Being brave

The defining issue for me in 1966 was the Vietnam war, partly because that year I turned 20. All 20-year-old men were in a lottery whether they liked it or not, to see if a marble with their birth date on it came up. If it did, you were conscripted into the army for two years’ service, with a high likelihood of being sent to Vietnam.

As a university student studying liberal arts, I was almost naturally against the war. Only a few brave souls in my psychology and history classes supported it openly. To get a real debate going you needed to pit economics or engineering students against us long-hairs. Outside the university, I was in a very different zone, whether at one of my factory jobs or having dinner with my girlfriend’s parents. Her dad was a WW11 veteran who believed we had to stop the commies in Vietnam the same way he did with the Japanese in New Guinea in 1943. Any other view was stupid and possibly traitorous. Most of the time I shut up, but we did get into a few heated arguments that ended with both of us red-faced, sullen and unpopular with the rest of the family.

Australia went ‘All the way with LBJ’ immediately after the USA got involved in the war, and within a few months in 1966 I think about 200 Australian soldiers were killed and many more wounded. On campus, we talked about it every day, and many of us took part in the first of the ‘Vietnam Moratorium’ marches that went on until Australia announced its withdrawal in 1972.

As my ballot came closer, I started to read up on the causes of the current conflict, and about the experiences of conscientious objectors in recent wars. In 1966, saying no would mean two years in jail, and it sounded as if that would be a hostile environment for people branded as cowards. I was beginning to realise that it was only the truly brave ones who went down that route.

In those last few weeks I withdrew into myself on this issue, torn about what to do if my number came up. Part of me was attracted to the adventure of traveling to Asia to test myself in challenging situations. I never wanted to kill anyone, so I romanticised about being selected for intelligence work, anticipating the plans of the enemy, and working out how to ‘win the hearts and minds’ of the Vietnamese people. But I couldn’t even fool myself with that line, knowing that whatever part you play in a war, in the end it’s about who wins lethal combat, and about the hapless civilians whose lives are lost or ruined in the process.

The night before, I sat at my study desk for a couple of hours, supposedly trying to write an essay, but completely distracted. Was I prepared to go to jail? Was I completely sure that I knew what I was talking about in opposing this war? Why should other young men risk their lives if I wasn’t prepared to? Could this be the biggest experience of my life, one that I would be a fool to miss? I believed I had to have this sorted before I found out about my marble, so around midnight I made a decision. I would go quietly if I was conscripted, because I didn’t want to go to jail.

That moment was a shocking one for me. All my commitment to the anti-Vietnam movement seemed hollow and pretentious now; I had shied away at the first hurdle. I felt pretty sure I was making the right decision, but I didn’t know what it would be like to live with the consequences. I thought I might come to see myself as a coward for not sticking to my principles. I went to bed clear about my decision, but too tense to sleep. By the next morning, looking in the bathroom mirror I saw a worried stranger, someone who had arrived at this place without any clarity about why.

I went to lunch in the university refectory, and then walked with three of my friends to the building in Currie Street where the marbles were rolled around in a glass sphere. We were all jittery and a bit loud, feeling quite powerless. I didn’t talk about my decision of the night before, still too confused to say anything coherent about it.

My date didn’t come up, but my best friend’s did. We went to have a beer nearby, and he talked non-stop, rattled about how to finish his studies, finish renovating his beloved MGTC, tell his girlfriend and tell his parents. He went on to be selected for officer training (largely because he was an ‘old boy’ from an exclusive college) and went to Vietnam. He stayed in the army, retiring twenty years later as a Major.

As for me, I felt a huge anti-climax. I’d made my decision, I had to live with what I would have done, but nobody knew about the process I’d gone through. I was lucky enough to have one good conversation about that with my father a few days later. He thought it was uncannily like his own experience in WW11, where his pacifism proved very shallow when several of his best friends went off to fight, a couple never to return. He tried to enlist, but because of his scientific work, he was deemed to be in ‘essential services’ that had to be maintained. He said; ‘You’re lucky to be out of it, so just leave it at that.’

It wasn’t that simple. I think those days defined me as a middle of the road type on most issues. I found myself watching passionate people exhorting the rest of us to action, and reserving my judgement about whether they really knew what they were talking about. I became much more likely to think ‘Let’s see what they actually do rather than accepting what they say’. I’m happy to watch and wait before I’m a bit clearer what it is people believe in strongly enough to back themselves. I hope that makes me sceptical, but not cynical. It wasn’t a bad outcome overall. Over time I came to accept that my process around the conscription issue was OK, a productive bit of growing up. I think even now it helps explain why I go with the flow most of the time, but when I make decisions, I stick to them, even if it means being a bit lonely.

Fifteen years later, I worked with a man who decided he would say no, and when his marble did come up, he went to jail for two years. He had a bad time there, with most guards and fellow prisoners treating him as a coward who had let his country down. Now, as a family social worker, he was quiet, kind and widely respected. No matter how challenging our clients might be, and some were real heart-breakers for us, lurching from one terrible decision to the next, Phil stuck with them. He taught me the meaning of ‘walking alongside’, when your clients have even given up on themselves. I guess we all go on different routes to find our strengths. Phil and I went opposite ways on one decision. Was he braver than me? I thought so at the time, and maybe I still do, sometimes at least, when I’m not too impressed with myself. But you can be tested anytime, and I try to hold on to the memories of when I know I did the brave thing. Everybody’s got some.

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