What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
I learned that war is not so bad;
I learned about the great ones we have had;
We fought in Germany and in France
And someday I might get my chance.
In my first few years when I was a student at Armidale, I enlisted in the New England Company of Sydney University Regiment. This was part of the army reserve.
I had been encouraged to join by Alan Treloar, Master of Wright College, who was in command of the Company. The Colonel was also a distinguished soldier and had published military papers. Soldiery ran in the family. He got it from his father John, who had been at Gallipoli. This facet of his life instilled in him a deep interest in the arts of soldiery, and he developed a blow by blow knowledge of it’s history, as well as a wealth of stories of his own military experiences.
On introducing me to the college in his office, he stood up, put his hand out and welcomed me,‘Take a seat, Allan. take the weight off your feet. ’
‘ It’s a real honour to meet you, Mr. Treloar. ’I said,grasping his hand firmly.’
‘Hey shake it,don’t break it.’
.After he had explained the workings of the College, he declared ‘Nunc est bibendum, Now we must drink, ’ offering me some tea and biscuits.
‘Anzacs’, I said, My favourites’, I said, Crispy and crunchy’.
‘As my father said, there’s nothing worse than a limp biscuit. Army provisions were a very important topic in the diary he kept. The Anzacs he chipped away at were hard tack. ’
‘My grandfather said that ‘In the army, the biscuits are mighty fine , one rolled off the table, and killed a friend of mine. ’
‘Like other wives, mothers and girlfriends of the Australian soldiers my mother was concerned for the nutritional value of the victuals being supplied to her man, ’ he said, resting his arms at the back of his head. ‘Here was a problem. Any food they sent to the fighting men had to be carried in the ships of the Merchant Navy. Most of these were lucky to maintain a speed of ten knots. Most had no refrigerated facilities, so any food sent had to be able to remain edible after periods in excess of two months. It was the women who came up with the order of the day – a biscuit with all the nutritional value possible using rolled oats. ’
‘What happened to him?’I asked. He must have been a huge influence on you. ’
‘He went on to become the first director of the Australian War Memorial . It was only natural I would want to to follow in his tracks. I was capped as an army barmy student, joining Melbourne University Regiment. It’s motto is a phrase from Horace: ‘Postera crescam laude’ -I grow in the esteem of future generations. And so my father did for me. After serving in the war, I’ve always maintained my activity in university regiments while teaching. ’
‘In Nottingham and Glasgow. ’
‘Hunting down Arthur Seaton?’ I joked, alluding to the squaddies who set on the fictional Arthur in Nottingham for cuckolding.
‘He was making a total pig’s ear of somethings, wasn’t he? He seriously needed to be straightened out, grow up and have all that fight in him properly channeled. Throwing grenades at targets, not stones at buildings. Shooting bullets in army ranges, not air pellets at old nosyparking crones. What do you know about our regiment here in New England?’
‘Not a lot’, I answered. What is it’s role?’
It’s purpose is to train officers for the Army Reserve in order to develop military capability. It provides military training for undergraduates. It’s basic aim is to develop leadership. What is that quality you might ask? Using Field Marshal Montgomery’s great definition, it’s the capacity and the will to rally men to a common purpose and the character that will inspire confidence. That leadership must be based on a moral authority and it must be based on the truth. ’
‘What’s involved?’I asked, warming to the idea.
‘First you do a recruit training course. Training weekends are conducted once a month to improve the basic soldier and command skills. Ergo those who qualify may be selected to be officers. You could be in their ranks, but you’ll be expected to learn twice as much.. Do you have it in you?’
‘Why not. ’I replied, pressing the tips of my fingers together to form a steeple. ‘I applied to get into Duntroon but missed out. ’
‘That doesn’t rule you out in the scheme of things. It’s what you demonstrate rather than where. What do you see as the qualities of a leader?’
‘I would have to say, and it’s easier said than done, that a leader is brave and always the first one into the fray. He who dares wins. To follow his instincts and to inspire his men by his example, he has to be with them in the thick of things. If he’s an officer, his men will respect his rank. But they won’t respect the man unless he earns it. Beyond the title it sums up his pledge to lead.The loyalty of men is always hard-earned.
’‘An excellent summing up. Might I add, a leader must always be cool and calm. And oblivious to the horrors of the battle field. He has to have a strong stomach to ignore explosions, heat, sweat and dust and sadly the screams of the wounded. ’
‘How is the regiment run, if I might ask?’
‘It is organised as an infantry battalion with the addition of a training Company where members undergo instructional courses aimed at promotion. Of course we expect in return nothing less than the very best. Our standard sets the standard. A commission with us sells itself. Are you built from the right material?’ Are you in fighting trim and ready for action? Do you have what it takes?
‘ Why not, ’ I replied, looking him straight in the eye, ‘I can hold my own as good as the next man. ’
‘We’re not interested in the next man. We’re looking for standouts from the herd- fuglemen who’ll push themselves to their limits. Officers and gentlemen. Centurions for the modern age. There’s no telling where this could take you. A long way most likely. Let’s say for the sake of argument, you’re interested in becoming a future leader or shaping the future leaders of New South Wales and Australia, then our regiment is the place for you. A ladder of opportunity. ’
‘Do you think that’s possible’, I replied, keen to win my spurs and epaulets, yet thinking this sounded a bit too good to be true.
‘To every man there comes in his lifetime that special moment when he is tapped on the shoulder and offered a chance to be someone special. A look at our history will show you that for our members this is no idle boast. From the Antarctic explorer Mawson, High Court Judge Sir Victor Windeyer, as well as Sir Roden Cutler awarded the Victoria Cross during the Second World War, to name but a very few, former members of the Regiment have acted and continue to wield power and influence. Not to forget Robert Madgwick,our Vice Chancellor who managed a wartime adult education scheme for our Regiment and went on to become Colonel Commandant of the Royal Australian Education Corps,After you’ve earned your stripes you may prove worthy of their example.
‘I hope I could but I hope I won’t have to. ’
‘I hope so too. Today, soldiering is a choice, a profession – albeit one in which dying or losing a piece of yourself is a ‘What did you think was going to happen?’ part of the contract.
Carpe diem, ’he said in conclusion, “Seize the day. Enjoy it while you may. Put as little trust as possible in the future. We must be forearmed, never let our guard down. When none dares draw the bow, soon the bowspring is weak. Weakness will rust a people. We never know when the next war will happen’.
The Chinese are coming!The Chinese are coming!
It would not be long before the ‘imaginary’ enemy we were readying to combat was materializing. In August 1964 The Colonel told me ‘Things will start happening now. The North Vietnamese have attacked the USS Turner Joy and Maddox on the high seas. They’ve done their dash. This means war.The Americans have publicly ordered retaliatory measures . They’ll ratchet up that on the ground and we’ll be with them . Watch this space. ’
At the time of this incident in the Gulf of Tonkin, Secretary of State Rusk was questioned on NBC television. This was relayed to A. B. C. television :
REPORTER:What explanation, then, can you come up with for this unprovoked attack?
RUSK: Well, I haven’t been able, quite frankly, to come to a fully satisfactory explanation. There is a great gulf of understanding, between that world and our world, ideological in character. They see what we think of as the real world in wholly different terms. Their very processes of logic are different. So that it’s very difficult to enter into each other’s minds across that great ideological gulf. ’
Soon after I gave the Colonel my decision tersely: ‘I’m in.Lead me to the dotted line. ’
‘Spoken like a true patriot, ’he replied. ‘You won’t regret it. ’
Thereupon I signed up with the Company on the nail and started intensive training on fieldcraft, drill and army procedure .
By jingo I was young, full of patriotic fervour, spit and polish. On the double to fend off trouble we were dressed up to win. It’s a safe bet we Company boys decked out in our slouch hat with it’s upswept brim, with our SLRs and greens , uniformly starched, creased sharply , would catch the girls. Run for your lives, ladies, the regiment’s around! The drums beat and the trumpets sounded left, right, left, right, in the government boots, on the feet of raw figure happy recruits. Tromping up and down the streets swinging my rifle fro and to, humming do wah diddy, diddy dum diddy do. Good training for me in terms of discipline.
‘Colonel Treloar asked me, ‘How are you going, Allan?’
‘One foot after the other. ’
‘How did you rate basic training? Are you getting somewhere? Is it working?’
I told this lover of verse,‘It’s effects are well rooted now that it’s done. Since starting our training , I’ve gone and saluted a policeman, the milkman, a nun. ’
‘Did you encounter any problems?’
‘I lost my slouch hut in transit and ripped the trousers I was issued.Can these be replaced?’
‘I’m afraid military personnel are personally responsible for replacing and repairing items issued to them.If a soldier loses a hat he must pay for it.If a driver writes off a truck he must pay for it.’
‘Now I know why a naval captain goes down with his ship,’I said, ‘So what about the trousers?’I said,holding them up for him to see.
‘Euripides,Eumenides.Now are you good and ready to proceed to the next stage?’
‘As ready as I’ll ever be. ’
“Stick a pin in it.Keep it that way.’
During my vacation time and weekends I passed muster, licked into good nick crawling and sneaking through thick bush fighting the imaginary enemy: ‘Easy, boys, easy. You’ve got to glide through the jungle, not clomp’. Such manoeuvres were aimed at confronting guerilla forces hidden in an unfamiliar jungle terrain.
I studied the ideas of General Abdul Haris Nasution who wrote a definitive work on this subject.
Nasution developed the theory of territorial warfare which would become the defence doctrine of the Indonesian Army in the future. His treatise became one of the most studied books on guerrilla warfare along with Mao Zedong’s works on the same subject matter.
After the defeat of the Japanese there was then no regular Indonesian army; such fighting units as existed were formed of indigenous people using weapons seized from the defeated Japanese. Nasution developed and organised the scattered units into the coherent force which eventually became the Indonesian National Army.
He was one of the masterminds of the strategy used by the then fledgling Indonesian army fighting the Dutch colonial army in the 40s. He had studied the tactics of General Wingate who had practised guerilla warfare against the Japanese. As Indonesia emerged as a nation he served as army chief, supreme military commander and national security minister.
Training, starting at the undulating tract of natural bushland of Scheyville (pronounced like ‘Sky-ville’) outside Sydney, was a tough, yet adventurous regime. My fellow rookies and I were subjected to a severe set of training methods designed to impart knowledge, test resolve and teach military skills.
From the day we weekend warriors arrived at boot camp we were moulded as part of a team: ‘Listen here, gentlemen, now you’ve been given over to our tender care we’re going to teach you all about soldiering, the world’s oldest profession. This will separate you real men from the boys. You don’t learn that at uni. Now first things first. When you’re in the army no matter in what capacity, you have to leave your normal self-centred thinking behind. All our units are co-dependent upon the other. Every individual, every small unit ranging to larger formations is co-dependent. Needless to say one weak link will cause the machine to malfunction. Then we all conk out. So if any of you step out of line, then we set you straight, our way. ’
This message was driven home every reveille. Our bones, muscles and brains were shaken by angry shrieks and officer urgencies. At five a. m. sharp as the first post sounded, the leather lunged sergeants roused us from our beds: ‘Cock-a doodle do! Wakey, wakey, rise and shine, you lot, Australia needs you. Got the sleeping sickness, have you? That’s enough stretching. Rub the sleep from your eyes and shake yourselves. Greet the new day. All hands on deck! Stand by your beds!
Alrighty, gentlemen-and I use the term loosely-listen to me now and listen to me good. We’ve got a big one ahead of us. Stand by your beds. Prepare for full hut and kit inspection!
For every action, there was an equal and opposite criticism. Our beds had to be perfectly neat, footgear aligned in neat rows, our kit laid out on top.
‘The longest way up, the shortest way down’ was our instruction for saluting. ‘Up one two, down two three’, ending with your thumb pointing down the seam of your trousers. ’
Everything had to be done a certain way and a certain way only. ‘Your blankets are all rucked up. This isn’t the Wentworth Hotel, Private’, bawled the sergeant finding fault with my bed’s immaculate arrangement. ‘There is no room service, the maid doesn’t come in here.. ’Then seeing my bemusement adding, ‘And wipe that smile off your face, or I’ll do it for you. ’
‘Oh brother! Are you really sure—‘I started to argue when he cut me out:
‘Who the devil do you think you are? I’m not your brother. You’ll speak when you’re told to and not before. ’
‘We’re giving orders, not explanations. Do I look like one of your lecturers?Now when I want to hear you talk, I’ll give you a direct question. You’ll answer ‘Yes, Sir’ or ‘No, Sir’. You’ll give no other unacceptable form of reply except the aforementioned. Is that clear?’
‘Copy that.’I would have replied, ‘Jawohl, mein Kommandant, ’but I wasn’t sure he’d have understood.
‘Your rank?’ he added, all gas and gaiters .
‘But not as much as you, ’I replied, misconstructing this as a statement rather than a question.
‘That’s enough from you.If I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you. You don’t want to speak to me like that when I’m not my usual happy self. You’ll double, drill, do any damn thing I tell you.You’ll be lost, lost,unless I’m shouting an order at you.he said, ‘ Now carry on,’ he said, turning on his heel.
One morning after I had made my bed perfectly, he ordered me, ‘Now I want you to undo it and start again. This time properly. ’
I said, ‘I’ll have to think about it. ’
‘Think about it all you like-and then do it. ’
Then came the constant marching. ‘Get a move on. By the left, quick march, left right, swing those arms, shoulders out, left, right, stomach in, left right, shoulders out. Straight on the heels, gentlemen, arms shoulder height all the time. Close the fist, push down the thumb, lock out the elbow, necks in the back of the collar, heel. That’ll keep you in step. Keep those arms pinned into the side. Halt, all present and correct, Sir! Atten-shun! Stand straight while your superior officer talks to you, you boofheaded ponces. No scratching or shuffling. No fidgeting or farting. I’ll jump on you from a great height if you so much as breathe. ’
‘You can’t talk to us like—-‘
‘Did I talk to you? How and why I discipline you is none of your business, Puss In Boots. Is that clear?’
‘Das ist klar, mein Führer, ’I said not. Instead ‘But I thought—’
‘It’s not up to you to think. ’
You’ve got a real chip on your shoulder, haven’t you. ’
‘There’s no chip on my shoulder. Just two pips. Now get on with it. ’
I learned how to hide my consciousness behind battle cries, pretended servility and bare, clench fisted obedience.
Each pacing movement was to be executed in a smart and soldierly manner with an audible clicking of the heels.
After learning how to march, salute, shoulder arms, present arms, how to stand at attention and fall out came the more interesting stuff. We got the feel of the steel. Our training included that in weapons system knowledge and field exercises . We ran along obstacle courses and hand over hand down a rope strung at a forty five degree angle across a creek. We had to crawl along the rope, then hang upside like monkeys and crawl headfirst downwards, dangle our legs over the water before throwing our bodies back up again. At least that was the idea. We jumped into and out of the back of army trucks and went on long route marches.
These seemed to go on endlessly. Forward with one leg, plant the foot, lock the knee, arch the ankle, push the leg into the ground, stiffen the spine, then the other leg unfolding, swinging out, the foot touching the ground . Legs counted the hours. Arms moved about, taking up the rhythm.
An officer spotted some of us very footweary infantrymen resting after a hard trek. He said with a salty look: ‘Look alive, men. Stop scratching your loose change. Hands out of pockets. The shape you’re in, most of you wouldn’t last three rounds with a Boy Scout. When I was of doing my training I thought nothing of a ten-mile hike. ’
‘Well, I don’t think much of it either, Sir!’ replied one of my mates .
The officer, who had introduced us to map reading and navigation, explaining about latitude, longitude, degrees and minutes decided to test us on it. He asked, “Suppose I asked your sewing circle to meet me for lunch at 23 degrees, 4 minutes north latitude and 45 degrees, 15 minutes east longitude…?”
One of our troupe who had difficulty picking it up volunteered, “I guess you’d be eating alone.”
We learned to lob hand grenades and to take great care.‘Watch out, ’we were warned, ‘if you cough too hard, all that’ll be left of you is the gold in your teeth if that hasn’t melted. And never forget, the bursting radius of a hand grenade is always one foot greater than your jumping range. When the pin is pulled, Mr. Grenade is not your friend. ’
Despite the bayonet being rarely used any more in one-to-one combat because of its limitations, our rifles retained a bayonet lug and the bayonet was still issued as a weapon of last resort.
