Interrogating the past



A wry satisfaction to be enjoyed in reading histories of events of your youth is that it uncovers your prejudices at that time. It reassures you that you have grown wiser but also makes you wonder whether your present attitudes will need revisiting. The retelling of a complex past can be illuminating, too, as you reflect on similar situations today.

Main image: World Peace Day March near the Hotel Australia, King William Street, North Adelaide, 1969. People have signs, which read, "End Conscription", "Save our Sons", and "Bring our boys back". (Hal Pritchard/State Library of South Australia)

Save Our Sons, Carolyn Collins’ detailed and even-handed study of women’s campaign against conscription during the Vietnam War, offered such pleasures. It recalled dimly remembered events and characters, entered their own experience and perception of the events, and brought back my own immediate response and the wider view of the world on which it was based. It also reminded me how far my attitudes have changed.

In 1965, when the story begins, I was in favour of the Australian involvement in the Vietnam war. That was partly because my fellow Catholics had been persecuted in North Vietnam and faced a similar lack of freedom were the Vietcong victorious. As a child I had lamented the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu. For many Catholics there was something tribal in the war, as there had been in the Spanish Civil War for a previous generation.

I had also accepted in general terms the popular geopolitical justifications offered for the invasion: the image of communism as a homogeneous and united world movement, the image of coordinated communist subversive forces in every nation, of Communists as an incredibly relentless and energetic force, the fear of dominoes falling, the belief that those who opposed communism were more noble and superior ethically to their opponents, and the image of communism as a relentless and inhuman force. This led easily to the view that Australia should be involved in war against the communist forces in Vietnam, that conscription would be justifiable, and that peace movements and protests were controlled by shadowy communist agents.

At that time I did not make any distinction between women who protested against the war and those who protested against conscription. I imagined them to have been manipulated, and their public protest to be unfeminine, and certainly not what I would have liked my own mother to be involved in. Mothers were supposed to bear courageously and silently the sacrifices their sons made.

The Vietnam war and its aftermath undermined these adolescent views. I saw that communism was inherently divisive and did not unite nations in a common cause; most insurgencies were predominantly local in character; communists were human beings with the virtues and the vices of the rest of us; anti-communist leaders were as capable of brutality and of lying as communists and were as likely to abandon their promises to those they would save; people who weighed war in large strategic terms of alliances, enemies and worst case scenarios were dangerous guides who eroded trust. The first question to be asked about war concerned the people who would suffer in it, and then only about those whose gain might justify inflicting that suffering.

I found Save Our Sons fascinating because the women who protested against conscription started with the question to which I came only much later: who suffers in war and can the suffering be justified? The book, too, focuses on the women themselves, not as paragons of femininity or as warriors for justice, but as persons with different backgrounds, personalities and gifts who came together amicably to try to have prescription repealed. The book presents vividly their ordinary lives and limited resources, their fears, weariness and humour, and the personal cost in rejection by relatives and neighbours. It also highlights their resilience in seeking to end conscription for over seven years despite repeated disappointment in the elections and other events which showed popular support for the war. Their commitment, compassion, humanity and perseverance were admirable. In advocating for a cause, I cannot imagine people whom I would welcome more as companions.


'Their commitment, compassion, humanity and perseverance were admirable. In advocating for a cause, I cannot imagine people whom I would welcome more as companions.'


The story of the campaign, too, is fascinating in portraying the theatrical aspects of public advocacy. The women opposing conscription constantly adapted their message to fit the image they wanted to project, while seeking to influence as wide an audience as they could. A sit down demonstration in a government office, for example, was tailored to represent the image of mothers supporting their sons, but also designed to attract newspaper and television reporters. Initially the demonstrations highlighted the mothers who protested at sending their sons to their deaths. From these ‘ladylike’ pleas to spare young men from involvement in a bloody war, they later became part of a larger protest against the war itself and against the suffering it brought to Vietnamese mothers and sons. 

