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Remembering Vietnam

Remarks at Launch of Mirranda Burton 'Underground: Marsupial Outlaws and Other Rebels of Australia's War in Vietnam' (Allen & Unwin, 2021), Trades Hall, Melbourne, 7 December 2021

Mirranda Burton has done an absolutely brilliant job in capturing the atmospherics of one of the most extraordinary periods in Australian history, one that all but the grey-hairs among us have been in danger of forgetting:

  • a period when the Labor Party in Opposition was willing to take it right up to the Government when it got it wrong on security issues,
  • a period when ideals really mattered, and
  • a period when brave individuals were prepared to take real personal risks in defence of those ideals.

And she’s done a brilliant job in capturing the extraordinary contribution of three of those wonderful individuals in particular – Mai Ho, Bill Cantwell, and above all our irrepressible friend Jeannie McLean – who, along with the Wombat, holds the book’s storyline together.

Jeannie and I cut our political teeth together on opposite sides of the Victorian ALP in those heady days after federal intervention – now, God help us, over half a century ago. While we had more fierce arguments than hot dinners she was, then as now, absolutely impossible to dislike – not least because, almost alone among her colleagues in the Socialist Left then, she actually possessed a sense of humour.

One of the joys of this graphic novel – not all that easy to achieve when so much of the material is deadly serious – is its sense of humour, its lightness of touch, with the central delight being the story of the registration and call-up, and eventual disappearance underground, of that natural-born Dunmoochin digger, the wombat gloriously named Hooper Algernon Pugh.

There is one pictorial omission, however, in the Dunmoochin part of the story for which I have to take Mirranda to task. I don’t know whether she left this out for political or aesthetic reasons - I can’t imagine that moral ones had anything to do with it.

But it is my strong recollection from occasional visits to Clifton Pugh’s wattle-and daub house in the Cottles Bridge bush, at least in the post-Marlene period, and certainly around the time he was painting Gough Whitlam’s portrait, that along with all the other local fauna there was invariably wandering around, as well, a stark naked wife or mistress.

I actually think that famous gesture of Gough that Cliff captured, and won him the Archibald Prize, had nothing to do with his speechmaking style, but was rather a product of Gough first catching sight of one of those ladies…

But of course the purpose of this book is not just entertainment but education: as Mirranda says in her Author’s Note – Lest we forget. It is hugely important that current and future generations remember the lessons of the Vietnam War, and this graphic format is a wonderfully accessible tool for ensuring that they don’t.

The core message is that some wars are simply indefensible, legally or morally or both, and we have both a moral and a national interest imperative to call them out when they are. To be a good international citizen, you don’t have to be a pacifist. There are such things as just wars, and just military action taken against states engaged in genocide or other mass atrocity crimes.

World War II was a just war that had to be fought, and so too was the first Gulf War in 1991 when Iraq invaded Kuwait in complete defiance of the UN Charter and Security Council.

But the second Gulf War in 2003 was equally obviously an indefensible war, which Australia should never have been sucked into. None of its stated rationales had any justification, it had no UN authority, and we joined in only because Washington demanded alliance solidarity and we bought into the usual delusion that we would buy insurance for the future by doing so.

But the daddy of all indefensible wars was Vietnam – a generation earlier, but with exactly the same alliance cringe issues, and an equal lack of any credible rationale: we mistook communism for nationalism, and we saw military risks to Australia which were illusory.

It will hardly have escaped anyone’s notice that Australia is, right now, once again in danger of being led down that same garden path, with an utterly unprincipled government once again:

  • beating the drums of war,
  • raising the spectre of Asian dominoes falling to the inexorable march of Chinese communism, and
  • making it clear that any prospect of sovereign independent judgment will be as illusory as it was in Iraq and Vietnam if Washington wants us to go to war alongside them – or we think they want us to, or we want them to want us to – over Taiwan or anything else.

For Defence Minister Dutton to make the speech he did last month – saying that it would be ‘inconceivable’ for Australia not to join the US in any war it chose to fight against in defence of Taiwan, and for him to be supported as he was by Prime Minister Morrison in doing so – was cringe-makingly irresponsible:

  • not only fuelling tensions in a situation that cries out for careful diplomacy to dial them down,
  • not only jumping to conclusions about Chinese intentions which are at best wildly premature,
  • not only not acknowledging the extent to which Taiwan is and always has been a special case,
  • not only committing us to sacrifice blood and treasure in a possible conflict to whose outcome we could make no conceivable difference,
  • but completely abdicating the responsibility of a national government to balance out all the competing interests involved.

I’m not saying that the judgement call we might have to make – if a thriving democratic Taiwan were to be attacked by China without provocation – would be an easy one. Nor am I saying there is anything wrong about increasing our own military preparedness to better cope with any threat contingency that might arise in the future.

But the cavalier way in which the lessons of our past grand follies in Iraq and Vietnam have been totally ignored, by a government which sees political advantage in fighting a khaki election, is simply breathtaking, and has to be called out.

So let me say it again – Mirranda’s book is a terrific contribution to ensuring that we don’t forget those lessons, and for that reason alone it deserves the widest possible readership.

One of the things about even the most horrendous wars is that there are always stories of the triumph of the human spirit and human decency. And three of those stories are superbly told here.

The story of Jeannie McLean, the Fairlea Five and the Save our Sons movement is at the heart of the book, and what a story it is:

  • of a government supposedly fighting for free speech and association and democracy abroad, comprehensively denying it to those at home who would not buy into the fraud
  • the conscientious objectors to this particular war; and.
  • of the courage and sustained determination of those who fought to protect them.

But Mirranda’s book tells two more wonderful stories as well, those of Bill Cantwell and Mai Ho.

If there is any good for Australian society to come out of the Vietnam war it is the extraordinary contribution of those who, like Mai and her family, came here as refugees. If anything should have taught us that a country’s virtue – in this case compassion for those in distress – is its own reward, it’s this experience.

But our totally shameful treatment of refugees and asylum seekers from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka in recent years – from which neither side of politics is immune from criticism – shows that we still have some big lessons to learn.

This is an issue on which Bill and Jean have been campaigning, and it’s the theme on which Mirranda’s book rightly finishes. The struggle for decency in public policy never finishes, the need for individuals like those celebrated in this book never ends, and the need to learn from what has gone wrong in the past never goes away.

From all these perspectives Mirranda’s book, innovative in its format and really substantive in its content, is a terrific contribution to the literature, and deserves to be a huge success. Congratulations to her, Allan & Unwin, and everyone who has sailed with them in putting it all together.