‘Mothers tell their nubile daughters the quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,’ said our training officer, ‘I find going through his ribcage a lot easier.’
We flew at dummies in a bayonet charge: ‘Chop chop you bashful virgins, up and at ’em, if yer wanna get some in, ’we were exhorted. ‘Stiffen those sinews and summon up your blood. Now I want to hear you screaming. ’
‘En garde, placing one foot forward in a boxing stance, my knees bent, allowing my centre of gravity to be lowered, more easily controlled, I pointed the cutlery at the ‘enemy’.
‘You there. ’
Was that remark addressed to me?’
‘ Don’t just stand there. Stick the pointy end in, twist it, pull it out, ’came the shout. ‘Give it some grunt. That’s a bayonet you’ve got there, Fraidy Cat, not a bunch of flowers’, was a more personalized blandishment.
‘There’s no room for mistakes. ’
My mind went to that demonstrated by Private Virgil Partch.
‘Stick it in hard. Draw that blood.Watch it spurt out. One day that might be a real belly you’re giving it to. It takes a lot to knock off a squirming man. ’
They taught us to value our rifle as we value our lives. ‘Let me tell you the vital importance of the L1A1-the Self Loading Rifle, our weapon of choice.’
What he didn’t mention was that our weapon was made by the lowest bidder.
This weapon will become part of you. Think of it as a prosthetic limb. If you can’t service it properly, you’ll turn yourself into a casualty. You’ll receive a Special Delivery. ’
‘The bullet with with my name on it’.
‘ It’s the one addressed ‘to whom it may concern’ you’ve got to think about.
However I wouldn’t be concerned if I were you.’
‘You’d be so misplaced on a battlefield I don’t think a bullet would recognise you as a target.’
We were shown how to hold the SLR. ‘This will be the easiest drill ever, ’I thought beforehand. After cradling it in our arms, we were introduced to the overhead hold. ‘Now put the rifle above your head and hold it. ’Even after a few minutes our muscles began to fatigue. ‘Now everyone, take your arms forward 90 degrees and straighten them out. Don’t move!’ This punishing isometric drill was designed to test our strength and make the weapon feel lighter during sustained use.
We mastered the art of taking the metal hardware apart, cleaning and lubricating it, and then re-assembling it like greased lightning. ‘Don’t dilly dally. You haven’t got all day, ’was our prod . ‘Wait til you do it blindfolded, standing on your head’.
“Don’t shoot where it is,” we were told during target practice. “Shoot where it’s going to be.And squeeze that trigger,don’t jerk it.”
We learned to blast in any conditions. I was hip wnen I’d shoot and I’d shoot from the hip without bringing it to the shoulder to zero in. In daylight, in darkness, to make the target look like swiss cheese. Around the campfire shooting the breeze. Pondering some of life’s little mysteries.
‘Do you realise, ’ I pointed out to my mates, ‘Swiss cheese is the only cheese you can draw which people can identify. You can draw Gouda cheese without the skin, but most will think it’s cheddar.’
‘That’s a no Gouda,’said my mate Peter in an Italian English accent.
‘Swiss is the only cheese you can bite and miss. ‘Hey Allan, ’you might aske me, ’ does that sandwich have cheese on it?”
‘Every now and then, ’I said, taking out my Swiss Army knife. As for this other unusual Swiss product, it’s great for making holes in cheese but would you want to fight with it?
Not much of a weapon is it. Corkscrews. Bottle openers. ‘Come on, bring it on mate,’I said, brandishing it to an imaginary foe, ‘let’s go.Just try to get past me and you’ll feel the cold hard metal of my spoon. Back off, I’ve got toe clippers right here to cut you down with.’
‘Did you know Kraft now market an individual laminated cheese slice for people too dense to figure out how to carve cheese.We could use it at a loose end to do some cheese card shuffling tricks.’
‘Do you realise, ’I added, ‘how one careless match can start a forest fire, but it takes a whole box to start a campfire?’
‘And do you realise you believe someone when they say there are four billion stars out there, but check when they say the paint is wet?’
We put together a gun pit from sandbags, it’s interlocking walls providing support for the rifle, allowing for less movement during shooting. We raced neck and neck in teams filling and lugging the bags to construct these protective forts. ‘I’m the king of the castle, and you’re the dirty rascal, ’crowed our triumphant team leader.
The instructor’s lessons followed a standard format and began with: ‘ Now hear this, You will learn by the numbers. In this lesson you will be taught… The reason you are being taught this … and, ‘at the end of this lesson you will be able to … etc.’
The lesson on the bayonet went something like this. ‘Now then, pay close attention. Follow my instructions. Nothing more, nothing less. My mother once pointed out to my aunt , ‘ The quickest way to a man’s heart is through his chest’. That’s where the bayonet comes in. It’s for close quarter battle. It can be thrusted into the enemy, O. K. First of all without being embedded into the bone. Also, situated here is the recess which is the blood channel. When you run it through the ribs, there’ll be no suction. When the metal meets the meat, you’ll be able to pull it out straightaway. Without it all the air wouldn’t escape. It would make it harder to pull it out . Are you with me? Say you’re in Vietnam, you set foot inside a hooch, you open the door and before you know it there’s a V. C. behind it. He won’t be there to say peekaboo. He’ll be aiming to slit your throat.Your life can be over all at once. It can happen when you least expect it so be ready for anything. You have the bayonet there ready, just in case the rifle does not operate. Always keep in mind that no one ever won a war by dying for his country. You win it by making your adversary die for his country. ’
The conclusion of the lesson had a roundup and we students were asked questions just to check we were paying attention. Prior to moving on to the next phase of instruction, the instructor ensured that the fundamentals were understood. Otherwise we had to go through it again. Tests and more tests tracked us recruits through this ordeal. The aim of this style of instruction was to create concrete thinkers, black or white, but no shades of grey. ‘If you look in the Drill Manual’we were reminded, ‘ you will find that the aim of ‘close order drill’ is to instil into the individual instinctive obedience. Always remember our gospel, which is—‘
‘Never question an order until after you carry it out’, we chanted.
‘ Don’t knock it. It has a logic. It ensures that personnel don’t think and their actions are instinctive. Be it a digger on an M60, a gunner on a 5 inch naval gun, or a flyboy in a Canberra bomber, you fire or drop your load when ordered to. You don’t think- its instinctive due the nature of your training. It’s ingrained into the individual to obey the order and never to question a superior. Ours is never to question but to carry out orders. ’
‘Their wish is our command. ’
‘That’s just it. Soldiers are not even allowed to die without permission. They have simply to do what they’re told. If we say all you can do is breathe, that’s all you’re allowed to do. While you’re with us you’re government property. We’ve got you. You belong to us. ’ ’Tact in the warrant officers was often wanting and too often to get the recruit to hew to the line they used sarcasm or other dehumanising behaviours or comments. Teasing, threatening, humiliating. The slightest swerving from the rules or any hint of insubordination led to us being bawled out and dressed down:”Snap to it, you pigeon chested slowcoaches. Come along, come along, there . Jump to it. Pick ’em up! Pick ’em up, there! You’re a bloody disgrace. Listen up. This is Sydney University Regiment- not a three-ring circus!’
One abominable sergeant major, one eyebrow raised nearly to his hairline, walked slowly along the ranks, looking down his nose at us, his nostrils twitching slightly as if disgusted at having to inspect such carrion.There were beads of moisture on the hog-bristles of his little ginger moustache.No nudge or wink or smile or talk escaped him.
I felt this was the beginning of a very close relationship. His furious face was never more than inches away from our eyes. His eyes drilled into ours, daring us to move them a fraction of an inch. If he blinked, I missed it. He aimed his index finger between my eyes and thundered, ‘You, yeah you sad sack. Tilt your head more towards me. Chin up more. Eyes front and centre! Belt, way too loose, buttons too dirty you excuse for a recruit. This one’s undone.And what do we have here. You’ve got dandruff on your uniform. Brush it off. I’ll make infanteers out of you toy soldiers if I have to break you in half. Sort yourself out quick or it’s pack-drill for you. ’
Hither and yon Dracula’s brother, smugly enthroned in his power to exact the trivial, would pause long enough to crack his knuckles or flick contemptuously with his little finger at an imaginary fragment of fluff on someone’s collar. Extra duties, pushups, squat-thrusts and side-saddle hops, or a quick sprint were just a few of the milder tools for conformity.
‘Show some backbone, Soldier!’
I felt so exhausted, like showing that depicted by Private Partch.
‘On your face, remove:Soldier. Get down, push up position down. Up, down, up, down. Just remember, I’m a very reasonable man. My mother told me so. Do you playmates disagree with me? he cried, stepping over our struggling bodies. ’
‘Up, down, up, down, up down’ until mercifully at last ‘As you were. ’
‘Roger, wilco. Anything you say, sir. ’
‘That’s what I like to hear. ’
‘Beautiful day, Sergeant Major, ’I greeted him on one of our last days.
‘How do you know what kind of day it is? Are you studying to be a weatherman?’
Before we left, we wanted to give him a rousing farewell.
‘We asked to give him a 21 gun salute but were turned down. We had all been assessed crack marksmen. ’
Our next training camp was in thick bushland north of Sydney.‘As close as we can get to jungle conditions without going north to Queensland, ’we were told. ‘Definitely more rugged than any place in this state you’d care to mention. War in the jungle is the province of the infantry. This is the theatre we are preparing for. The dense vegetation and general lack of infrastructure means that tanks, aircraft, and even artillery are of little use. Reduced visibility and engagement ranges, make it extremely difficult to locate and close with enemy forces. Consequently you have to live close to the ground and learn from your instructors. ’
Training us to move in formation, our first instructor was doing a major in poetry.‘My way of working is simple, ’he told us. We want maximum effort from each of you. We will expect you to spit thunder out front . We will expect you to fart lightning out behind . ’
I learned to choose very carefully whom to move in front of and whom to move behind.
If someone was spitting behind me, it meant I was in front.
We were shown how to dig foxholes :‘Keep shovelling, men. You’re not building sandcastles on Bondi Beach. ’We learned to bivouac in the scrub. ‘Mud and mosquitos are good for you, ’we were assured. Crawling along the ground, flat on our bellies, diving into ditches, getting up, brushing ourselves off and back along the line of march. Alert to ‘booby traps’, watching where we walked. Such ‘traps’ were marked and included the places that soldiers would would land with some force, where they would throw themselves to escape gunfire; behind logs, in gullies and in long grass. ‘Look before you leap,men.In in the real thing each step can mean your last one on two legs.’ As we reached our first night position our sergeant instructed us ‘The sooner we get to sleep, the sooner we get this day over with. ’
‘What’s the weather forecast for tonight?’ I asked him. ’Will it rain?’
‘We believe not. It will be dark. Continued dark overnight, with widely scattered light by morning. ’
Before we bunked down, my mate looked up in the sky and said, ‘Think about it. What are we?A couple of insignificant specks. What big heads we’ve got, thinking that what we do is going to matter all that much. ’‘Always remember that what you are is absolutely unique, ’I said. ‘ Just like everyone else.’‘Twinkle,twinkle,little star,how I wonder what you are.,’said my mate,looking upwards.’‘For your information,the answer’s in the first line.’‘Our time here means nothing to those stars. It’s a split second we’ve been here, the whole lot of us. How small a part of this grand design. I can’t help but think if anything we do makes a difference. We don’t count at all. When you look up at the stars and moon, what do you think of, Allan?’
‘ Don’t look through the wrong end of the telescope. Everything in this vast universe has a purpose. We earthlings might be a small part, but a unique one. The only life in it we know of so far. Maybe there is intelligent life on other planets also. ’
‘I don’t think so. Why should other planets be any different from this one?’
‘I think so.I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us.
‘Well at least we are conscious creatures who are expanding our knowledge of it in quantum leaps, soon to travel to an extra-terrestrial satellite . What do you think of?’ I asked the sergeant inspecting our progress.
‘I think of the sandman. It’s you blokes rigged up your tent. It’s not going to put itself up. ’
No sooner did we start dropping off than we learned the first law governing canvas shelter.It always rains on tents. Rain will travel thousands of miles, against prevailing winds for the opportunity to rain on a tent.
We action men learned how to camouflage our faces for night combat and crawl through the undergrowth and wade through creeks: ‘Never test the depth of the water with both feet’ was the rule.
‘Why is teamwork so essential?’ we were asked.
One bright spark answered, ‘It gives the enemy other people to shoot at. ’
‘Take notes,Gentlemen. A unit is no better than it’s weakest member, the one most prone to make mistakes. When you actually have rounds unloaded at you, when it really matters you won’t be able to make mistakes.You could come down with a terminal case of lead poisoning. If you make the mistakes now you can learn from them and not make them again. You have to protect the guy next to you. otherwise he gets it. You have to be each other’s ears, eyes and fingers.. Now what are the three things we’ve been drumming into your heads?
‘Speed, communication and controlled aggression. ’
‘Precisely. Now upsy daisy, onward Christian soldiers. Don’t wait for a written invitation. Remember keep your heads on a swivel, men, and keep them down. You don’t want to end up clay pigeons. If the enemy is in range, so are you. If you can see him, he probably has an excellent sightline on you. Remember, ‘If it flies high, it dies;if it’s low and slow, it’ll go. ’
After breaking camp we’d march like anything over fairly long distances. The worse the weather, the more we were required to be out in it. For some strange reason no matter which way we had to march, it was always uphill. Travelling in file formation, we learned to shun tracks and clearings, instead to ‘scrub bash’, picking our way carefully and quietly through the thickets and tangled foliage to take maximum advantage of concealment and cover.
‘Don’t walk there, too soft!’ whispered our instructors, motioning to us where to go,‘Step there and there, not there. Careful, watch!’And then ‘Green ahead!’
We trained to track by ear an enemy in waiting, one who was also intently listening for us. It was a tiring experience. Our patrol took hours to sweep a mile of terrain. We padded forward a few steps at a time, stopping, listening, eyes rolling in our sockets, then making with our feet again. All the time being heads-up, raking the tree lines for ‘hides’, listening, watching and waiting.
After our first bash up a steep, muddy path through shrubs and bushes, across creeks, the adversary finally emerged albeit somewhat lower down. After crawling under rocks, they’d been hiding, hoping for us to come by. Sensing the disturbances we made in the shallow water with their tiny eyes, they picked up on the passing shadows that the waves made. They jumped us silently one by one, impossible to shake off. They had us for breakfast.
Upon removing our boots and socks , we discovered we’d been attacked by the local leeches. Wet and windswept, none of us had seen any, but the welts and blisters on our legs and feet were proof of their importunate presence and testament to their cunning. After some days of this we got got used to them. For their part, they became very attached to us. The reward after all this blood, sweat and dirt being to fly off into that special technological high, the helicopter flight. Thrumming up above, swirling the air. Chop chop chop.
What were the most important lessons you learned?’ Colonel Treloar asked on debriefing me.
‘I learned that ours is not to reason why. That certain things are strictly forbidden. To respond to a lawful order with ‘Why?’ To argue that command decisions need to be ratified by a two thirds majority.
To report to my Commander by ‘You can’t prove a thing!’ rather than ‘Private Davis, reporting as ordered, Sir’. To respond to a briefing with ‘That’s what you think’. All these things were forbidden-unless they were compulsory. ’
‘How did you reservists find this stage of your training ?’
Noticing my hesitance, he added, ‘Don’t be shy. Jump right in. This is a free fire zone. ’
‘They put us through more than our paces. They put us through the works. It seems like they tried to break our will. But honestly do you really believe spotlessness will really be a vital factor in winning the war?’
‘We have to go extra hard on you at this early stage. To keep you off balance. To show you you can push your body further than you thought possible. At that stage you feel like you cannot do anything right. That’s the point. There’s a logic to all those seeming torrents of grumbling abuse you copped for every minor infraction. We want to know what you’re really made of. We have to drive you hard, wait til you get in a tight situation , then watch your reaction. This is what we do. We have to whittle you down, strip you to your core, expose your weaknesses. If you don’t have that in the beginning, you’ll never know the benchmark of your discipline. Otherwise you won’t last five minutes in the military. By putting such pressure on you, we get to know what you’re worth. If you think this is abuse, how will you be able to take the abuse you find in a real combat situation?’ That’s the way it works – Adisca alt disceda. Learn or leave.
