Puckapunyal here we come


George Bush has been emphatic in the last weeks of the US election campaign, in denying the suggestions from his opponent John Kerry, that if elected he would reintroduce conscription in America. In the second presidential debate, he glared at his opponent and the studio audience. ‘We’re not going to have a draft, period.’ Knowing old timers immediately recalled the muck-raking English journalist Claude Cockburn’s famous axiom, ‘Never believe anything until it’s been officially denied.’ Do a Google search under ‘conscription’, ‘draft’, ‘Bush/draft’- anything like that and you can read first how America is slipping towards a draft, and how even now, the anti draft movement is developing. If history provides precedents, young Australians should be getting nervous.

It may be little bit down the track, and Kerry may be elected, but teenage Australian boys, now sipping lattes in Brunswick street, or indeed Politburo cocktails at the Double Happiness (kiwi flavoured vodka – don’t ask), might well find it useful to get out their map to look up the location of Puckapunyal, the former conscript training centre in one of the coldest, draftiest regions in the central Victoria, where as a hapless conscript in the fifties, a boy from Preston, Alan Watson was greeted a grizzled sergeant with the words, ‘Slavin by name, and you horrible little men will find out, slavin’s what you’ll be doing.’

It’s legitimate to link American conscription plans with Australia, because historically, Australians have followed Americans down that path. In World War Two, the US, extended in the Pacific, leaned on the Curtin government, and suddenly Australians started getting their compulsory call-up notices. Came Vietnam, and once again America was pressed, losing thousands of regulars and conscripts in one of the most unpopular wars of the twentieth century. Bob Menzies, John Howard’s idol, was quick to volunteer his young men to die in a war against a country that had never threatened Australia. Conscription for twenty year olds began as early as 1964, and was only ended when Gough Whitlam honoured an important campaign pledge and ended it all in 1973.

Fast forward to 2003. Australia becomes one of the leading members of Bush’s ‘coalition of the willing’ and contributes a few hundred special forces men who race photogenically around the desert on glamorous souped-up motor bikes while 130,000 very heavily armed US troops got on with smashing Saddam’s forces. The miniscule number didn’t matter, it was the name of Australia on the very small ‘coalition of the willing’ that was vital. The whole thing was over in weeks, and Bush famously paraded under a huge ‘Mission Accomplished’ sign. It was time to accept the plaudits, the laurel wreaths, the medals and the heart felt thanks of a grateful Iraqi nation. Christmas 2003 would be spent at home, in the bosom of a grateful nation.

Well not quite. The US military is now hopelessly bogged down in Iraq, with most of its thousand or so dead killed after Bush declared the mission had been accomplished. Many of these exhausted forces are virtual draftees, in the sense that they are part time soldiers never trained for real war, who were suddenly dragged off to the most dangerous place on earth. Morale is so low that almost unprecedentedly, there has already been a mutiny, by a transport company which refused to drive fuel trucks because they had no armour or regular forces to protect them. America has used virtually all of its available forces, the insurgency is growing, and the only way it can be countered is with a massive injection of new troops.

Donald Rumsfeld the US Defence Secretary, famously fired his military chief, General Eric Shinseki, when he told Rumsfeld before the war that he would need a quarter million troops to subdue Iraq. Rumsfeld insisted on half that number – as we now know, it wasn’t enough. The only source of new blood, and it may be wise to emphasise the ‘blood’, is from a draft, and help from allies. That’s what happened in Vietnam – and it will happen again, if they want finally, as Lyndon Johnson once said, to ‘nail the coonskin to the wall’.

If Bush is re-elected, the mad evangelical in him will tell him it is a sign that God has approved his war. The mad neo-cons around him will say, as they said many times before, that the enemy is not only Iraq, but also Syria and Iran. They’ll tell him he has to finish what he started. With God on his side, and with America’s unwilling youth at his command, he’ll probably give it a try.