On the stage of protest the women faced more powerful opponents who were engaged in maintaining support for the war by presenting it in the best possible light and discrediting its critics. In that sense both sides tried to manipulate public attitudes to the war and to protest against it. The North Vietnamese hosts of an Australian woman’s delegation in Hanoi had their counterparts in government press offices in Australia as they commended their opposed representations of the war. The charge levelled against the women of being duped by the communists could be met with greater justice by the counter accusation that supporters of the war were duped by government propaganda.

As I was reading Save our Sons I was preoccupied with the future of another cause that seems as dead now as the protest against conscription must have seemed at many points. Despite protests, strong criticism, detailed proposals for change and revelations of the human harm caused by it, the Australian treatment of people who have claimed protection from Australia has become steadily more brutal over the last decade.

At the same time the public attitude to refugee suffering has become more insouciant. Australians generally have tacitly supported excluding them, detaining them indefinitely, sending them to the horrors of Manus Island and leaving them without support in the community. Calls for a humane policy towards refugees that includes welcoming them when they seek protection from persecution, supporting them when their cases are processed and including them under the protection of law them under the canopy of law, go unheard and protests are unavailing. The cause seems dead. We might then be led to ask what place is left for advocacy of a better policy, and what value is there in public protest?

Collins’ conclusions to her study offer paradoxical answers to these questions. After celebrating the work of the Women against Conscription she concludes that there is no proof that it had a significant effect in changing government policy, changing minds, stopping conscription or shortening the war. Its usefulness remains disputed.

Its value, however, is even clearer in retrospect. It lies in the human truth of its commitment to peace in the face of war and to saving lives in the face of taking them. It celebrates the value of people who are persistent in the face of apathy and hostility, hang in in the face of disappointment, show courage and good humour in working together, and above all hope against hope that an apparently intractable injustice will eventually become intolerable and be repealed.

As a matter of strategy it was important to weigh the immediate effectiveness of different courses of action. But as a matter of integrity it was then, and remains now, more important to testify faithfully to the value of each human life, and especially in times when it is regarded as expendable.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: World Peace Day March near the Hotel Australia, King William Street, North Adelaide, 1969. People have signs, which read, "End Conscription", "Save our Sons", and "Bring our boys back". (Hal Pritchard/State Library of South Australia)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Save our Sons, Vietnam War, Carolyn Collins, conscription, protest, anti-war



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Existing comments

In 1964 when conscription was introduced in Australia I was just entering my teenage years and other events were much more prominent in my consciousness than the Vietnam War. I do remember though the vehement protests not only by mothers of sons whose birth date ensured they won or lost in the lottery of being sent to war but also by young men themselves. Conscription was always a very bad idea. The legacy of those years is still reverberating in Australian society: the mental and physical scars of men (and their families) who were sent to fight someone else's war. This is why today's issue of refugee advocacy is so important. Protest will always spring from injustice especially when our humanity is at stake.
Pam | 27 May 2021

As an American soldier in Vietnam who came to Australia on leave in 1967, I read this review from a unique perspective. I will always be grateful to the Australian people for their support of the Americans. I am also grateful to the four Diggers who saw me walking along a hot dusty road near Saigon, gave me a lift and boosted my spirits. Just as there is doubt about how society benefitted from efforts of the Women Against Conscription there is doubt anyone benefitted from that awful conflict in SE Asia - except those who built the guns and the bombs.
Gregg Burton | 27 May 2021

I find Andy's encomium to integrity, rather than strategy - to quote from his closing paragraph - helps bolster the conversations that ES hosts in ways that invite his readers into deeper discernment. Two other memorable gems of his lie in the following sentences: 'The first question to be asked about war concerned the people who would suffer in it, and then only about those whose gain might justify inflicting that suffering.' In this remark Andy moves well beyond his typically modest claims to enunciate a principle of proportionality that is the hallmark of any humane teaching about war and its often errant and short-sighted consequences. The second - allied to the first - is: 'who suffers in war and can the suffering be justified?' As a rule of thumb, this provocative but necessary test underpins those usually obscured aspects of the ethical dilemmas that all of us face. By way of example, I find that it underlies all of the decisions made by the handful of Jesuits who write for ES, indicating that they have moved beyond the usual enunciation and application of first principles to a second and deeper level of reflection, which is moral theology's true hallmark.
Michael Furtado | 28 May 2021

