Vietnam shadow hangs over leaders


Flight Lieutenant Paul Pardoel, the first Australian serviceman to be killed in Iraq, conjures up some uncomfortable memories of a previous conflict. Forty years ago, in 1965, the Menzies conservative government committed combat troops to South Vietnam. In 2005, Australian troops are involved once again in another controversial war, this time in Iraq. Then and now, politicians, who had never served in the armed forces or fought in a war, have sent others into the firing line.

Bob Menzies, Australia’s conservative Prime Minister from 1939 to 1941, and 1949-66, did not volunteer for service in World War I as a young man. As a politician he sent troops to World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.

Ironically, current conservative Prime Minister, John Howard, born in 1939, would have been a fit and healthy twenty six-year-old in 1965. But Mr Howard chose not to volunteer for Vietnam. As a politician he has sent troops to East Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Solomon Islands. Mr Howard has never given a public explanation for not serving in Vietnam.

On the other side of politics is the story of ALP Prime Minister John Curtin, 1941-45, who was opposed to conscription during World War I but introduced it during World War II in the fight against the Japanese in the Pacific.

During Bob Hawke and Paul Keating’s reign as ALP Prime Ministers from 1983-96, troops were sent to the First Gulf War, Somalia, Rwanda and Cambodia. Hawke, born in 1929, did not volunteer for Korea (1950-53), and Keating did not go to Vietnam. Instrumental in shaping defence and foreign policy at that time were current Opposition leader, Kim Beazley, and the former Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, and Senator Robert Ray, who did not put their hands up for Vietnam.

This raises the question is it fair for politicians who do not volunteer for military service as young men or women to send others to do their fighting for them? It is rare for politicians of any persuasion to put their own life on the line. So is it fair to ask others to make the ultimate sacrifice?

In 1966 South Australian Errol Noack was the first National Serviceman to be killed in Vietnam. Noack was a fisherman and dedicated Lutheran who was opposed to the war but went because he felt he had a duty to do so. Two other famous South Australians connected to both Vietnam and Iraq conflicts are Senator Robert Hill, the Defence Minister, and Alexander Downer, the Foreign Minister.

Senator Hill, born in 1946, was called up for National Service but was allowed to defer because of his university studies. Later, he was ruled medically unfit. He has never elaborated on what grounds he was deemed unfit. Mr Downer, born in 1951, would have missed out on the National Service ballot, but could have walked into an Army recruiting office at age nineteen and volunteered for the Regular Forces. He chose not to.

There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of stories where ordinary Australians have gone to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate their patriotism by travelling thousands of kilometres, or hiding medical problems or abandoning studies or highly paid jobs to enlist during World War I, II, Korea and Vietnam. Some who might have fallen outside of the National Service ballot made the effort to join the regular army and serve in Vietnam.

Until Howard, Beazley, Evans, Ray, Hill and Downer come clean about the real reason for not volunteering for Vietnam, the average person will remain sceptical about politicians’ real motives in sending young Australians to war. The shadow of Vietnam still hangs over this current crop of politicians.

We live in a society that believes in freedom of expression. We discuss and debate controversial topics such as abortion, legalising drug use etc. But it appears that scrutinising why our leaders, media commentators and academics do not volunteer for military service remains a taboo subject.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.