Australia’s young men, if they follow what’s happening between America and Australia, might well think now of phoning Auntie May in New Zealand asking whether she has any jobs dagging sheep outside of Wanganui. Australia and America are now so close militarily that the Australian armed forces are practically an element of the American military. The Abbott and Costello of Australian military procurement, beautifully tailored, softly spoken Defence Minister Robert Hill, and burly, heroic army chief, Peter Cosgrove have seen to that. It might be said that though their tailoring differs radically, their thinking is in lockstep. The question is whether they’re dumb, or gullible, or whether they get their orders direct from John Howard. And if that is the case, does John think it all up himself, or might he get ideas (never orders of course), from a friend in Crawford, Texas.

Watching Hill and Cosgrove being greeted by Rumsfeld and a glittering array of fawning American generals when they hit the States on a buying mission, is like watching a pair of Australian pensioners on a package tour to Bangkok, being told by the salesman on the jewellery shop in Suriwong Road that those big lumps of scarlet cut glass are genuine rubies that will sell for twenty times their Bangkok bargain price back in Sydney. They’ve ordered helicopters with airframes so old (pre- Vietnam war), that Thailand refused them as a gift from the Americans, they’re pretty much committed to the very expensive F-35 joint strike fighter, although it’s still only on the drawing board, and they’re putting in money towards the development of a multi billion dollar US anti-missile defence system. This is a great investment – the only hostile producer of long range missiles is North Korea, and of course it would be logical for Kim Jong Il to plan an attack on Darwin, which would be at the end of the range of his Taepo Dong-2 missile. Why would Kim want to attack the Los Angeles, or Tokyo, or Seoul, when he could take out Coconut Grove?

In a way the most peculiar, even sinister purchase is of fifty-nine American M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks. They weigh sixty five tonnes or so and were developed originally to charge across the north German plains to stop a Soviet invasion. The American military were phasing them out as too heavy and cumbersome (and their main enemy, the Soviets, had collapsed), when the first Gulf War broke out and they got a temporary reprieve. They were a great asset to the US in the first gulf war and a frightening presence in the second. As tanks, they’re totally useless to Australia, and this is what makes the purchase so questionable. Australia has no airlift capacity to move therm, and no putative enemies where they could be used – they’d sink like stones in the soft earth of any of our neighbours. You could deploy them in flat expanses of the Australian desert, moving Aboriginal peoples off their ancestral lands. Excessive perhaps. But otherwise, why buy them?

Because they would be perfect as an adjunct armoured battalion in an American main force. Australia will have American tanks, American fighters, American weaponry, American electronics and software and Australian users will be trained by Americans in the US, and even soon in Australia, because Australia has decided to open a joint training base with the Americans in Northern Queensland. Which by coincidence perhaps, is due to open in 2007, when the Abrams are due to arrive.

The over-stretched Americans have already called on their British allies in Iraq to lend them fighting soldiers to cover hot spots in and around Baghdad. The latest estimates of the strength of armed insurgents in Iraq, which was given as about eight thousand a few weeks ago, has now been upgraded by the British and Americans to anything between twenty and fifty thousand.

Everyone knows that in the end, there will be a Shi-ite take-over in Iraq, as there was in Iran, and the Americans will finally leave, as they did in Vietnam, after declaring their role is over and that it is now the time for the local forces (South Vietnamese then, poor hopeless ill trained Iraqi boys now) to take over. But they’ll have to put up a fight first, at least for show, and military mathematics say that will have to be done with a much larger force. In the next phase, they won’t just need Australia’s name in the ever shortening list of the willing, they’ll need a lot of British and Aussie boots on the ground as well.

So if anyone reading this is a bloke in his late teens who doesn’t have an aunt in New Zealand, and doesn’t want an adventure holiday on the banks of the Tigris, he might like to plan an alternative strategy. Like Bruce Palling, for example. Refused to register for the draft during Vietnam, was sent to Pentridge to the first offenders section, refused to pay the fine for not registering, and so was then dropped into murderer’s row. ‘Couldn’t have been as bad as Vietnam. Only trouble I had was when a reporter wrote I was interviewed in a shabby room with shabby flowers, and the killer who ran the garden grabbed me and said, ‘I change the flowers every day. I read anything like that again, you’re in real trouble’.’

Think about it.

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