Thank you Father Andrew for your excellent article. My memory goes back to hearing Arthur Calwell's 1966 election speech at Brisbane City Hall, where I was standing outside and heard Calwell's words condemning the Vietnam war as, " a dirty, unwinnable war". How true. George McGovern in the United States was another politician who disagreed with his Government's policy on Vietnam; and suffered a defeat like Calwell at the elections. Both were men with firm convictions, and never won government; however, to them [and me] principles come before politics.
JOHN WILLIS | 28 May 2021

I was a part time mature age Political Science student at Melbourne University 1963-68. Vietnam & Conscription were red-hot issues for many of the politically active undergraduates. A lecturer in the Sociology Department conducted a straw poll in 1967 on the attitude of full time students to Conscription & Abortion. He found that a majority of those in favour of Conscription was opposed to Abortion whereas a majority of those opposed to Conscription was in favour of Abortion. He admitted this cohort of Uni students was very circumscribed but most had "skin in the game". What he found interesting was that those who were prepared to send young men to their death had no sympathy for a young woman with an unwanted pregnancy, whereas those who considered a fetus expendable were strongly opposed to young men in their late teens becoming cannon fodder. Generally speaking both groups were pro-life but the Conservatives gave greater weight to life in the womb while the Progressives gave more weight to the reluctance of the woman to bear the unwanted child.
Uncle Pat | 28 May 2021

‘most insurgencies were predominantly local in character; communists were human beings with the virtues and the vices of the rest of us….The first question to be asked about war concerned the people who would suffer in it, and then only about those whose gain might justify inflicting that suffering.’ If Ho Chi Minh had been a Kim Il Sung, South Vietnam might have evolved into a South Korea. That none of that came about absolves the West from the responsibility to have used South Vietnam as a gateway to doing something upon the precursor events to Tuol Sleng, events which occurred because North Vietnam won. Kampuchean history would have been better off with a Koreanisation of the Vietnams. Well, Uncle Ho has been a resident of the heavenlies for quite some time now, and, I suppose, the question has been settled as to how much responsibility he should take for events inside Vietnam as well as for spill-overs. As for the Save our Son-ners, perhaps their liability may be couched in another way. If you play pokies at a Catholic club, are you supporting the club or enabling the principle of gambling? Tim Costello might have an opinion on that.
roy chen yee | 29 May 2021

Michael Furtado: ‘usual enunciation and application of first principles to a second and deeper level of reflection….’ If this ‘deeper level of reflection’ contradicts, subtly or otherwise, first principles, it’s disjunctive of and rebellious towards, rather than conjunctive of and evolutionary from, the ‘continual’ revelation that is truth being unfolded.
roy chen yee | 30 May 2021

Roy, Babe; glad to see you're in predictably 'fighting form'. Two shots on this thread: one at Andy and the second at moi. Assuming you are right about our left-of-centre policy settings - Andy's as cheer-leader for Uncle Ho and mine for inciting him in his role as Jesuit flagbearer for the fashionably politically 'hip'- he seems to manage exceedingly well without the need for incitement from me and comments steeped in caustic soda from you. Au contraire, and speaking entirely for myself, I look forward, as I must confess an uncharitable hyena might, to your daily doses of laughing gas.
Michael Furtado | 31 May 2021

In 1964 I was a year 9 school student. I remember PM Menzies speech to the Parliament. I thought; yep, knowing my luck I will end up in it. I did! In late January 1970 I reported to the Marrickville Barracks (Sydney). As I walked through the wide gates, on my left was a group of women from "Save Our Sons", silently standing there with their placards, a more somber lot I am yet to witness. I was a conscript .I was sent to Vietnam as a Medic. I remember the Moratoriums. We were ordered not to go into Melbourne in uniform. Still, with short back and sides, we were subject to abuse which still angers me today. We were being blamed and vilified for a War not of our making. The protesters should have attacked the politicians who sent us! My mates and I are still suffering in health in mind and body, some have taken their own lives.An apology? Hell will freeze over before they say 'sorry'!
Gavin O'Brien | 31 May 2021