The Soldier in Greasepaint’.
Towards the end of 1964 I read that Bob Hope was to make a Christmas tour of Vietnam. He was to perform before U. S. personnel
and visit the sick and wounded.
In announcing his visit he said: ‘I’ve been offered a tour of Vietnam. It was too good to turn down. They offered to cover my costs plus funeral expenses.”
Typically he joked about the very ailments G. I. is cursed with.
I performed a Hope type sketch for my fellow army reserve recruits’ entertainment. Sauntering over the floor swinging a golf club, I teed off with a golfing gag. ‘‘Hello fellow holiday makers, I’m Major Mayhem.
Long ago when men cursed and beat the ground with sticks, it was called witchcraft; today it’s called golf.
Ya wanna know why I beat it? I’ll tell ya, I’m getting a bit round around the middle. If I place the ball where I can hit it, I can’t see it. If I place the ball where I can see it,
I can’t hit it. ’I’ll tell ya, I had an strange experience on the golf course last week stateside. I had a hole in nothing. I missed the brand new ball and sank the divot.Then I took out another brand new ball and hit it in the water.I hit another brand new ball over the fence.Another brand new ball in the trees.My partner said,Why don’t you use old balls?’I answered, I’ve never had one,’
Yesterday I was playing here in Nam with General ‘Big’ Minh who usually plays tennis. You may may have heard of this strongman that love means nothing . While there’s nothing better he likes to do than volley missiles and tennis balls, he’d never hit a golf ball. I soon realised I wouldn’t have to to ask his score; just count the casualties.
Here we were just starting on the course when Minh stood over the ball,turning round,changing his position for what seemed like an eternity.
‘Finally I said,’What’s taking you so long? Hit the damn ball down the green!’
Minh said, ‘My rival Nguyễn Khánh is up there watching from the clubhouse, and I want to make this a perfect shot.’
‘I said,’Give me a break.There’s no way in the world you’re gonna hit him from here!’
So I showed him how to play properly.
When he hit off again, he asked me what was the procedure.
‘All you’ve got to do is put the ball down, draw back, keep your head down and strike the ball. ’
‘Where do you want me to strike it towards?’
‘Right in the direction of the flag. ’ Then, Bam! He hit the ball straight as a die onto the green where it stopped just an inch from the hole.
‘After we walked up to the hole he asked me ‘ What do I do now?’.
‘Just hit it in the hole. ’
‘Why didn’t you tell me that in the first place?’
I followed through with a sketch based on standard army medical techniques:
‘And this morning I visited some sick soldiers. I went up to one private and asked:
‘What’s your problem, Soldier?’
‘Scabies, Sir. Those creepy, crawly, crusty crabs sure dug in. I picked them up in a damp foxhole. ’
‘They can be a mite hard to get rid of. How are you dislodging them?’
‘Five minutes with the wire brush each day. ’
‘And what’s your ambition, Soldier?’
‘To get to the front, Sir. ’
‘Good man. ’ I said.
I went to the next bed. ‘What’s your problem, Soldier?’
‘Chronic piles, Sir. I was assigned to clerical duties. ’
‘What treatment are you getting?’
‘Five minutes with the wire brush each day. ’
‘What’s your ambition, Soldier?’
‘To get back to my desk, Sir. ’
I went to the next bed. ‘What’s your problem, Soldier?’
‘Chronic gum disease, Sir. From being out in the jungle. ’
‘What treatment are you getting?’
‘Five minutes with the wire brush each day. ’
‘What’s your ambition, Soldier?’
‘To get the wire brush before the other two, Sir. ’
‘I believe you have a Private Bates here in this ward’, I asked the care nurse. I’m told he was admitted last week after being brought in from the jungle. Could you tell me where he is right now?’I said, seeing there was no one else in the other beds.
‘I’ll tell you what happened to him, ’said the official. ‘Private Bates was in poor shape. His unruly hair was found to be infested with lice. He had severe caries and testicular torsion. After our thorough examination he was gradually issued the usual requisites.
On his first morning here, the hospital issued him a comb. That afternoon the orderly sheared off all his hair.
On his second morning, they issued Bates a toothbrush. That afternoon the Army dentist extracted four of his teeth.
On the third morning, he was issued an athletic support. ’
On the third day at noon he went AWOL. ’
I wished Bob season’s salutations and reminded him to take care. ‘In Vietnam you will be confronted by many organisms in food, water, air, that are foreign to Western bodies. Avoid all water and ice because much is unsafe to drink. Don’t forget the insect repellent. The mozzies are so big, they need their own landing strips. Stay away from all milk products, and heads up for any little man in a red suit and sandals slipping into your hotel room. Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh. Stay away from windows in restaurants and in rooms, keep your drapes closed, keep a wet hanky handy for the hundred degree heat, a steel umbrella for the driving rain- and a final caution, ‘Drop to the floor if you hear an explosion and if ‘it’ hits the fan, put your head between your legs and kiss your sweet arse good bye. Otherwise enjoy yourself and have yourself a merry little Christmas. ’The comedian thanked me with the lyrics of his signature tune.
As it turned out, all his Christmases appeared to have come at once. On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, 1964, two Vietcong agents put a bomb in the basement carpark of the Brinks Hotel. The hotel attracted off-duty personnel with its highly regarded food and drink, rooftop seating areas and movie screenings. The Vietcong duo had been observing their target over the past month, mixing with the crowds in the busy street outside. Noting that South Vietnamese officers mingled freely with Americans, they wangled ARVN uniforms from Saigon’s black market, enabling them to get closer. One of them, Xuan disguised himself as a military chauffeur, while his partner dressed as a South Vietnamese major. They mingled with the real officers so that they could duplicate their mannerisms, speaking style and even their way of smoking. The pair then procured the two cars and explosives needed for the operation. Having reconnoitered the target meticulously, they managed to park a car containing the stashed explosives without being observed or suspected. The number of American officers at the Brinks Hotel had swelled on Christmas Eve because they were using the building to coordinate their celebrations, therefore the attack would therefore cause more casualties than on a normal day. The bombers had set a timing device to trigger the bomb at 17:45, during the ‘happy hour’ in the officers’ watering hole. Knowing from their intelligence that a certain American colonel had returned to the US, the “Major” inveigled their way into into the hotel’s grounds, claiming he had an appointment with the Colonel. He then parked his vehicle in the car park beneath the hotel, before ordering his chauffeur to cut out and fetch the American with the other vehicle. He then left the hotel grounds, asking the guard to tell the American colonel to wait for him. The “Major” claimed that he had not eaten all day and was going to a nearby café.
At 5:45 P. M., while the Americans were eating dinner and planning the Christmas Eve party for later that evening, the bomb exploded while the “Major” nonchalantly observed from a restaurant across the street. The bomb flattened the Brinks
Sending shards of glass and other debris across the street towards the hotel where Bob and his troupe were staying and shaking it. Two soldiers in the Brinks bought it, no one in the troupe was injured, but the explosion left all the hotels without water or electricity.
The Brinks Hotel bombing was important for several reasons. It demonstrated the ability of the NLF to operate anywhere in South Vietnam, even in the capital of its enemy. Even our Vietnamese allies had difficulty in distinguishing friend from foe.
It also demonstrated the inability of the ARVN to protect its citizens and allies, a crucial prerequisite to successful guerrilla or insurgency warfare. Coming soon after the American bombing of North Vietnam following the Tonkin Gulf incident, it demonstrated the form of escalation or response that any further bombing of North Vietnam would take. Lastly, it presented the policymakers in Washington with a basic question that would characterize the war throughout its history: would bombing the North reduce enemy hostilities in the South?
The attack epitomized the situation for Americans in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. No place was completely safe from any Vietcong terrorist act and the result was apprehension for the allied forces. They didn’t know whether they were coming or going. Many were going feet first. Who was going to win was anybody’s guess. The boldness of the Vietcong attack contributed to the escalation of the war during a critical period in the Beltway policy-making.
True to form, Hope stitched this incident into his act at Tan Son Nhut the next day: “I want to thank General Westmoreland for that wonderful welcome yesterday. We opened with a bang!’ He had had talks with Westmoreland about the war, what was happening at home and what it all meant. The general assured him and the world an attack of this nature was a one-off and would never happen again.
Their talks touched on the instability in South Vietnam. There were repeated coups by military men. This gave rise to Bob declaring: ‘Vietnam is a very democratic country. Everyone gets to be president. ’
I would have declared my variant of this and passed it on onto Bob when George Bush Junior came to the presidency : ‘The U. S. is a very democratic country. Anyone can get to be president. That’s the problem. Anyone can grow up to be president, and anyone who doesn’t grow up can be president. ’
At a small outpost in the Mekong Delta, Bob joked: “A funny thing happened to me when I was driving through downtown Saigon to my hotel last night. We met a hotel going the other way.”
In spite of all this, the show went on. Thousands of GI’s enjoyed seeing America’s favourite funnyman sauntering across the stage wagging his putter.
Many were transported to the show from the hospital wards in just their blue hospital gowns, some in beds attached to IV’s. and were escorted to the front of the theatre for up front seats. Visiting others in the hospital wards, Bob was extremely cut up by what he saw, trying hard to be glib with men whose guts were sticking out.
It took a well humoured wounded medic to restore Bob’s sense of offhand ease. The medic told him , ‘After I got shot I was stretchered away and operated on in a field hospital. I woke up just as another medic I knew to be just out of training was about to finish operating on me.
‘What’s going on, I asked groggily?
‘Take it easy. I’m about to close, said this medic.
I grabbed his hand and said, “I’m not going to let you do that. I’ll close my own incision. ’
He handed me the needle and thread and said, ‘Suture self. ’
Hands Across The Sea.
A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.
All forms of our instruction and training had varying undertones of patriotism, glory and honour. The Colonel stressed to Company members that the U. S.,our loyal sentry guard, was of vital import to our national security:
‘Gentlemen, we’re living in a very dangerous neighbourhood. The Americans have their hands full with their own backyard and in Europe. It’s vital that we boost their continued presence in this area and orient it to our interests. If our alliance with the U.S. were to change, then the pressure points in the region could indeed become very painful. What are these points you might ask? , he said, pointing to a map of East Asia.
‘There are three security issues of concern to the region. First, there is the Korean Peninsula. The uneasy peace on the Korean Peninsula has remained in place because the solid commitment of the United States – its deterrent against any resort to force – has remained unwavering. America has persistently held to a military deployment in South Korea which has stopped cold Communist advances.
Secondly, there is the tension between Peking and Taipei in the Taiwan Strait. Had the United States not played the role it has played over the past years, it is hard to believe conflict would have been avoided.
Thirdly, there is South-East Asia where the Communists are a major threat, ’he said, pointing to the map with his cane as officers elsewhere were doing.
‘This is no mirage, no illusion. Their force is a knife levelled at our throat. Unfortunately they are recalcitrant and reject negotiations. We resile at the notion of standing on the sidelines as they take over.
We have to be prepared to project our interests beyond our borders. Forward defence means stopping the enemy before he gets close. We can’t just sit back and watch the Chinese set up a bridgehead on our side. Such provocation has it’s limits. We can’t just tell them ‘Come and get it. ’We can’t just turn on our backs and play dead. They won’t leave politely. we have to convince them to fall back. ’
Both our political parties encourage the Alliance. Their interests are co-incident. You can’t put a cigarette paper between them. It’s above and apart from party politics. We all wish to maintain the freedoms that make life in this great country the envy of half the world. When you join my command, you take on a debt of gratitude to those who come before us. You have to take responsibility as defenders of our country to consolidate the Alliance. We don’t have the luxury of playing it safe. Too many lives are in the balance. We can stand by like overfed ducks, faffing about, asking for divine guidance, frothing at the mouth or we can stand shoulder to shoulder with the Americans in making a stand. Just what Dean Rusk is asking us. ’
‘ The Secretary of State? I queried. ‘He with the inscrutable Buddha-like face and half-smile?
‘That’s him-to the life. ’ The Colonel confirmed. ‘ Tall and sturdy, standing sentinel for the U. S. over an uneasy globe. ‘A quiet, thoughtful man. ’
Rather like Colonel Treloar himself, I thought. Not surprisingly he had a high estimate of this public face of U. S. diplomacy.
‘He’s done a great job since President Kennedy appointed him. Ever the good soldier, he sees his role as to serve the Chief Executive. Kennedy never made final decions on vital security issues until he heard his view. If The President is the captain of the ship, the Secretary is the pilot, at his side on the bridge charting the drifts, shoals and channels that guide the captain’s course. This one’s got guts. You’ll be interested to know he rose to the rank of colonel, serving from 1943 to 1945 in the China-Burma-India theatre, where he began a lifelong interest in Asian affairs. ’
‘What’s his approach to international matters?’I asked.
‘He takes a cautious approach. He stresses the importance of America’s relationship with its allies and feels that unilateral action by the United States is not a good choice. He came out of the Second World War thinking that collective security was the key to the prevention of World War III. He carries on the policy of not challenging the Communists where they are already established, but doing everything possible to see to it that their sphere does not enlarge itself at the expense of free nations.
‘How does he put this into practice?’I asked.
‘He advocates a “dignified diplomacy” emphasizing civility and communication between the United States and the Soviet Union. Rusk’s diplomatic orientation and his ability to evaluate and judge competing points of view contributed toward the successful negotiation of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in August 1963. Before that he defused tensions during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. In the wake of it Rusk cautioned the press and the President not to gloat or claim victory. He rightly worried about undermining Khrushchev’s position of power. If the Soviets felt as if they lost too much in the crisis, hardliners could have ousted Khrushchev. Then the careful agreement reached by both sides could have collapsed and the crisis situation resumed. ’
‘The Republicans would presumably see him as soft on Vietnamese Communism.
‘He’s against repeating the ‘Munich mistake”. At the same time he’s understandably wary of escalating the war to a point where the Chinese might feel compelled to intervene, as they had during the war in Korea. While he favours a gradualist approach to U. S. involvement in Vietnam—in order to maintain the U. S. obligation to Vietnam under SEATO-he takes a tough line on Communists pursuing `wars of national liberation.’ He derides this term as upside-down language. He embraces the principle that the aggression they export should be contained and that force should be met with force.
‘Otherwise?’ I asked.
‘Otherwise, he says, the United States would be perceived as toothless, and would invite further Communist aggression, which could touch off nuclear wars. He believes if the Communist world finds out we are not pursuing our commitments, he doesn’t know where they will stay their hand. He compares his position to that of a soldier in a foxhole, defending his country against the Communist forces. The foxhole represents the democratic ideals we cherish together and fight for. ’
This sounded reasonable enough to me.
It was about a quarter to nine in the morning some time later when the black Cadillac arrived at the basement entry of the shapeless hulk of the State Department Building in Washington. Depositing the Secretary underground before the private lift that opened to his key. After stepping in, the doors closed and the lift automatically shot up, with no other stops, to the seventh floor. There it opened within the glass-walled green-planted inner sanctum where he kept his office.
His tasks were waiting at his desk. Sorting out the message traffic flowing from departmental outposts around the world, the flood of words from all sources that arrived overnight for his consideration . Hush hush reports of the intelligence agencies CIA, Army and others, summarized for his first briefing. Messages from various parties to national conflicts trying to elist understanding and support of things as they saw it. By instinct, philosophy and experience he found his way through it. More than any other individual, he was deputized to develop from all this information a picture clear enough for the President to act and the people to respond. Some dispatches making him pause, others he could dismiss to others. Some eyes-only, signalling alarm, he of course being in the popular imagination the bearer of ill tidings. Such as those from Saigon delivering the daily tally of killing and intrigue from the jungle war. With news of impending defeat the inertial force of habit and of bureaucracy overpowered the evidence at hand. This would have required too much of a counter-effort. Personal plans would have to be altered; holidays and leave cancelled; daily habits of comfort and convenience abandoned.
