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The conscription contradiction

As the jungle war against the Vietcong intensifies in Vietnam, Australian soldiers of the 1st Battalion scatter for cover after landing from helicopters to start a search and destroy operation in War Zone “D” in early July, 1965. Photo: Stuart MacGladrieIn 150 interviewsconducted with national servicemen – “conscripts” by another name – award-winning writer and UNSW Canberra PhD scholar Mark Lapin says it was not at all unusual for interviewees to be moved to tears as they recalled their experiences.

All had served in Vietnam. Some had seen action and had watched their friends die on the battlefield. Some had supported the war effort in other ways on various army bases.

The strong emotion of interviewees’  some 45 to 50 years after their National Service experience was not related to the level of action they had seen. Nor was it connected to the violence and bloodshed they witnessed. Something else brought the sadness on. Lapin says it was a sense of loss.

“In other cultures when people are telling war stories, veterans tend to put their own heroics at the centre of the stories,” says Lapin, whose book The Nashos’ War: Australia’s National Servicemen and Vietnam, was recently released. “But often I found with these men that their regrets were most of what shone through.

“Their sadness was sometimes to do with friends that had died. They invariably blamed themselves for the deaths of their friends. But even people in non-combat roles cried. At first I thought they were crying because of terrible things they’d seen. Then it occurred to me that I was in a room with these very tough guys in their 60s who were crying for their lost youth, not because they had seen somebody get their head blown off.”

Records and reports show that our national servicemen were fine fighters in Vietnam, the main arena of war into which our conscripts were sent during the 1960s (others served in Borneo, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Singapore and the Pacific Islands). The accepted wisdom within the army was that those who did not want to serve in Vietnam were allowed to stay home. But of course the truth is far more complicated, as is the case with the many contradictions of conscription.

When the Menzies government re-introduced National Service in 1964, Cabinet’s reasoning was that thearmy’s  numbers needed a boost. The military had operated on a relative shoestring since the end of World War II and, especially since National Service had been phased out five years earlier, the army was not the mighty and well-equipped fighting force that national security demanded.

Now a new threat was emerging, a potential regional spread of hostilities from the “Confronts”, the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation. Australian military personnel were being sent to Borneo, but with World War II still fresh in the minds of the public it seemed logical to ensure our national security in case the skirmish in our neighbourhood erupted into something larger.

“People tend to forget that we were fighting a war in Borneo,” says Professor Jeffrey Grey from UNSW Canberra, series editor and author of The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War. “People also forget that we had a direct defence responsibility for Papua New Guinea. A cross-border war of the kind that was being fought in Borneo and also being fought contemporaneously between Irian Jaya and Papua New Guinea would have been a very serious issue. National Service wasn’t, as people believe, introduced for Vietnam. There had been no military commitment made for Vietnam at that stage.”

The introduction of conscription made sense in such an environment, except for the fact that the army opposed its introduction. National Service did not necessarily attract the types of people the army required, Lapin explains. It did not necessarily even attract people that had any interest in being in the army. And it would be a drain on resources, including many of the army’s finest personnel, as tens of thousands of new conscripts each year required training, administration, accommodation, meals, gear, weapons and ammunition.

A better way to attract people, the army argued, was to increase the pay and improve the conditions offered to military personnel. Then those who had an interest in serving in the armed forces would be more likely to come forward.

“This all led to a situation where in 1964 the government felt the army had to expand,” Lapin says. “They did raise the pay conditions, but decided they had to expand very quickly in the face of the perceived threat from Indonesia.”

“So rather than raising the army pay conditions further, or even waiting to see whether the initial raises took effect, the government decided to bring National Service back in.”

Men of service age whose birthdays corresponded with a number drawn from a TattsLotto barrel had to present themselves for National Service. A minimum of six months of training was followed by a maximum of 12 months of overseas service (which could be voluntarily extended).

The number of balls drawn matched the  required intake, but there were exceptions. Those completing apprenticeships or degrees could defer their service until their education and any necessary work experience had been completed, for instance.

Some professions argued for exemption from National Service. “Everybody was in favour of National Service for everybody else, but not for themselves,” Lapin says. “For instance, jockeys in some states tried to get an exemption because they didn’t want to bulk up through physical training. But in the end there were no blanket occupational exemptions.

“There was a lot of public support for police not serving. People thought the police service had already given young people what the army would give them – it made them wear their hair short! Plus, many members of the public supported National Service because they thought it is a good way to get criminals off the street and into the army.

“But what actually happened was that people that had completed police training were perfect for the army, so a lot of police officers went into the army. Then, of course, criminals stayed out because the army didn’t want them. So the army did exactly what society hoped they would not do.”

Of about 60,000 national servicemen, about 25 per cent served in Vietnam. The army weeded out the conscripts it couldn’t work with it and then chose, where possible, its finest men to serve in Vietnam.

The national servicemen who served overseas were a good fit with the regular army and, it was broadly argued, they all wanted to serve in Vietnam. If men did not wish to serve in a war zone, many believe, then they were not forced to do so.

“This makes good sense,” Grey says. “It is not in the army’s interests to take people into a war zone who are either a danger to themselves or to anybody around them, or who really don’t want to be there. There is no mileage in that. But some people say that if you were in the army at the time then you were going to war no matter how you felt about it. It depends on who you talk to.”

One of the national servicemen Lapin discussed this issue with was Jim Booker, born in Melbourne but interviewed in Sydney. It was a conversation that brought both interviewer and interviewee to tears.

“His story was just so poignant,” Lapin says of Booker, who died of cancer soon after their interview. “This was a guy who wasn’t a very good soldier and who never wanted to be in the army. He was against war.

“He had wanted to work on the railways but his parents wouldn’t let him because they believed the railways were a hotbed of communism. So instead he was drafted in to fight a war that he didn’t think should be fought.

“The army made Booker a ‘blowfly’, which is the sanitary guy – the toilet cleaner – at Nui Dat. He was so proud of the great job he did and at a recent battalion reunion he was upset when he found out that other people were called ‘blowfly’, because it meant he was less significant. He had thought he was the only blowfly. His story was a mixture of pride and regret.

“The regret came from the fact that Booker hadn’t wanted to spend two years of his life in the army. He was robbed of those years. Booker still played with Meccano when he went into the army. Other guys had worked on oil rigs. One of the army’s selection criteria was supposed to be that men had sufficient emotional and intellectual maturity to live outside home.”

Some of the national servicemen Lapin interviewed for The Nashos’ War strongly resented the time they spent in the army. Others stayed on and made careers of it. But what came as a great surprise, he says, was the fact that most still felt that young men should do National Service.

“They often qualified this, saying it wouldn’t necessarily have to be in the army but perhaps it should be extended to the emergency services,” he says. “But the majority strongly believed it would be a good thing if young men did National Service. Even those that had been wounded and who had seen their mates die still had a belief that National Service never hurt anybody.”

This article was researched and written with the assistance of leading military historians at UNSW Canberra, the Canberra campus of UNSW at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

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