Michael Furtado: ‘laughing gas’. What is laughable is that the yellow freedom fighter’s notion that you should all be the same if you are yellow is as colonial as the coloniser’s notion that you’re all the same if you’re yellow. The Vietnam War was the product of an elite at the northern end of the banana believing that because all Vietnamese are the same, the southern end of the banana should belong to them as well, and that anti-communists were bananas, yellow on the outside but colonially white on the inside. The colonisers might be forgiven for wanting to agglomerate the once-individual principalities into an artificial unity to make the process of returning the borrowed stuff easier, but the divine principle of subsidiarity leaves it to the locals to decide whether the agglomeration works for them. Goa would have been better off with Portugal (and India too, with EU access), just as the Canary Islanders are better off with Spain and Gibraltar with the UK. Most of the time, ‘independence’ is for the birds but, if you must be independent, not all ‘freedom’ fighters are equal.
roy chen yee | 01 June 2021

Michael Furtado: ‘caustic soda….laughing gas.’ The world is a better place that your PhD isn’t in dentistry for if a dentist mixed his anaesthetic as you do your metaphors….
roy chen yee | 01 June 2021

Clever of lip you might be, Roy darl, but your politics is sooooo humpy-pumpy Donald Trumpy. Vietnam survived the Domino Theory, Agent Orange, Da Nang and the brutal repression of the Diem regime. Indeed, it is now widely known that Kennedy ordered his execution and engineered for his brother's removal as Archbishop of Saigon. Try checking out what Madame Nhu took to Paris with her. (Geez; didnae the Vatican get THAT wrang!) The Portuguese did Sweet Fanny Adams for Goa, compared to the (dare I say it?) Protestant Brits in India who at least laid down an infrastructure to satisfy their own exploitative economic interests. Hasn't India flourished since and why not inform yourself by reading former Foreign Minister and Undersecretary of the UN, Shashi Tharoor, a Jesuit product and unashamed of it ('Inglorious Empire', Gollancz, 2016)? Or is it your hybrid identity and its Stockholm Syndrome association 'what's to blame', as your exquisitely articulated shero, Pauline, might pout, for your curious views? I mean, a man as polished as you ought to at least ask her 'What's with the hair?' But hey! Silly moi! They superimpose on your theology, which all of us breathlessly devour on a daily basis.
Michael Furtado | 02 June 2021

Michael Furtado: ‘Vietnam survived the Domino Theory’ I’m not sure what this means but if you meant to say that the Domino Theory did not survive Vietnam, you may be right but only because Communists (being human of brain) are not lab rats and in learning from their experiences, change the conditions of the experiment (as lab rats can also). ‘brutal repression of the Diem regime’ Choosing your friends can be as difficult as choosing your family but the rigours of Kuomintang in Taiwan and the Park-Chun administrations in South Korea gave way to political liberalisation not seen in China, North Korea or present day Vietnam. ‘Hasn't India flourished since….’ India has a GDP between France and the UK. One might say that if attaining a GDP similar to China’s (a nation with about the same number of people) isn’t possible without the same political savagery of Maoism and its successor fascism, then perhaps such a GDP is worth deferring, but no, India could have made more of its low-wage efficiency in exporting products and even today isn’t as efficient in delivering services to its own people as China.
roy chen yee | 03 June 2021

Michael Furtado: ‘Or is it your hybrid identity and its Stockholm Syndrome association….’ Aphorisms such as ‘Power comes out of the barrel of a gun’ or ‘Follow the money’ are different expressions of the one principle that actions trump words: we vote with our feet, not our mouths. I notice your feet have voted you here.
roy chen yee | 03 June 2021

And, by inference, not my mouth, perchance like your's, Roy?
Michael Furtado | 12 June 2021

Michael Furtado: ‘perchance like yours’ Is there something about this phrase ‘the one principle that actions trump words: we vote with our feet, not our mouths’ which makes it impossible for you to understand it? One would expect the mouth of the feet which sought home in Stockholm not to bite the hand which feeds it.
roy chen yee | 13 June 2021


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