It was easier to accept the other dispatches flashing opportunity and hope. As usual General Westmoreland’s ever-optimistic line about how things were going. He had said it would be a ‘cakewalk’- no more than a ‘brush-fire war’. The North Vietnamese or the Vietcong were incapable of dry-gulching his troops;they only ever came across them playing it by ear, in unexpected encounters. The NLF were unable to replace their huge losses. The U. S. was reaching the cross over point, when the enemy’s losses would exceed their ability to replace them through either infiltration from the north or recruitment in the south. They were being worn down and their will broken. The end of the war was in sight, in fact just around the corner. Rusk sharply drew in breath as Westmoreland added if only, as he repeatedly requested, the number of troops on the case could be bumped up. Hundreds of thousands over and above the half million that were already there. It seemed that losses could only be justified by risking even more.
And then crossing his desk was a letter of assurance like mine, urging Rusk that U. S. foreign policy in South East Asia continue to provide emerging nations with technical and humanitarian assistance to speed them along the path toward modernity and democracy. That we had to wheedle and needle the South Vietnamese officials to mend their ways and broaden the base of a creaky government, to modernize their whole society. They should provide greater security for their allied forces against any act of terrorism. Any military involvement was to be to protect the population from guerrilla attacks and those carrying such relief. In nation building, we had to help the South Vietnam0ese help themselves. Ultimately they had to sink or swim on their own. This was what Arthur Calwell had called for. How simple it all sounded.
‘Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war. ’
Shakespeare ‘Julius Caesar’
In early 1965 the Colonel had told members of our Company in a briefing:
‘Word has it we’re sending combat troops to Vietnam. A battalion. Our instructors have been preparing the way. ’
‘What’s the go with conscription ?’he was asked.
‘Our military need supplementary personnel’, said the Colonel. ‘We have to build the Australian Army to a size where enough infantry battalions are available to rotate into the war and then return home for retraining and equipping.
We face a serious threat from our north. The Soviet Union and China have regional designs. China, so large, looms over our neighbours’ frontiers. The fall of the South Vietnamese government would lead to other allied governments going bung. You have a row of ‘dominos’ set up. You knock over the first one and the last one will certainly go over. The takeover of this country would be a direct military threat to Australia and all the countries of South and South-East Asia’, he intoned . Totalitarianism would follow suit below the seventeenth parallel, replacing Western oriented governments.
It must be seen as part of a thrust by Red China between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. President Kennedy says it is part of a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that if it achieves its ends in Laos and Vietnam, “the gates will be opened wide.”
This won’t be anything like the siege of the Boxers at Peking that Mao praises so highly. This will last more than 55 days if we just fold our arms and yield to them. It’s our duty to support our American brothers in arms to bolt the gates. To keep Australia safe and inviolable. We have to take the fight to them. We must fight them over there so that we do not have to fight them here.
Westmoreland’s the one holding the line, ’ he said holding up the cover of Time’ magazine showing him as ‘Man of the Year’. ‘The thin red line as it were. Mark my words, his fighting men are all that stands between battalions of Chinese on the move, thrusting downwards towards us. His men are a tripwire, our first line of defence. They will prove once again a match for the invaders as they did in Korea.’
‘ A Roland for their Oliver.’
Westmoreland certainly looked the part of such a commander: a textbook version of how a general should look: ramrod straight, well over 6ft tall, with a purposeful jut-jawline and always confident of victory.
‘What’s his military background?’I asked.
‘‘He saw action in North Africa, Sicily and Europe during World War II. He attained the rank of colonel by the time he was 30. As commander of the 34th Field Artillery Battalion fighting German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, he earned the loyalty and respect of his troops for joining in the thick of battle rather than remaining behind the lines at a command post. He later led troops in conflicts in France, Germany, and Belgium.
‘You would have heard a lot about him, wouldn’t you, Colonel’, I said.
‘His reputation preceded me when I was stationed on the Rhine after the War. He faced particularly brutal times when his division was able to capture and hold the last standing bridge on the Rhine River, the bridge at Remagen. He and his men had to defend it from enemy troops for two weeks; this gave the Allies time to build their own bridge. Their actions helped end World War II in Europe. Kennedy picked him for Vietnam when he was superintendent of West Point. ’
‘He must inspire confidence’.
‘At the sharp end of this war, he’s a force to be reckoned with A man of his word. We need to come through for him. To be on the front foot. To stand fast. Think of it as a down payment for US help if Australia were ever attacked’, continued the Colonel.
‘ An insurance policy’, I suggested.
‘You could put it that way’, he said. ‘War is one of those possible unfortunate events for which we have to pay a premium to protect ourselves against. ’
‘How do you remember the world war yourself?’ I said, still having in mind the gleaming white battleship in front of which Eleanor Powell, backed by an extravagantly costumed chorus, sings and dances “Swingin’ the jinx away’, culminating in a patriotic salute, and finally a blast of cannon fire.
‘As an amateur theatre production. Unrehearsed and over long. We must never leave our defences down again. Never be caught napping. Never let the enemy draw first blood. We must get any combat over and done with swiftly and decisively. ’
Under such influence and those of my provenance, I went along with the war in it’s initial phase, an ever so brief dalliance. I started out with generally conventional views formed by global containment and the sense that the flow of refugees was east to west. I was increasingly critical of the U. S. government’s tactical failures, the ridiculously disproportional bombing campaign, but not its gambit. ‘Can we get away with it?’was my commonly asked question. American forces often went into these battles in helicopters, beating a hasty retreat the way they had come but leaving many to wonder why ground won with such difficulty could be surrendered with such ease. I took it as read the war could be won if only the right tactics were used. I was wary of any large conventional combat commitment. There was little discussion of right or wrong. We were training to be steely eyed dealers of death, disfigurement and dismemberment.
Concealment and Deception.
At a lecture given at one of our basic training classes, a senior officer explained the nature of the war we were entering:
‘A word of warning to all you would be warriors. This conflict and those our fathers fought are chalk and cheese. In those both sides had huge citizens armies, men in uniform who volunteered for the duration of the war. The boundaries were clearly drawn, there were rules and codes of conduct for both soldiers and civilians. The enemy was clearly distinguishable and there were clear procedures to follow if you were either captured or wounded. Today we have a relatively small professional standing army . We are up against a well equipped, elusive human enemy, the NVA, with supplies filtering through from China and Russia as well as the NLF, the “Viet Cong” who blend invisibly with the local population until they chose to fight. The enemy has no size, no shape and no rules. Nailing them is like trying to pin jelly to a wall. Like an apparition, they appear and disappear at will. ’
‘What is the overall strategy for their successes?’
‘Look at their strategy through their eyes. Consider how they adjust to an unfavourable balance of forces. In guerilla warfare, you try to use your weaknesses as strengths. ’
‘Well, if they’re big and you’re small, then you’re mobile and they’re slow.
You grow stronger as they grow weaker. You’re hidden and they’re exposed. ’‘So the VC is everywhere and nowhere. ’
‘ They do have a base of course. They use the population as a source of recruits, food, taxes and intelligence on enemy movements . They own the country at night, hiding in the shadows, picking at ARVN scabs til they bleed. ’
‘How do you counter such an elusive enemy?’ I asked. ‘How do we shoot if we don’t know where they’re going to be?’
‘As hunters we have to flush these cunning foxes out of their coverts into open ground. They’re not fireproof. So we fumigate. Smoke them out of their hidey-holes. Fire in the hole! We entice them into showing their hand. We deny them access to the people by mounting intensive ambuscades and patrolling around populated areas. Eventually, the insurgents are forced to come out and fight to maintain access to the population. At that point we can hit them with all we’ve got. We deliver the deathblow. They don’t know what’s hit them. ’
‘Surprise is a big element for us too. How can they counter this?’I asked. ‘
‘They have an ace in the hole. You never knew who is the enemy and who is the foe. They all look alike. They all wear the same garb. You never know if they’re going to help you or shoot you in the back. ’
‘Who decides who is Charlie and who is not.”I asked. ‘From pictures I have seen of him, I wouldn’t know him from Adam. Or from Madam. ’
‘It’s up to the individual soldier to decide’, he replied. ‘They have to show great restraint. I know what you’re thinking. Innocent civilians get rubbed out in this game of hide and seek. Of course sometimes we have to use a little gentle persuasion. It’s up to the V. C. to stop using civilians to hide behind. They’ve got extensive staging areas and infiltration routes impervious to permanent denial by our air or ground forces. Their’s are generally indistinguishable from the village population we are meant to protect. They don’t wear uniforms and blend into the people and the countryside. ’
‘You don’t know where you stand, ’I commented.
‘Or what you’re standing on. The enemy includes women and children who might be implicated in setting lethal ambushes, landmines as well as maiming booby traps, containing both snakes and stakes, sharpened bamboo spears. ’
‘No shit!’ exclaimed one of my incredulous fellow trainees.
‘On the contrary. They smear it on the needle like tips to ensure infection. Simple but effective. They are fierce, skilled, well organised fighters and don’t stand and fight on conventional terms, offering targets. They don’t stick around and generally they fight on ground of their own choosing. ’
Their credo is—-anyone?’
‘Don’t fight unless you’re sure you can win. ’
‘Correct. They know the land like the back of their hand. They choose their own battle. Some volunteer as bait, acting as decoys to draw us in,. They feint, use quick hit-and-run tactics, and, when fighting pitched battles, only engage us at close quarters to make it hard for us to use our air superiority.
‘They test us then they best us. ’
‘You can put it like that. Often after combat the only trace of the enemy is a blood spoor. The Viet Cong are known to lift mines we have planted and used them as a source of supply in their own operations. When these phantoms of the jungle find we aren’t using the tracks but fanning out through the jungle, they re-position these toe poppers and bouncing betties so we will trigger them ourselves. The easy way is always mined as are helicopter landing zones, narrow passages, paddy dykes, tree and fence lines, trail junctions, and other commonly travelled routes. Meanwhile the VC use the jungle trails like highways, because they know the tracks are free . You’ve got to imagine the whole country like this. One complete area of operations. No front line. The next turn can be the wrong turn. Death can come from anywhere, at any time. ’
‘How would you distinguish how soldiers experience this kind of warfare on a daily basis from that of our fathers?’
‘In past wars the soldier endured major campaigns and battles with periods of respite. Today he’ll endure a shorter tour of duty with constant irregular sequences of skirmishes with little or no respite. Sleep comes in irregular and ill-timed little chunks to those on operations. It’s a combination of intense stress, fear and endless boredom. Much of his time comprises pumped up, enervating patrols, clad in clothes and boots that are dabby for days on end, with constant threats from foul water, unsafe local food, composite rations, skin eruptions, intestinal disorders, and malarial infection . His campaign comprises an irregular sequence of skirmishes in which apparent successes are measured by ground half-secured and counts of enemy dead, which might again be innocent villagers. On top of all this is friendly fire?’
‘No guesses from where’, I remarked. ‘There’s an World War II saying, ’:”When the British shoot, the Germans duck, when the Germans shoot, the British duck, when the Americans shoot, everybody ducks…..”
‘They create a lot of collateral damage.They operate on the strategy that because they have such overwhelming firepower,they can let loose and statistically be bound to hit something they want to.’
‘They obviously calculate the mistakes they make will fade away in people’s memory while that the greatness of their prizes remains.’
‘Then there’s the vexed matter of their discipline.We hear stories of American patrol units moving carelessly, noisily through the jungle smoking cigarettes and listening to the radio. Is this for real?’I asked, ‘in light of our national servicemen being able to be sent to Vietnam for secondment to American forces. ‘Australians fight a different war to the Americans, ’was the reply. ‘Less thunder and lighting- but better . We fight fire with fire. With mundane search and destroy missions, ambush patrols, the constant stress of slow movement through the bush, taking hours at a snail’s pace to cover a few kilometres, grid square by grid square, constant stopping, listening for enemy activity and then moving on again. Our huckleberry friends, on the other hand, often mount large scale actions supported by immense artillery and air support, are highly mobile and use different tactical doctrine. At the same time they have exposed themselves to lethal ambushes that have claimed so many dead. When our patrols give chase to the guerrillas often covering the same ground and running into similar enemy emplacements our response is different. The Americans would do well to follow our example’.
‘How do they learn this?’I asked.
‘They’ll never know unless we tell them, ’came back the reply.
I would pass on my critical support to Westmoreland.
He came on like his feet were firmly planted on the ground. I had heard this old warhorse in a rarely mentioned radio interview in November 1965 when he showed a sense of reality about what he faced in Vietnam: “When the American people read the headlines about victories, there may be a tendency for them to magnify the magnitude of these actions. I do believe that there is a certain danger that we will be overwhelmed by a feeling of optimism and may lose sight of what I consider a true appraisal of the situation … It involves a long conflict and we must be prepared to accept this. ’
I reminded him of the rules of engagement and against violating the established strategic injunction. Never to commit Western military power to an extended large-scale land war on the mainland of Asia. Our naval and air power’s effectiveness would be diluted, and any adversaries could exploit their great preponderance of manpower and pin us down for an uncertain duration.
The Night Of The Long Knives.
As it turned out there was said to be an even more most immediate threat. The Communists were said to be on our doorstep. Indonesia, the Cold War’s coveted prize, had a populist President who had an alliance with the PKI or Indonesian Communist Party. Behind the policies that led us to Vietnam, ‘the other side of the hill’, lay a preoccupation with Indonesia’s real or supposed ambitions:a fear that Indonesia might cause trouble across the border between the western half of New Guinea which came under control in 1962, and the eastern half, administered by Australia.
In his “year of living dangerously” speech in August 1964 a phrase remembered in the West as just the title of a 1982 movie with Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver, Sukarno spoke about the Indonesian ideal of national independence struggling to stay afloat in “an ocean of subversion and intervention from the imperialists and colonialists.”
On September 30, 1965, a portentous event took place in Java that would embolden the United States imperialists and the generals it cultivated who believed that the PKI should and could be physically defeated.
Truckloads of soldiers rumble through Jakarta’s dimly lit streets. They hauled six army generals out of their homes, killing the three who put up a fight, executing the others back at a camp in a rubber plantation. A led to the abduction and murder of six generals. Abdul Nasution escaped this fate when armed men entered his home and tried to arrest him, but his infant daughter was killed.
The stillborn military coup and the response convulsed Indonesia and was a turning point which eventually led to the replacement of the non-aligned President and a change in the direction of the country towards the capitalist West. During this time Indonesia became quite cut off from the world and one heard of serious numbers of of killings.
With Studious Care.
As rumours trickled through that something big was going down in the north, David spoke to me about the frightening picture taking shape and it’s effects here.
“Our Indonesian friends feel a great sorrow. These events are very much to their detriment. We can expect that there will be an impact, both personal and academic, on anyone from there” David said. “Their families have all been affected. They must be worried sick about their safety in the wake of this turmoil. It’s hard for them to talk about it expansively as the situation back home is so muddied and perilous. The least we can do is to help them put their minds to rest about their studies while they get through this tragedy”.
We redoubled our efforts paying special attention to their needs. I enjoined Rick Lay to take a breather at my place in Gunnedah which he took me up on. He responded to my family’s warm hospitality with great gaiety, clearly enjoying the region’s peaceful calm.
Too calm deemed some, trumpeting with loud clangour. Lulled into a false sense of security, moves were afoot to roust us with a clarion call to arms.
The Gathering Storm.
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
What did you learn in school today,
Dear little boy of mine?
I learned that policemen are my friends.
I learned that justice never ends.
I learned that murderers die for their crimes
Even if we make a mistake sometimes.
As the clouds of war gathered on the horizon and Vietnam went up in flames, Australia’s military involvement there gathered pace. Tiny glimmerings of the massive human suffering under the bombardment came to the outside world. I read as extensively as I could about the struggle between Communism and the Western states, immersing myself in all the documents, books and articles I could find on the subject.
I aimed to come to a fully satisfactory explanation of Communism that Rusk found elusive. To bridge that great gulf of understanding between that world and our world, ideological in character. To enter into their minds across that great ideological gulf and find out if and in what ways their processes of logic were so different.
Culling ideas from far and wide, barely scratching the surface, I raised many of the pertinent questions piling up. I was only nineteen, too young to vote, too young to drink. Green in judgement and in uniform, I thought long and hard, determined to listen to all sides. These informed my ideas even if I couldn’t agree with them less. Now those pushing for the War in Vietnam depicted it as a crucial struggle by the ‘Free World’ against a clear and present danger. This was the view I received from an unimpeachable source- the interminable Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The complete master of the bureau’s huge flow of paper work. From his fiefdom, throned amid flags behind a raised, polished mahogany desk at the end of a 35-foot office, the dark curled head of the state security apparatus wrote encouraging me to read what he had written.
