valuable.

The emotional intensity evident is shared by many Australians, even though the events were almost half a century ago.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Walkin in Memphis

This is pure self-indulgent nostalgia.

Here are the lyrics, gentle reader, should you want to sing along -

Put on my blue suede shoes and
I boarded the plane
Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues
In the middle of the pouring rain

W.C. Handy
Won't you look down over me
Yeah, I got a first class ticket
But I'm as blue as a boy can be

Then I'm walking in Memphis
I was walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
Walking in Memphis
But do I really feel the way I feel?

I saw the ghost of Elvis on Union Avenue
Followed him up to the gates of Graceland
Then I watched him walk right through

Now, security did not see him
They just hovered round his tomb
But there's a pretty little thing
Waiting for the King
And she's down in the jungle room

When I was walking in Memphis
I was walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
Walking in Memphis
But do I really feel the way I feel?

Now, they've got catfish on the table
They've got gospel in the air
And Reverend Green, be glad to see you
When you haven't got a prayer
But boy you got a prayer in Memphis

Now, Muriel plays piano
Every Friday at the Hollywood
And they brought me down to see her
And they asked me if I would
Do a little number
And I sang with all my might
She said, "Tell me are you a Christian, child?"
And I said, "Ma'am, I am tonight!"

Walking in Memphis
I was walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
Walking in Memphis
But do I really feel the way I feel?

Walking in Memphis
I was walking with my feet ten feet off of Beale
Walking in Memphis
But do I really feel the way I feel?

Put on my blue suede shoes and I
Boarded the plane
Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues
In the middle of the pouring rain

Touched down in the land of the Delta Blues
In the middle of the pouring rain

(Copyright -  Marc Cohn and Ben Wisch.)

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Maslow and Marketism

Marketism is defined by Wikipedia as – “a loose aggregation of beliefs that generally oppose government and favour private enterprise in the form of free-as-in-unregulated market principles”.

Sounds about right….

Let’s have a look at the effect of Marketism on two national sectors, both of which have been newsworthy of late. I’m referring to housing and energy.

Housing has become very expensive, reaching the point where for many young people, the dream of owning a home in one of the state capitals is a fantasy. This article from the domain website illustrates it pretty well.

The housing market over the decades has morphed from a service to people starting a family and looking for somewhere to live, to a safe investment option. In the process, prices have skyrocketed. The functional relationship between shelter and investment has always been uneasy. Now it is completely out of kilter.

We have heard a great deal recently about both the rising costs of energy (especially electricity and gas) and the threat to future supplies. Blame is attributed to either a move towards renewable energy supply, or “gold plating” of infrastructure, depending on the politics of those making the case for one over the other.

I can vividly remember paying less than $200 per quarter for electricity when we had a family of six consumers, and comparing that with the $600 plus per quarter we’re paying now with three people in the house.

The source of our power (coal fired generators) hasn’t changed, which rules out blaming renewables. What was different back in the day of the $200 power bills was that electricity generation was publicly owned and was described as a service (a utility) and not a market.

Again, back in the day when we bought our first home in a state capital (which cost, from memory, $24000) the word “market” wasn’t used to describe housing, or if used, was in the lexicon of Real Estate agents, not your average punter.

So the language, the perception, and the understanding of the reality of establishing the foundations of a stable and comfortable life in this land of Oz has fundamentally changed. We are to see housing and energy now as functions of a market, aspects of life to be bought and sold, and if possible, from which to derive profit.

That’s crazy. It doesn’t work, and people suffer. Didn’t that bloke called Maslow describe a hierarchy in which the most basic (bottom) rungs comprised food, shelter and security? Electricity and housing are vital components of these.

He didn’t describe them as a market - he saw them as basic human needs. He knew what he was talking about. Neither did he discuss greed, simple uncomplicated soul that he was.

He would be spinning in his grave…..

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