I found his comments on Communism of great interest. Mmm. This was a lot to take in.
I wanted to know more and discussed it with David over a meal of gristly lamb chops..
‘Russel Ward has his views about him.. Let me ask him if he’s got a spare moment”.
David approached this dapper looking gentleman of my father’s vintage, eating breakfast by himself at the next table.
‘May I have a word, Russel. ’
Russel was only too happy to oblige.
‘Oh, no, not alone. As you can see, I’ve got mashed spuds and peas’ he said,sucking the marrow out of his chops. ’
David brought up the matter of Hoover.
I asked Russel to discuss his ideas.
‘So what does he write about Communism?’asked Russel.
‘Feel free to read his speech, ‘Faith of Free Men’. Shall I pass it on to you?’
‘Thank you, I’ll waste no time reading it. ’
‘So you’re familiar with his books?’
I’ve looked at these works in libraries. Once you put one of his books down, you simply can’t pick it up. ’
‘Some say his books are ghostwritten. ’
It’s true. You can see right through them. ’
‘Others say his writings are unadulterated rot.’
‘It’s not true.They’re highly adulterated.’
‘He portrays the Communists as “Masters of Deceit”, preying on the innocent so as to deliver the ‘ Land of the Free’ into the hands of the Soviets. He decries other authorities as being too lenient on those they see as subversives. Holding the thin blue line, he will weed them out if given a free hand. He claims to have been primed in the works of Marx and Lenin, and Stalin. ’
‘He should know’, said Russel. ‘ Stalin created a state of terror based upon fearmongering- in which an enemy is ginned up ,its numbers exaggerated and targeted. While not on the same scale, Hoover did something outrageous in a country that prides itself in it’s democracy. He executed the ‘red raids’-the hysterical dragnet arrests of thousands of innocent aliens in 1919 and 1920.
‘That’s one monumental ego you’ve stroked. What on earth inspired you to make nice with such a person?’he asked? ‘Hs not famous for his compassion. ’
‘ In the first instance I thanked him for the F. B. I. seizing the slayers of Mrs. Viola Gregg Liuzzo last year. They captured them only hours after the civil rights worker’s shotgun death in Alabama last year. I thanked him on behalf of his men who foiled wartime attempts to carry out acts of sabotage along the New York waterfront. It arrested German saboteurs within days after their submarines landed them on the Atlantic Coast. ’
‘There are the awestruck who say he represents everything that is good and right about America’, said Russel, ‘that every word out of his mouth is some holy nugget. They say the sun shines out of his arse. ’
‘While he has steered clear of the Mafia, allowing it to operate nationally, his bureau did carry out some seemingly miraculous sweeps in the thirties when gangsterism ruled the land. It made the once epidemic crime of kidnapping a rarity. He has been touted like gangbusters by Cardinal Spellman as the nation’s saviour’.
‘And he rested on the seventh day, ’said Russel. ‘This is all to the good, but let’s skip the puffery and forget the op shots. Let’s face facts- nabbing gangsters is what he’s supposed to do. Credit where credit’s due. And incidentally, most of it is due to his agents. The comic books you read showed him swinging a machine gun to make arrests. That’s pure fiction.Puff pieces.
‘What about his military record in the First World War?’
‘Although he supported the imprisonment of opponents of America’s involvement in. he has never been willing to discuss how he himself managed to avoid being drafted.’
At least in the case of Mrs.Liuzzo,he has done the right thing.’
‘ I hate to break it to you.There’s another less appealing aspect to this man’s record. He’s better known for his antipathy to the civil rights movement.President Johnson made sure to focus on the positive work of the FBI agents’ solving of the murder of Viola Liuzzo, in an attempt to divert scrutiny away from the fact that one of the men in the car of killers, Gary Thomas Rowe, Jr., was an FBI informant and therefore protected by the FBI.
Now get this-the agency later leaked what were purported to be salacious details about this brave lady. It attempted to downplay the situation and discredit her by spreading rumors that she was a member of the Communist Party, was a heroin addict,, a malignant busybody and a tramp. It engineered the smear that she had abandoned her children to have sexual relationships with African-Americans involved in the Civil Rights Movement. None of these has been either proved or substantiated in any way.’
‘How long has he had this attitude ?’
‘Allan,Do you want to know the truth?’
‘I’ve been told it will set me free.’
‘He’s always had a problem with African Americans. He hounded Marcus Garvey out of the country in 1923. When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that Southern blacks could not turn to their local F. B. I. offices with any assurance of sympathy or zeal for civil rights, Hoover called the reverend of peace “the most notorious liar in the country. Later, he had his staff invite newsmen to hear the taped record of F. B. I. bugs in Dr. King’s hotel rooms. He cited this as hard evidence that ‘moral degenerates were leading the movement. ’
‘ Who is the liar here. If this is true, Hoover has allowed himself to aid and abet the salacious claims of Southern racists and the extreme right-wing elements. ’
‘Hoover claims that there’s nothing ‘political’ about the F. B. I., that it’s tout court a ‘fact-finding agency’ that it ‘never makes recommendations or draws conclusions. Most revealingly he believes that justice is merely incidental to law and order.
‘That coming from the head of the Justice Department! So this image of him as a tough honest to God, incorruptible streetfighting man is bunkum?’
‘It’s tough at the top, Allan,at the right hand of God. The daily restaurant dining, only the best hotel rooms, the lickspittle service, the sun that falls on the racecourse stands. It’s rumoured that when he loses, his losses are covered. ’
‘Everything on the house!So that’s what draws him there. ’
‘One for the money, two for the show. ’
‘Are there no regulations to prevent this?Are there no checks and balances?
‘There’s more than meets the FBI. It’s a closed shop.Nobody from outside it gets in. The Mafia make out the cheques and Hoover improves his bank balance. Onto a certainty. he heads straight to the winners’ circle. He doesn’t have to listen to the feedbox noise. He listens to gangsters like Meyer Lansky. For most people a race track is a place where windows clean people. For Hoover it’s a place where everything is completely covered. ’
‘So it is true. Crime doesn’t pay. ’
‘He is said to spend more time there rubbing shoulders with mobsters and washing his hands after people shake them than busting organized crime syndicates. ‘
‘Not washing them of culpability.’
‘In fact this germophobe denies organised crime exists.’
‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Can’t he follow the long paper trail they must leave? They might spend very little on office supplies but they take in many millions of banknotes every year’.
‘In practice he puts just enough pressure on them to get them in a flap, make them nervous, not to raise their hackles completely. Why do people honour this man? Have we run out of human beings? I don’t know what people see in him. ’
‘That makes two us.He’s bought and paid for. ’
‘More like rented and on lay by. His agents seem to work in some ways just like the Mob.’
‘Theres a big difference, Allan..The Mob is run by vicious,lying, cheating psychopaths.Hoover and his enforcers work for the President of the United States of America.’
The Bureau says it must follow where the facts lead it.So if you were asked now if you go along with him, Allan, what would you say?’
‘‘Nothing doing. I didn’t see him for what he is I’ve got my life savings that says he’s a bad pony. The wrong one to back. I wouldn’t bet on him if you paid me. I can see now his lukewarmness to the civil right movement. If that’s the case he’s not fit to breathe the same air as Dr. King. He’s obviously got a big axe to grind about Communism. With him, it’s all very black and white-and red. ’
‘His boast is his agents are very highly trained’, said Russel. ’To further the application of science to police work, many are attending universities to do research. ’
‘DNA testing, fingerprinting, laboratory procedures’, I said.
‘Those too, but also archiving the views and activities of people of interest. Sleuthing the most intimate details of their lives, their sexual peccadillos and personal matters. Conducting ‘black bag jobs’- illegal break-ins and stings, planting microphones, and tapping telephones. This twisted, squirrely plenipotentiary is pushing for more penitentiaries. While he is playing the ponies, his men in black suits with spit polished shoes seem to show up wherever American student activists repair after being beaten up. He claims anti-war protesters are ‘halfway citizens who are neither morally nor mentally mature. ’He wants them to think there are red agents behind every letter box, under every bed. Trying to disrupt constitutionally protected political activities, his special agents use all kinds of hanky panky to stifle dissent on the campus.
‘What’s so special about these agents? And who is their main target?’I asked, my jaw dropping.
‘ The Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley in particular has sent up red flags with the F. B. I. ’ Russel said. ‘Here is a public university that offers a tuition-free education rivalling those offered by Harvard, Princeton, or Yale; employing a constellation of Nobel laureates, and holds millions of dollars in government research contracts.
‘I can imagine how envious fundamentalist free marketeers would feel about that’, I said. ‘Lay out for me the agency’s activities there, Russel. ’
‘Even as the university was helping the nation win World War II by overseeing the development of the atomic bomb, Hoover sent his agents were on a long fishing expedition. He suspected Berkeley students and professors of spying for the Soviet Union. In the cold war atmosphere of the late 40s and early 50s, the director’s concern had grown when scores of faculty members refused to sign a special loyalty oath for university employees.
‘What’s the situation there now? Are they biting?’’
‘Over the last year the university’s been posing an even greater challenge to authority, generating one provocation after another. Hoover is said to be still spitting chips about the optional essay question for applicants in 1959. It asked, “What are the dangers to a democracy of a national police organization, like the FBI, which operates secretly and is unresponsive to public criticism?” Reference to the matter is airbrushed out of the official Bureau accounts. He was concerned about student participation in the protest against the House Un-American Activities Committee at San Francisco City Hall and attempts to delay trains carrying troops bound for Vietnam.
‘Have they landed any big fish? Is there any one particular official Hoover holds responsible for allowing these actions, I asked?’
‘The campus President, Clerk Kerr. The wire haired attack dog for the corporate state saw him as insubordinate. Clerk opened it to free speech in more ways than one. He lifted the ban against Communist speakers, saying the role of the university is not to make ideas safe for students but to make students safe for ideas. He believes that students can make up their minds and make the correct decision if they are allowed to consider all sides of a dispute. ’
‘Have all sides accepted this being fair to all?’
‘All this ran counter to the direction of the conservative leadership of the UC Regents and, last year, of the newly elected Republican governor, Ronald Reagan. In January 1967, three weeks after this straight man to a chimpanzee took office, the Regents dismissed Kerr. ’
‘There was a new sheriff in town.’
Aha! I was on the ball at last clued in straight from the horse’s mouth as well as it’s critics’. Carrying out a full field investigation, I deconstructed Hoover’s writings further. The name of the game became abundantly clear . The greatest tool of unscrupulous politicians wherever, without necessarily reaching the extent it did in Russia, or Germany or Indonesia, had to be fearmongering. It was the bullish Hoover’s skilful stage-management of publicity and emotional appeals to patriotism, as much as his heavy fisted, long reaching tentacles that made him the powerful incontestable figure he cut. Capturing the headlines and the public fancy, the making of the Hoover folk hero had established him securely. Sowing division and mistrust, aiming to disrupt. To successive presidents, wary of offending him, aware of his hair-trigger sensitivity to criticism, he was known as ‘The Boss’. To many others he was ‘Public Enema Number One’.
Reds Under The Bed.
‘Everybody’s afraid of being called a ‘Red. ’ I cut myself shaving and was afraid to bleed”. Bob Hope.
‘What did Napolean do for relaxation? He read a book. What did Lincoln do for relaxation? He read a book. What does Congress do for relaxation? They book a red. ’ Jimmy Durante.
Taking all this in, it dawned on me that it was this police czar who was the driving force behind the Red Scare, that pivotal episode in modern history. It was a largely successful attempt to sit on those expressing themselves and organizing legitimately, a national spasm of hatred and curtailment of liberties. It would be replicated a generation later after the Second World War, and once more Hoover and the Bureau were centrally involved.
His fingerprints were all over McCarthy’s ackamaracka. He supplied writers for them and instructed this strawman how to release a story just before press deadline. That way reporters wouldn’t have time to ask for rebuttals. Even more important, he advised him to avoid the phrase ‘card-carrying Communist’ which usually couldn’t be proven, substituting “Communist sympathizer’ or ‘loyalty risk.’ which required only some affiliation, however slight. If anyone suspected twitched in the wrong direction, the hammer would come down.
Hoover was both a product of and a major contributor to some of the ugliest moments in American history. This publicity bloodhound’s achievements are a particular kind of American success story, and a very disturbing one. The star chamber inquisition in which suspected Communists were hunted out, muckraked and removed officially lasted from 1950 to 1954 but its corrosive effect lingered for much longer. It’s hard to overstate the strength of the hysteria it vented.
It aroused fears and suspicions and created hatred and bitterness. It stifled debate and dissent. Its hallmarks were a warlock’s brew of character assassination, guilt by association and trial by publicity. Its techniques were the innuendo, the fast and loose charge, the big baldfaced lie. Its rhetoric was to harp ad nauseam on an all encompassing and largely spurious threat – that of domestic Communism. All levels of government were said to be riddled with these traitors. The racial origins of most interest to those behind the campaign were Jewish although they obviously couldn’t spell this out. This compounded the suspicion factor in the same way it did in the show trials in Prague. The Communist Party officials who were purged also just happened to be Jewish. As early as 1943 Joe Kennedy’s F. B. I. file, making clear his willingness to uncover Communists in the film industry, said he had ‘many Jewish friends’ there. Kennedy’s many snide aspersions and comments about Jews are found in his private notes and letters to family and intimates.’
‘How did he reply to those who pointed out that Jesus was a Jew?’
‘Yes’. he had to agree, ‘but only on his mother’s side’.
Joe was anti-semitic to the point of accusing them of deliberately provoking Hitler with their movies.’
‘What was the legacy of the House investigation into the American movie industry?
Convened to uncover enemy agents, expose Communist conspiracies and write anti-sedition laws,many millions of dollars later: agents uncovered, zero,conspiracies exposed, zero,anti-sedition laws written, zero.
All it did was to deny people their right to work.
Caught in a situation that had passed beyond the control of mere individuals, each person reacted as his or her nature,needs, convictions and particular circumstances compelled them to.
By convincing Communist Louis Budenz to ‘turn to God’, the media preacher Fulton Sheen delivered Hoover a rat – and names, lots of them.A very ‘friendly witness’, Budenz enthusiastically performed. This stoolie was paid handsomely for his squealing,singing and spilling. After lengthy interviewing by FBI agents he helped send several leaders of the American Communist Party to prison for treason.
It was a time of fear.No one was exempt.Scores of people lost their homes.Their families disintegrated.
So how were they ever justified?
In the early 1950s fears of Russia and the bomb were based on a solid enough foundation and enabled McCarthy a backing he could never have received at another time. The Chinese Communist Party had gained power, Eastern Europe was under Soviet control, blocking the United States’ access to markets and spheres of investment in one-sixth of the earth’s territory. It was feared Communist domination of world markets and food supplies would slowly strangle the West’s economies, greatly lower our standards of living and relegate the U. S. in particular to the position of second-class power. As if that wasn’t bad enough there was a series of spy scandals involving American collaborating with the Soviet Union.
The success of the McCarthyists in feeding into these fears brings to mind the old adage that there where is smoke, there has to be fire. No senator could be so impolitic or devil may care to make such unfounded charges. There had to be something true to it. Well wadda ya know, representatives of Bush the Lesser’s Administration would get up to the same old tricks, crying wolf, throwing out the red meat,getting one over people,convincing them of the imminent threat posed by Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction. Would anybody care? Hollywood had introduced us to them in ‘Vietnam:The Sequel’. They’re Muslims, aren’t they? El- Gog and El- Magog. And they all want to blow up everybody, don’t they?
The original name of the invasion of Iraq was going to be Operation Iraqi Liberation, but they realized the acronym was OIL, and they had to change it. To liberate the oil fields, the neocons carried out a totally unjustified pre-emptive strike in full view of the world.
Acting as God’s agents against Evil gave them the legitimacy they needed to do whatever they wanted.
Setting one Middle Eastern group, whether it be by religion, by sect, by ethnicity, against the other, they gave birth to a fundamentalist frankenstein’s monster that would turn on them and all. Like the Bourbons, they learned nothing and forgot nothing. A weakening, if not collapse, of the state in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, created a vacuum in which a culture of violence and religious demagoguery could thrive. The main target of the attacks would not be American power or Western culture, but the states of the Middle East themselves. This time it took people less time to see through their intentions as the cracks in the imperialist façade of supremacy and strength become so wide.
You can fool all of the people some of the time; you can even fool some the people all of the time if the advertising is right and the budget is big enough.; But you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Everybody’s got to learn sometime.
If one looks at the economic and political realities of the world, a new form of clarity is attenuated. People know that something is wrong intuitively, they only lack the will, the motivation, to fully embrace the revolution of the mind which necessarily leads to the results.
The reason they lack the will is because the relative comfort afforded by the state and economic system has had a numbing effect. Unemployment, dissipated life savings, poverty, all forms of financial struggle—these things have a way of temporarily pulling the veil down, which is why we see our political and financial ‘leaders’ scrambling to raise it yet again so that we’ll go number once again.
It’s the work of second-rate stage illusionists who reveal the machinery behind their deception, then hurry about the stage to reset the trick and carry on with the show as if nothing happened.
How could they do otherwise? Letting the cat out of the bag is a whole lot easier than putting it back in.
One of the main targets of McCarthyism was government officials. Many people had to prove their loyalty. In 1947 loyalty boards were established which were empowered to examine federal employees who could be sacked on the basis of anonymous accusations to the FBI without any specific finding that they had done anything disloyal. Thousands of federal employees were summoned before kafkaesque loyalty hearings and many were forced from government work. Under these circumstances they found their career prospects truncated. The House of un-American Activities (H. U. A. C) was set up to buffalo targets more widely. It was joked that every time the Russians threw an American into jail HUAC would retaliate-throwing an American into jail.
They went after people with a liberal outlook. Burt Lancaster was nearly blacklisted in the late 40’s because of this. The FBI kept a file on him detailing his activities, as they had done on “the Almanac gang”, the folk musicians led by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger back in 1942. Following the directive of J. Edgar Hoover they watched them for signs of a conspiracy to overthrow the government. Others under surveillance included Paul Robeson and Pearl Buck. ‘ J. Eager Beaver’, the literary critic, amassed a dossier on Pearl which rounded out to a hefty three hundred pages.
Even Bob Hope was deemed by a Wisconsin newspaper to be a “communist’ and got some hate-mail to that effect when he joked about McCarthy. He made with a whole series of jokes involving the colour red. In his Christmas 1952 TV show, Hope made out he’d had a letter from Santa Claus: “Dear Robert, thank you for … the beautiful new brown suit you sent me … But tell Senator McCarthy I’m going to wear my old red one anyway.”
He announced “I have it on good authority that McCarthy is going to disclose the names of two million communists. He has just got his hands on the Moscow telephone directory.”
“Eisenhower admitted that the budget can’t be balanced and McCarthy said the Communists are taking over. You don’t know what to worry about these days – whether the country will be overthrown or overdrawn.”
Referring to the security surrounding his game of golf with Eisenhower, he said: ‘I had to be cleared by the F. B. I., the Secret Service, the army and the navy-and they all had to be cleared by Senator McCarthy. ’
The Red Light.
Charlie Chaplin would lose his clearance. He had attracted the hostile interest of the FBI. under Hoover’s direction. I hadn’t been aware how any one could have hounded such a treasure for his alleged political sympathies. It would appear Hoover felt that the target of the film The Great Dictator was as much the U. S. as Germany.
Charlie had posed the question as to why the world of respectability and authority offered so little to the soul of man. It’s representatives interrogated him about his racial origins and sexual activities. In a smear campaign, he was accused of practically every sin under the sun. He drew fire particularly over his black comedy Verdoux, which was an attack on the morality of war. This was the story of a modern Bluebeard who considers it only right and proper to bump off his wives, seeing that the state, rather than coming down on mass murderers, hails them as heroes and the saviours of their country. The direct allusion to the atom bomb, and the way its use by the Allies against Japan was put morally on the same plane as the German concentration camps, injured the patriotic pride of the American public, and Chaplin was accused of ingratitude to the country in which he had achieved such wealth and fame. The release of Monsieur Verdoux provoked boycotts.
Charlie shrugged off all these assaults “If you step off the plane with your left feet, they accuse you of being a Communist”, he lamented. He was accused of being unpatriotic by a spokesman for the Catholic war veterans. He retorted that he himself had backed the war effort through donations and speeches and his two sons had fought in the war. He had even been taken to task for having floated the idea of opening a new front against Germany in 1942. Along with other luminaries such as Pearl Buck he had played an active role in the American Committee for Russian War Relief. He denied ever having had connections to the Communist Party: “I have thirty million dollars of business – what am I talking Communism for?” When asked if he thought the Communist way of life outshined that of the US, his answer was firm: “No, of course. If I did, I’d probably go there and live. At the same time I am not antagonistic. But if they were to invade America, I’d take up arms. ’ Summing his feelings on where he belonged, he stated: “I have always had a sense of internationalism. My great love has always been in this country, but I don’t feel allied to any one particular country. I am a citizen of the world”.
Charlie was denied a re-entry visa to America when he left to attend the premiere of ‘Limelight’. He would have had to submit to any inquiry to prove his moral worth. In 1957 he produced ‘A King in New York’, a comedy taking to task HUAC- ‘a dishonest phrase to begin with, elastic enough to wrap around the throat and strangle the voice of any American citizen whose honest opinion is a minority of one. ’ The film brought fresh accusations of pro-Communism which Charlie specifically denied.
The Lives Of Others.
Russel had noticed the sender’s name printed on the envelope I placed beside my place at the table. ‘Has it already been opened?’he asked.
‘What do you mean?’I asked.
‘I see it’s from Aaron Copland ? May I?’ He held it up to the light. ‘Steaming open an envelope is one of the oldest tricks in the book, ’he said. ‘It’s really a cinch, and, if done carefully, is barely noticeable by the recipient. They go for the very end of either side of the flap, because some envelopes don’t have any glue there. Watch for any wrinkling, rubbing and tearing. ’
’Why would anyone tamper like that”I asked.
‘I was only half joking’, he said. ‘This wouldn’t happen to you- hopefully. But Copland’s correspondences were scrutinised by the FBI. ’
‘Didn’t they have anything better to do?I asked. ’Moreover it’s a felony’.
‘Too right, but they are a law to themselves. They investigated Copland In 1936 for having defended the American Communist Party. As from that moment he was blackballed. In 1953 his Abraham Lincoln Tribute was withdrawn from the Inauguration concert for President Eisenhower. He testified to the Congress that he had never been a member of the Party. McCarthy was interested in the reasons for Copland being hired to give US Embassy sponsored lectures on music in Italy and Latin America. He asked Copland “If you were a member of the Communist Party, let’s assume you were, and you were selected to lecture you would be bound to try wherever you could to sell the Communist idea, wouldn’t you”.
Copland replied “No doubt” adding “I had no fear of sitting down at a table with a known Communist because I was so sure of my position as a loyal American”.
The Senator fired back “With what known Communists have you sat down at a table”.
“Copland replied that there were the Soviet composers he had met during his international musical career. “Well, I assume they are Communists” he said. He was not asked to come back to any more public hearings. ’ Transcripts of Copland’s hearing before McCarthy released fifty years afterwards confirmed what Russel had said. It was said that Aaron had parried the Senator with a compound of ‘languor’ and ‘outrage’. What us lesser mortals might call ‘language’.
I supported the encouragement of accountable government by Senator Wayne Morse and his open views on social and civil issues. He appreciated my kind comments. I agreed with him on the need for greater transparency in political horse trading. Such precaution would do away with the problem of locking the stable door after the horse had bolted. I spoke of his ideals of foresight, intellectual independence and integrity. A fiery maverick, he was known as ‘the conscience of the Senate’. Once he got on his hobbyhorse and starts talking about human rights, you can’t get him to discuss anything else. A constant thorn in the backside of his collegial troglodytes, there undoubtedly would have been a sigh of relief when on one occasion he was kicked in the mouth by one of his precious horses in training. This left him in hospital seemingly out of the running with his mouth wired shut. His colleagues would have some respite from this zealot from Oregon. However he would have a note taker in his hospital room relaying messages to the Senate. Later he said it was amazing how much a man could talk with his mouth wired shut. It was this spirit and exuberance that characterized his career.
He believed that if you give people the truth, they will make the right decision: “The interests of my country are more important than the interests of my party”.
I thanked Senator Morse for having the spunk to dare snaffle McCarthyism.
He said “McCarthyism is a dangerous threat to the freedom and liberty of every American because it substitutes trial by accusation for a trial by proof”. He asked the Senate: “What is a nation if its gains security and loses its liberty?”
Senators Morse and McCarthy were slated to debate each other on the topic ‘The Fairness of Congressional Investigations’. The debate was sponsored by the American Federation of Labour. It did not take place because McCarthy backed out at the last minute. However they would square off like two prizefighters in a 45 minutes Senate debate. Senator Morse accused McCarthy of “political thuggery”. McCarthy had claimed that Morse was a “Communist sympathizer”. Morse was instrumental in pushing through the censure that would ultimately decide the fate of Senator McCarthy. There were times when he would bend ideologically under McCarthy’s bulldog hectoring but he never broke.
One area in which Morse would not bend in his principles was the use of wiretapping as evidence to seek out suspected Communists. In a statement to the American Bar Association, he said wiretapping was a police state practice and its members should resist such totalitarian methods. He believed the wiretapping was not selective, that the privacy of those innocent of crime would be jeopardized. He said the practice was ‘a lazy policeman’s tool and that it was a Communist tool’.
Related to his stand against McCarthy was that he took against the China Lobby which resisted recognition of the newly created People’s Republic of China. He requested that this powerful lobby be investigated for reason of illegal activities. He believed there was an exorbitant use of Treasury funds for personal financing of the lobby. He feared they would suck the US into a long and costly land war with the People’s Republic.
Another of the few men and women in public life to dare confront the rabid senator from Wisconsin was J. William Fulbright, the Senator from Arkansas. I thanked him for this daring which he appreciated. And encouraged him in his many pursuits which I will mention in the coming pages.
His encounters with McCarthy were exceedingly vitriolic. McCarthy was contemptuous and insulting to him, dubbing him ‘Senator Halfbright’ or just plain ‘Halfbright’. Time and again Fulbright spoke out about the McCarthy menace. In doing so he laid himself open to its venom. He became a special target of McCarthy’s method in a hearing to determine the suitability of a distinguished law professor to be a US delegate to the UN. Fulbright said “This was the first time I realized there was just not limit to what he’d say or insinuate. As the hearings proceeded, it suddenly occurred to me that this fellow would do anything to deceive you to get his way. I was deeply rebuked, repelled, offended by his conduct in those hearings”. At one point during this sharp tangle, Fulbright pressed McCarthy for specific proof of his charges arguing ‘You shift your position every time”. McCarthy would counter later “Men of little minds are trying to make this a political issue”. Fulbright replied sarcastically “You wouldn’t try to do anything like that, would you?” The hearing was marked by shouts, the pounding of gavels and vituperative exchanges. Implying that Fulbright was playing footsies with the Communists, the McCarthyist onslaught put the screws on Fulbright and his educational exchange program. McCarthy suggested it was operated to the favour of Communists, as did Pearl Buck’s East-West association, set up to promote cross-cultural understanding.
Not only in the sanctuary of the Senate but in speeches and television programs, had Fulbright attempted to raise a general alarm about this menace with its ‘trial by headline’. He warned that if it continued to let fly at the State Department and the schools , they could lead towards the very thing we are fighting – the police state”. He went on “something ominous has happened to our community. A bitterness, a suspicion, a kind of primitive ruthlessness quite alien to our traditions, has taken root and is spreading”. One of the hate letters he received as a result of his stance read: “Tie hyena Morse and jackal Lehman around your foul coyote neck and jump into the Potomac”. On the contrary the three Senators reached the critical numbers necessary to censure McCarthy leading to his political demise.
Noticeably one of the numbers missing was Congressman Kennedy who later conceded that the censure was just too difficult both politically and personally. He was loath to fall in with more full-blooded liberals in his party, such as Morse and Fulbright, seen as “fuzzy-minded” by some conservatives. Seen as those feeling unworthy of their possessions by those who feel they deserve everything they’ve stolen.
State Of Terror.
Only so slowly was a fuller picture of what was happening in Indonesia coming to light. Sure, the reality of the event that triggered the violence would be the subject of speculation to this day. The true identities of those behind the abortive putsch became enmeshed in the murky web of intrigue surrounding it. Were the assassins members of the palace guard and Communists out to pre-empt a coup against the President by the generals. Or was it a false flag operation, a sinister scheme by Suharto who somehow avoided being targeted and who just happened to know the assassins. The killings had in fact been carried out by army elements under Suharto’s own command. In Jakarta as in Central Java the same battalions that supplied the “rebellious” companies were also used to “put the rebellion down.”
The most provocative fact was that those targeted in the name of supporting Soekarno were by and large loyalists of the President. The only army generals who might have challenged Suharto’s assumption of power.
According to the Australian scholar Harold Crouch, by 1965 the Indonesian Army General Staff was split into two camps. At the centre were the general staff officers appointed with, and loyal to, the army commander General Yani, who in turn was reluctant to challenge President Sukarno’s policy of national unity in alliance with the Indonesian Communist party, or PKI. The second group, including the right-wing generals Nasution and Suharto, comprised those opposed to Yani and his Sukarnoist policies. All of these generals were anti-PKI, but by 1965 the divisive issue was Sukarno.
Not one anti-Sukarno general was targeted by Gestapu, with the obvious exception of General Nasution. But by 1961 the CIA operatives had become disillusioned with Nasution as a reliable asset, because of his “consistent record of yielding to Sukarno on several major counts.” Relations between Suharto and Nasution were also cool, since Nasution, after investigating Suharto on corruption charges in 1959, had transferred him from his command.
But one thing was for sure. The unrest precipitated by this event led to the unleashing of extreme nationalism and Islamic extremism. The small scale, disorganized coup attempt was Suharto’s ‘Reichstag Fire’: a pretext for liquidating the Communist Party and seizing state power. As with the February 1933 fire in the German parliament that Hitler used to create a hysterical, crisis-filled atmosphere, the September 30th Movement was exaggerated by Suharto’s clique of officers until it assumed the proportions of a wild, vicious, supernatural monster. The army’s psychological warfare specialists created the conditions in which the mass murder of “the PKI” seemed justified. It led to a rogue army putting it’s feet on people’s necks, and lengthy rule by the kleptocratic dictator Suharto. Taking things as he found them-and lots more- he crushed all opposition and curbed all freedoms .
There would be years of living dangerously. Hundreds and thousands of so called perpetrators were systematically shot, stabbed, strangled, bludgeoned, or starved to death.
Civilians involved in the massacre were either recruited and trained by the army on the spot, or were drawn from groups which had collaborated for years with the army on political matters.
Suharto, firmly in control of Jakarta, sent a column of special forces into the heartlands of PKI support. In its wake Muslim groups and other traditionalists were authorised to turn on PKI members, hauling them out for mass executions, night after night, choking rivers with bodies.
One of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century.” was how a CIA publication described it. They should know. They were behind it. They provided careful and systematic support. The Company, like Suharto, blamed the victims of the killings — the supporters of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) — for their own deaths. The official line has always been that ordinary Indonesians rose in spontaneous opposition to Leftists who were threatening national stability. It was a natural, inevitable, and justifiable reaction on the part of those non-communists who felt threatened by the party’s violent bid for state power. The strategists in Washington reversed course in who it backed in Indonesia. Eisenhower’s administration attempted to break up Indonesia and sabotage Sukarno’s presidency by supporting secessionist revolts in 1958. Nasution was in charge of putting these down. When that criminal escapade of the Dulles brothers failed, the U. S. began to cultivate top anti-communist officers who could gradually build up the army as a shadow government capable of replacing President Sukarno and eliminating the PKI at some future date. The generals bided their time and waited for the opportune moment for what U. S. strategists called a final “showdown” with the PKI. The US Embassy supplied the army with a list of thousands of PKI cadres for targeting.
Time magazine hailed the PKI’s obliteration as the “best news” in Southeast Asia for a long time. Then Australian prime minister Harold Holt declared: “With 500, 000 to 1 million communist sympathisers knocked off, I think it’s safe to say a reorientation has taken place.” Malcolm Fraser said there was in Australia ‘a sigh of relief … don’t look too closely at how it happened’.
The generals made their case against the PKI largely on the basis of transcripts of the interrogations of movement participants. Those who hadn’t already been summarily executed. As they say, dead men tell no tales. Given that the army used torture as standard operating procedure for interrogations, the narrative of the suspects is as reliable as an Inquisition text on witchcraft.
Certain PKI leaders were involved in a personal capacity, The rest of the central committee was in the dark, let alone the millions of rank-and-file members. If the movement’s leaders had been treated as the leaders of previous revolts against the postcolonial government, they would have been arrested, put on trial, and sentenced. All the members of their organizations would not have been imprisoned or massacred. The PKI as a whole was clearly not responsible for the September 30th Movement. The party’s three million members did not participate in it. If they had, it would not have been such a disorganised small-scale affair.
Soekarno compared the killings to a case of someone “burning down the house to kill a rat. Reduced to being a figurehead the great orator who had led the nationalist struggle against the Dutch, the cosmopolitan visionary of the Non-Aligned Movement, was outmaneuvered by a taciturn, uneducated, thuggish, corrupt army general from a Javanese village.
Thousands of political prisoners were banished to tropical gulags like Buru where the writer Pramoedya Aranta Toer was sent. Growing up during Dutch colonial rul followed by Japanese occupation he experienced the monstrous brutality of those military who came to power after independence. He called his memoir “The Mutes Soliloquy”. This is a harrowing portrait of the squalid penal colony on the island of Buru on which Pramoedya was imprisoned for eleven years. His ‘crime’ was to have belonged to an alleged Communist literary group.
He was subjected to the most brutal conditions. The prisoners on the islands had to survive by scraping whatever they could from the land itself. They were ravaged by plague and other diseases. Labour was harsh and the rules petty. He saw his friends killed ‘just for fun’. His nightmare had begun on October 13, 1965 six weeks after the kidnapping and execution of the six Indonesian army officers. He was in his study editing a collection of short stories written by Soekarno, the first President of the Republic. A group of masked men, all steamed up, gathered outside his house. After he tried to reason with them, the police arrived and took him into custody ‘for his own safety’. They bound him, put a noose around his neck and a soldier struck him on the head with a rifle, leaving him almost clean deaf. He begged the police to save the valuable library of books on Indonesia that he had built up over the years, but they were left for the mob to burn.
There were huge problems during the Soekarno rule. There were food shortages and to assert its independence the government refused US aid. However such problems fade into insignificance when compared to those thrown up by the Suharto regime. At one point of time the populace was rationing their meager diet of rice while Suharto and cronies were living like kings. How could people live so hand-to-mouth in such a resource rich country? Indonesia would bring about environmental destruction on a massive scale by allowing wholesale removal of its forests. Moreover the unleashing of extreme nationalism and an Islamic apocalyptic, end-of-days, living with one foot in the afterlife strategic vision would affect Australia eventually with the occupation of East Timor and the tolerance given to Islamic fundamentalism . Blowback.
spoke of the role I could play in helping solve the problems faced by our two countries.
I have seen my role as an educational one. To explain his country as a monumental force in herself with her unmeasured resources, both human and material.
To fulfil his wish dovetailed with my activities at my alma mater: helping Indonesian students amongst others over the linguistic and social hurdles that confronted them. They had won my taste buds but I wanted something more from them. As my trophy I wanted their hearts and minds. At peace. Consequent to this saga of atrocities I became duty bound to help understanding of how our countries, but particularly the General’s, could become embroiled in such horrific events in which millions and counting would perish. And to urge that these things never be allowed to happen again. That bayonets remain sheathed til Gabriel blows his horn. That guns go silent, or beat into ploughshares. That landmines be forever banned. That the military be under the command of the civilian authority, not the other way around.
We have to make sure the next generation of our northern neighbours is not raised in the same cloud of ignorance.It lost so many of it’s brightest and most creative minds.It’s still dangerous there to talk about this time.Official history books still don’t address the mass killings.There remains a culture of impunity. Many don’t want this dark past dug up while the victims still keep suffering it’s effects, their movements restricted,their job opportunities limited.Far from facing justice,those who carried out the massacres have been long hailed as heroes who saved the country from Communism.Many openly boast of the role they played and how the army gave them a licence to kill.They and their supporters keep the mythical fear of Communism alive to further the interests of all the perpetrators.Without dealing with this dark chapter of Indonesian history,without breaking down the wall of silence,without learning the lessons,there is a greater likelihood it could be repeated.The divisions it created will continue to haunt people.
Militarism is the belief or desire of a government or people that a country should maintain a strong military capability and be prepared to use it aggressively to defend or promote national interests.It may also imply the glorification of the military and of the ideals of a professional military class and the “predominance of the armed forces in the administration or policy of the state”
Nasution’s involvement in this evil that ruled the archipelago was a consequence of his militarist glorification. It’s impossible to deny he helped lay the foundations for decades of authoritarian rule.
As with the U. S. response to 9/11, along with one’s sympathy with the loss of his daughter has to be included that with the many innocent victims.
“If people really knew [the truth], the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know and they can’t know.”
David Lloyd George British prime minister to the editor of the Manchester Guardian
“The first revolution is when you change your mind about how you look at things, and see there might be another way to look at it that you have not been shown. What you see later on is the results of that, but that revolution, that change that takes place will not be televised.”
Gil Scott Heron.
In a short period I had changed my idea of this war and the alliance totally. Too many sensitivities to tamp down were flagging up. At first my pavlovian ovation was one influenced by my roseate thoughts on the Second World War. It had conferred unquestionable prestige on men in uniform. I could now see the Emperor in his real clothes. I was an easy mark. I was only nineteen. In Vietnam every battle, every crisis was raw material for writers and the cameras. In turn the news gatherers focused the impact of every act of drama or violence for millions of viewers and readers. Now through the open eyes of others,
recoiling with revulsion at the carnage, I saw the war being prosecuted by an industry whose sole business was death . And my oh my, was this dying business booming.
Like those who ran the show, my initial understanding of the cauldron was frighteningly superficial and simplistic. I was one of the good guys, I thought, backing the establishment to make the world a better, safer place. I didn’t know enough. It was a doddle to invade Vietnam but what to do on day two if we got boxed in.Going in proved awfully simple. Getting out would be simply awful. It was one thing to beam it all back home, our boys bounding through the jungle, the feel good factor. It was another to beam back the sight of bodies in ditches and bags.
The fundamental question seemed to me was: ‘Is continuation of this war politically purposeful? Does it contribute to some outcome that either advances Australian interests or is consistent with our ostensible moral values? And the answer, of course, was no.
I realised an important law in operation that I’d observe recurring over and over my years.Almost everything in life is easier to get into than out of.
In the case of this war there were too many imponderables. They, the decision takers were making it up as they went along. We, the public, were woefully informed. I had got swept up in the momentary illusion that our involvement with such a pre-eminent power was appropriate. Like many, I had bought into a myth. For my part the more bombs they dropped on people, the lower the discomforting penny dropped for me. Not before time. I experienced an epiphany, a spiritual flash, the first of many that would change the way I viewed myself. Ding dong, I was catching on, growing sceptical of tendentious official accounts and, kept up at night, uneasy about how the war was going. It was impossible to see the corner let alone around it.
The war called everything into question. The value of honour and gallantry. the qualities of cruelty and mercy, the candour of the government and what it means to be a patriot.
I thought we Australians were the exception to history. History didn;t apply to us. We could never fight a bad war. We could never represent the wrong cause. Vietnam proved all this to be wrong.
The reality unfolding on the ground in Vietnam was chaotic. It bore little resemblance to the upbeat accounts offered by geopoliticians, generals and media outlets in the tradition of earlier wars. These life takers and heart breakers were more concerned about ink being spilled over their activities than blood.
I had had no idea the extent of the lie nor the level of deception. ‘I was assured the decision to intervene militarily was bipartisan, ’I told Russel.
‘The word bipartisan usually means some larger than usual deception is being carried out. ’
‘I was assured the war would be fast and over in a couple of shakes. ’
‘We are assured that everytime we are taken into a new one. Otherwise who would go along with it. ’
I pointed out to him, ‘Have you ever realized that the term Secretary of State contains the word ‘secret’.
‘ What’s the difference between an archaeologist and the Secretary of State?’ He asked in turn.
‘An archaeologist uncovers the unknown. The top diplomat covers the known. ’
‘You might describe this top diplomat’s work as ‘lying in state. ’
The Blood Boogaloo.
You better listen mr president
Oh boy don’t you mess up with my war, boy
I wanna do I wanna do
Lord I wanna do the Blood Boogaloo
I’m just a Redneck son of a gun
I wanna kill me a gook before dawn.
The chance “meeting engagements” described by Westmoreland involved upwards of 50 US troops ending up bagged and tagged. His press conference in October 1965, after the slaughter of 155 US troops at Landing Zone Albany, in the battle of Ia Drang was a devil of this wilful misrepresentation: ‘I consider this an unprecedented victory. At no time during the engagement were American troops forced to withdraw or move back from their positions, except for tactical manoeuvres. The enemy fled from the scene. ’ Of course we weren’t told told the real facts ‘til later.
Facing the facts flat on, with my moral squint I read critical reports by probing, unembedded journalists on the frontlines. By those who prized truth more than access to those sitting in high places.By those who who refused to frame the political discourse in terms of simple talking points and didn’t tailor their reports. I was horrified by the coldness, the calculatedness, and in particular the language of American military men. Like ‘Stomp them to death’, the words of General William De Puy, Westmoreland’s chief of operations. It would turn out they were only falling in line with their boss . In the summer of 1966, shortly before Neil Sheehan of The New York Times left to return stateside, Westmoreland did him the farewell courtesy of a personally escorted day in the field. “At one point in the trip,” Sheehan recalls later, “I asked the general if he was worried about the large number of civilian casualties from the air strikes and the shelling. He looked at me carefully. ‘Yes, Neil, it is a problem, ’ he said, ‘but it does deprive the enemy of the population, doesn’t it?”’ . If Mao had described guerrillas as fish swimming in the sea, he was going to empty the sea. His object, in his own words, was to decimate the North Vietnamese population “to the point of national disaster for generations to come. ’ Westmoreland had accepted the death of a whole countryside because he despaired of any other way to ease the secretary of defense’s disquiet or to sustain the national security adviser’s imbecile optimism.
The countryside alone, it was stressed repeatedly, was where the National Liberation Front had any real support and influence on a broad base in. Later the general opined that “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner… We value life and human dignity. They don’t care about life and human dignity.”
‘ And I suppose he does. For all he cares, the entire country could go up in flames. War is a sordid business for sure, ’ I said to Russel.
“It’s as dirty as the businesses who cash in on it, ’said Russel. ‘It reflects the demands of their representatives to get them the super profits that they want but can’t get in the usual way. In the words of von Clausewitz, ‘War is a continuation of politics by other means.” A function of class society, the capitalists of the stronger industrial states no longer wage war against each other as in the past but combine to exploit and control systematically the poorer countries. The poorer, the better. At their expense, today’s multi-nationals will better absorb the turbulent cycles of boom and depression generated.
‘The system is one of destructive creativity. Capital’s endless pursuit of new outlets for class-based accumulation requires for its continuation the destruction of both pre-existing natural conditions and previous social relations. Class exploitation, imperialism, war, and ecological devastation are not mere unrelated accidents of history but interrelated, intrinsic features of capitalist development. There has always been the danger, moreover, that this destructive creativity can turn into what has been called the “destructive uncontrollability” that is capital’s ultimate destiny. The destruction built into the logic of profit can take over and predominate, undermining not only the conditions of production but also those of life itself. ’
Today it is clear that such destructive uncontrollability has come to characterize more and more the entire capitalist world economy, fighting to encompass the planet as a whole. ’
‘When did you become aware how this destructive system is shaped?’
‘In my salad days I too was ignorant and naïve. A real schnook, I didn’t know the first thing about the relationship between politics and life. No-one, even in South Australia, could have been a more perfidiously loyal Briton than I was at 17. Like any well brought up conservative, I felt politics was to be severely avoided. Because I had no desire to change anything in the divinely ordered social arrangement of the world, it suited me very well to consider I had no politics.
‘Yet you had another think coming, Russel?’
‘It was an exercise as a cadet sergeant in my School Cadet Corps that sowed the seeds of my doubts. The enemy, we were told, was a party of unemployed rioters, led by Communist agitators who had marched off into the hills plundering farms and orchards. ‘Intelligence’ reports came in that, intoxicated with pillaged wine, they were heading towards Adelaide which we had to stop from being sacked. In what we were told was a simulation of actual warface we took up up defensive positions along the road, bushwhacking them, firing off hundreds of blank cartridges. That was my road to Damascus. The great takeaway that came out of that day was that the ultimate enemy we were training to come up against was not the Germans, French or other bodgy foreigners we learned about in history lessons, but one in our very midst- our unemployed fellow countrymen. Why did so many their authority exceed rather than heed what we were told about Jesus Christ, the prince of peace who made wars to cease unto the ends of the earth. Who loved the poor and needy. Who wept.
‘I guess they needed a class system. ’
‘Exactly. Something they use to discriminate against someone who looks like you and me. ’
‘If they can drum up a fight against enemies as white and similar in appearance to us, how much easier is it for them crying wolf, to vilify one that looks different- a poor people with different coloured skin and an epicanthic fold. ’
‘That’s when it’s easy for them to quote Matthew. “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. ’
So are you still religious,Russel? Are you afraid of not entering the gates of heaven?’’
‘I’m what you might call a practising agnostic.’
Like Einstein a ‘religious non believer’.’
‘That’s a good way to put it.
Don’t you fear the punishment meted out to nonbelievers according to abrahamic religions?’
’I believe God has a soft spot for us and our fellow irreligionists,the atheists.We never ask him or her for anything.We’re not bothering him or her all the time, ‘Please God,help me in my time of need.Please God,lead me not into temptation’ and so on and so forth.’
‘Do you ever feel like being born again?’ Believing again in god, creationism and intelligent design.’
‘I must admit on the odd occasion when I look at something as complex,intricate and intelligent as Albert Einstein, I don’t think that I just could have evolved by chance.”
David versus Goliath.
I can no longer sit back and allow, communist infiltration, communist indoctrination, communist subversion, and the international communist conspiracy, to sap and impurify all or our precious bodily fluids.
General Ripper, Dr. Strangelove
Westmoreland’s fatal flaw was that, unable to extend the war, he thought that if he confronted the communist forces directly, either on the ground or with his massive airpower, he could simply win by attrition. At the time, few in America would have believed that a suzerain power like the U. S. would have had any problems in claiming Vietnam’s scalp. One had an army based around the most prosperous economy in the world whereas Vietnam was seen as a ‘third world’ nation. It’s resistance army of peasants, at first armed with homemade and captured weapons, then with modern firearms supplied from outside, were still without an air force, navy, or heavy artillery. It was inconceivable that it could humble the global superpower.
For many in the US military, victory was only a matter of time. They believed that this time span would be short. The Communists’ death toll was very heavy, and this encouraged the delusion that the U. S. was romping home , as Westmoreland could not imagine how relatively small countries like North or South Vietnam could sustain such massive casualties.
This led to the deliberately aggressive policy policy of search and destroy, with Westmoreland seeking to draw the forces of the National Liberation Front into the open where they could be eliminated. He believed that the NLF could be defeated through saturation use of anti-personnel ordnance, high-tech mobility, and large-unit battles, air power, massive bombing, and defoliation campaigns.
Westmoreland was once asked: “What is the answer to insurgency?” He replied: “Firepower.” America needed to hit North Vietnam “surely, swiftly, and powerfully… with sufficient force to hurt”, as at Khe Sanh, where B-52s dropped more than 100, 000 tonnes of bombs over two months. And troops needed to be poured in. General Westmoreland’s tactics were simple:ring Saigon in a series of giant impenetrable forts-a direct echo of French thinking, and take the war to the enemy in the countryside, and kill him faster than he could be replaced. Where possible, apply overwhelming, stunning force. Through the sledgehammer strategy of “Harassment and interdiction fire,” anything that moved could be killed.
“A great country”, he liked to say, quoting the Duke of Wellington, “cannot wage a little war.” His idea was not to seize or hold territory but to kill enemy soldiers in their jungle redoubts. Fast machines, massive damage, quick getaway. However the resistance’s guerrilla style of warfare allowed it to dictate the strategic pace and deny the Empire it’s technological advantage. The resistance was taking the punishment, and ever and again having success in their military confrontation, but they still relentlessly pursued their political campaign from village level up. Westmoreland did not understand – nor did anyone else understand – that there was not a breaking point. Instead of breaking it’s morale, it was breaking that of the Empire.
After much reflection I concluded my call for a massive aid program to improve Vietnamese living standards was rather utopian. The Saigon regime was incapable of carrying out land reform, and with all the best will in the world, with whatever force we applied, we would always be building on sand. We were actually fighting the war to prevent Indochina from carrying out successful social and economic development. Even if we had wanted to, the Communists had control of the North and significant support in the South . Besides, the Americans, putting aid on the backburner, still felt they were militarily invincible.
What about working through the U. N.?
With both the USA and USSR able to veto decisions, the UN was a nullity in cases in which there was any element of superpower conflict. A ‘neutral’ government with NLF participation could have been only temporary or superficial.
Enough is Enough.
“Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”
Albert Einstein – in an essay written at age 17 for his school exams.
“Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
Like most of the rest of the world I came to loathe the wholesale destruction heaped on Indochina by the prosecution of the war. I was at odds with my enlistment. It was the stabs of my conscience, not my bayonet that would now be my prod . No more soldierly silly buggers . No more training to chase ghosts through the jungle.
‘ That does it!’I said.‘I wouldn’t touch these warlords with a bargepole now,”I told Russel. ‘Not on your life. I’ve been had. I fell for their line, hook, line and sinker. They’ve led me along. Where they’re going to is the edge of darkness-but not in my name. I’m sick to death of it . ’
‘Now you’re talking. It was only a question of time until your gorge would rise, ’ he said. ‘You can be forgiven for feeling betrayed. I’m going to give it to you straight. They’re pulling the wool over most peoples’ eyes’, said Russel. ‘Putting the big one put over them’.
‘Come in spinner! ‘
‘In war, as is often said, truth is still the first casualty, the corpse of commonsense a close second and information is as powerful as bullets. To defend their precious ‘credibility’, they’re selling a big pack of lies, ’ ‘ ‘‘Pellets of poison flooding the waters, ’ Dylan has put it. How can they justify these lies?’
They don’t see them as lies. They convince themselves they’re just stretching the truth, revising it’s parameters.They see the truth as but a lie undiscovered.’
’‘Does it have to be that way?
‘Suppose you were a member of Parliament and suppose you were a liar- but I repeat myself. ’
‘So what’s true in their stories isn’t new and what’s new in their stories isn’t true. ’ ‘Most politicians lie between their teeth all the time, not just occasionally, but all the time. ’‘How do we know when they prevaricate so?’
‘The cynical answer is that it’s when their mouths are moving. Of course not everything these pinocchios say is a lie, but anything they say could be a lie. Then there are the few who can handle the truth. ’‘Like all good Americans, following the example of George Washington. Not only doing something senseless and destructive like chopping down a cherry tree, but admitting to it immediately. ’ ‘If only this romantic legend was true. Do you know why I think his father wouldn’t have stuck it to him?’ ‘ George still had the hatchet in his hand. ’‘Whatever will happen to the truth if Nixon ever gets into the White House. Washington couldn’t tell a lie, Johnson can’t tell the truth, and Nixon can’t tell the difference. ’‘Unfortunately in the case of these wartime atrocities it’ll take time for the truth to come to light. ’
‘I feel shameful I didn’t cotton on to this much sooner, I said eating crow. ‘I feel a real chump. Mind you, I meant well. In all conscience I wasn’t trying to ingratiate myself with them. I felt safe to assume what they were doing was for the protection of our people and country. I believed our leaders had integrity by definition. I wasn’t applying to be part of any imperialist cheer squad. I don’t want any more affiliations with these hitmen, the blood of innocents on my hands. I don’t want any mark on my record as an accomplice to crimes against humanity. ’
‘Look Allan, every national grouping is capable of the most brutal acts and the most self-righteous excuses. Like any national entity, the Vietnamese themselves are no angels. They are obviously a divided people, but our barging in only inflames that. All people must have the right to rule-or misrule themselves. We’ve got a job of our own- righting the wrongs in our own country. We have to look at the moral failures of other nations not in isolation, but against our own . ’
‘Touché. Failures I failed to see.You’re the only one I’ve told about these. Otherwise how could I ever live this down. ’
‘Allan, said Russel, ‘ our ideas do not spring like Athena, fully-armed from Zeus’s brow. Nothing in politics grows in a vacuum. Our masters do all in their power to ensure they’re not exposed as the liars and killers that they are. Any countervailing currents take time to flow . There’s no benefit in self flagellation. The older you grow the more you’ll realise you are but a child of your age.‘I guess everybody has the right to be suckered once, ’I said defensively. ’ To not see they’re entitled to an even break. ’‘As long as they don’t abuse the privilege , Allan. Sure, while only fools go walking on thin ice, twice, everybody has the right to be a dunce, once. You’re only young once. After that you have to think up some other excuse. Then when I became a student, I listened intently to all shades of opinion, running my own by others before casting my lot. I too was impressed by the rhetoric of certain’ ideologues whose views I would differ from. I once attended the inter-university debating competition in Sydney. The debater who impressed me as the canniest- and most fanatical- was Bob Santamaria. Many since, just as fanatical though usually in different directions, were not nearly as clever, nor, it is fair to add, possessed of such a powerful mind. This silver tongued devil preached incessantly the virtues of Franco’s Falange, of the Spanish rebels, and of Franco himself.
To back up these views, he passionately expounded a whole theory of authoritarianism. Fascism in Germany, Italy or elsewhere was the gold standard of government, the most viable to which modern man could aspire, and all human history went to prove it. Art, science and learning, he argued had always flourished most under royal, imperial or dictatorial rule;the more authoritarian the better. In this respect Louis , the Sun-King, was the nonpareil of all times, though the absolute and continuing moral authority the Pope ought to wield over all living creatures was even more important. As debaters go, never an ‘um’ or an ‘er’, Santa seemed the best alive, but I was never converted wholly to his point of view-then or ever. ’‘You never became one of Santa’s little helpers, those little elves and sprites who do his bidding?’‘I’d never be a subordinate claus. I endorse the general welfare clause. ’‘I’ve got a lot to learn. ’ ‘You haven’t had the benefit up to now of exposure to such a wide range of views. As this war unfolds further, the clearer your understanding of the issues involved will be.
And so it came to pass. The more I read about this war, the more my doubts multiplied as to its morality and its direction. I would have to live with myself over this and needed to be sure. I had to be on the right side of history. By virtue of my training and leisure, I had to man up more than ordinary citizens for the actions of the state. To strip back the coats of lies and deception. To go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere. It was my special responsibility to call it like I saw it. To replace my initial nescience with wiser prescience.
I was part of the generation that I held responsible for getting our country out of that war. When asked by our children what we did about it, not to be stuck for an answer. Ours was to reason why, not to cop out, follow and fiddle blindly while Vietnam burned. My country right not wrong.
Some might invoke Horace: ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ -It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country-but wasn’t it Horace who claimed that he saved himself in battle by throwing away his shield and fleeing.
One strong message coming out of Vietnam was that the war was taking a severe psychological toll on U. S. servicemen. They were bringing it home with them. Terms like ‘acute depressive reaction’ amongst American soldiers began appearing in reports. They were being left with invasive memories, nightmares, loss of concentration, feelings of guilt, irritability and hallucinations. Servicemen may return home as tainted intruders likely to seek continuing outlets for a pattern of violence to which they have become habituated. ’
‘What’s being brought to public attention is the trauma they’ve endured as a result of their service to their country. And some don’t have to have experienced combat. They’ve contracted ‘le cafard’, said Russel, ‘as did the Frenchmen before them. ’
‘Cafard’ is French for cockroach, isn’t it?’
‘It is and all, and I’ll explain why in a minute. One of it’s more malignant symptoms is a hatred of everything and everyone, with urges to kill others and oneself. With these moods the slightest irritation can set them off. ’
‘Is this condition peculiar to soldiers in Vietnam?’I asked.
‘The term originated from the French colonies in general. Members of the French Foreign Legion suffered extreme boredom in their stockades and took to letting fly at cockroaches (les cafards) with their rifles. ’
‘So it’s about men in the army going barmy. When time crawls like a sick cockroach. Is it in all armies?’ I asked. ’
‘In all armies and navies since time immemorial. ’
‘What brings this longueur about and how do military personnel deal with it?’
‘It’s caused inevitably by regimentation, hardship and prolonged separation from wives and loved ones. It can happen in the pre-embarkation period and during the de-mobilisation period. It can happen in forward or staging areas. Common soldiers since civilization began have found effective means of releasing psychological pressure. In extreme solitude the individual soldier has to deal with it in the same way as prisoners in isolation do to get through. When time slows down they have to fill it.’
‘A watched pot never boils.’
Between madness and sanity there’s a shifting boundary and in solitude one must push away from the border of madness. One has to look for any little bit of life, admire it and study it. The ants, the cobwebs, even the rats that gather crumbs in the middle of the night. ’
‘The birds of the air that perch on one’s window sill, ’I said thinking of Burt Lancaster as the Birdman of Alcatraz.
‘Those too. These are insignificant things in the normal world. But each of these things is a universe. As diverting as that of our fellow humans. ’
‘I remember reading ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’. To pass the time, the German soldiers in the trenches competed amongst themselves to smash the corpse rats. To vary their diet, the rats skittered brazenly amongst them to snatch the piles of rotten, mouldy bread away. Their tiny pink feet ran between the men’s legs and through the deadly gauntlet of carefully aimed boots and stabbing bayonets. In the film ‘King and Country’, the British soldiers court martial and execute a trench rat for biting the ear of one of them. ’
‘You can see it in‘The Long and the Short and the Tall’. Remember Private Bamforth played by Laurence Harvey. He’s bedded down in the Burmese jungle with his small British sonic war patrol, sent to investigate the movements and strength of the Japanese opposition. And what do we see Private Banforth doing in the dilapidated store-hut?’
‘He’s prancing around , dancing with his arms around his comrades, singing “Hey-jig-a-jig”. All these pressures come to bear in this drama , don’t they?’’I said. ‘Hindered by a malfunctioning radio, the young recruits, far from home, face a futile but perilous stand-off with Japanese forces. They can’t guess whether or when to move on. Sweating it out in the intense heat and humidity of the jungle, rain dripping down from the roof and steam rising up through the thick undergrowth, they curse those who sent them, and each other.
‘Men invent neurotic patterns of ritualistic criticizing, if only symbolically those responsible for their boredom, depression or pointlessness’, Russel said.
‘This claustrophobic story, is shot through with all these feelings, isn’t it? The army banter is all about military incompetence and how poorly led they are, the sergeant who, despite his best efforts, is worse than useless at leading. The young privates exchanging insults, revel in the exotic natures of each others’ regional identities as though Britain contained the whole human race and the rest of the world were made up only of faceless enemy soldiers. There’s lots they don’t know about their own countrymen and women. They confront the enemy within when class tensions and personal rivalries erupt. They threaten each other. ’
‘’And can lead them to do terrible things. ’This comes with ‘Le cafard’, ’said Russel,. ‘the collective name for all the inconceivable stupidities, excesses and crimes which jangled nerves can commit. ’
‘All this reminds me of ‘The Bedford Incident’ which I saw recently. The skipper of this ship is all triggered up, geared to humiliate a Russian submarine in Arctic waters. Chainsmoking, his stomach tied up in knots, he’s frustrated from the endless hours of waiting, the uncertainty and doubt. Whacked up, he’s fuming, feeling ‘trussed, tired and nailed to the wall ’ because the High Command is holding him back. The situation was abnormal, inhuman and dangerous. A mistaken command could lead to a nuclear explosion. ’
‘Le Cafard has become the ubiquitous shorthand for the blackness of the soldier’s situation, a very unnatural one. The paralysing fear and anguish in the face of death, about what could come their way in a split second. Horrors they may not face every day, but once in a while that something unexpected will happen that has the power to completely reshape the rest of their lives. The way they react to it, deal with it and move on, is what can be truly inspiring.
However in “cafard” murder hides, and suicide and mutiny. It means self mutilation and impromptu flight. It is the height of madness and the depth of despair. It can start with the enlisted man gloomy, sitting glumly on his bed for hours, speaking to no one, answering with gross insults, doing the queerest things. Suddenly the madness may turn into a senseless explosion or fit of fury; men suffering from a bad case of “le cafard” will run a bayonet through their comrade’s ribcage, without any reason, without any outward cause. ’
‘I wonder why. Where do we find it at it’s worst?’
‘The “cafard” in a legion is at its worst the more distant the region, the more desolate the outpost, the more extreme and unfamiliar the climate. When the sun burns down relentlessly from the cloudless, deep blue sky, the wind-whipped sand stings the face, when the steaminess of the jungle clogs the body’s pores, this is time for ‘le cafard’.
‘It sounds like ‘going ‘troppo’, ’I said, ‘as my father and our men in the Pacific theatre called it. ’
‘For young men , closer to the frontlines, under tremendous stress, the fear, loneliness and firearms can be a deadly cocktail. A lot of do-it-yourself and accidental deaths in war are labelled as combat casualties, but in fact due to soldiers falling prey to ‘le cafard. ’ It doesn’t help that the military is permeated with a cult of machismo that does not allow anyone to show fear or weakness. And it’s not something the army will encourage you to study up. ’
‘I guess so, Russel. ’
‘ I know so, Allan. I worked amongst men affected so during the War’, he replied.
‘What steps do the military take to counter this malaise?’
‘Well as you know to defuse frustrations and boost morale, they send movie and radio entertainers to perform for military audiences at bases wherever. In the jungle, in the desert, and in all weathers.
They brought comfort to isolated outposts and combat zones. The British did this famously with concert units that included Vera Lynn and Peter Sellers. ’
‘And the Americans with Bob Hope’, I said.
‘Exactly. help to break the monotony, ease the loneliness and give the troops in combat zones across Vietnam a couple of hours splitting their sides laughing—and a memory for a lifetime. For the few who get to his shows , it takes their minds off their surroundings and the goings on even if only for a little while. ’
‘Those who see him perform in Vietnam say his shows make them feel they are not forgotten in this increasingly unpopular war. They believe- right or wrong- that their sacrifices, in their war, are as important as the “Big One” in which their fathers fought. ’
‘It must be hard to get laughs in such a setting? A lot of his jokes are tritely twee, I must admit. ’
‘ All successful comedians have to dissect contemporary culture, politics and changing societal mores. Hope’s classic opening monologues of rapid-fire jokes always take jabs at the GIs and the specifics of the local situation. His country club putter patter has had to take on a sharper edge. He’s not going to get away with the same material on soldiers in Vietnam as with his usual family oriented audiences. His shtick includes a constant, sometimes bawdy banter with the other performers, taking plenty of shots at the absurdities of military life while conveying a real sense of how difficult it is for the troops to be away from home during the holidays. He’s also making recreational drug use in America and among troops in Vietnam his comedic target. Oh thud and blunder! He’s started appearing onstage in military uniform shirts and jackets outlandishly decorated with patches, stripes, stars and insignias. ’
‘A few Christmases ago his troupe flew next to Cam Ranh Bay, where Bob scolded the troops: “I don’t know what you guys did to get here, but let that be a lesson to you!” Baking in the hot sun, the troops roared in agreement. The tenor of his Christmas tour last year reflects changing attitudes in the United States regarding the course of the war, and Hope’s flippancy didn’t shy away from it. He reassured the troops that “the country is behind you 50 percent.” He then added, “I’m very happy to be here; I’m leaving tomorrow!” Now Russel, tell me about your own work with servicemen going troppo. ’
Thereby hangs a tale, Allan. I’ll tell you that one another occasion. ’