Volume LII Number 4
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A little while ago, some memoirs of mine appeared in Quadrant. They were memories of events in which I was both observer and participant. There was one on our Depression; a couple of pieces retailing some experiences of mine in our wartime army; and finally, one on radical politicking in England during the 1950s, namely, the anti-Suez episode and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Some friends then suggested another shaggy dog or two, on Second World War soldiers and wartime Australia; whereas a few others suggested something on the sixties: the anti-Vietnam and peace movements, the counter-culture, and so on. They thought that these followed naturally from the radical protests of the previous decade, and not merely chronologically.
In fact, these events had little resemblance or connection with one another, but my peers of the forties and the youth of the sixties do. My peers and I went back to civvy street; many of us got an education, virtually all got jobs, and most set out to acquire a wife, a house and children. A family: that haven in a heartless world. From the ranks of these children of ours, came the student rebels, Australian Red Guards, and counter-culturalists of the sixties.
Their parents, we were told at the time, were part of a system of repressive tolerance and false consciousness, which bourgeois capitalism had erected in order to deprive successive generations of young people of their freedom and potency. All this had come from guru intellectuals—Marcuse, Reich, and so forth—with Kinsey doubtless giving his blessing. The family, the school, the church were all vassal-factories, which broke in the young, as you break in young horses. After which, the now-damaged products were ready for a lifetime of work, and duty—and if necessary, war. How our students must have been suffering! And we, their parents, did that!
And it was all so unjust: for me and my mob certainly hadn’t passed our time seeking out rules to worship and obey, or people to salute. The only time I tried to click my heels, I nearly fell over.
We didn’t come into the forces slavering with a work ethic, and we left them without spilling a drop. But we had grown up, learnt to work hard and enjoy it—some always had—and co-operated. And some of us learned to take responsibility for ourselves and others. If that’s brainwashing, we were brainwashed. Really ... these old German-American and German-Jewish leftist sociologists and born-again revolutionists were ridiculous: but as Keith Windschuttle said, “We were very easily led.” But the kids wanted to believe this stuff—which was about them—and join in the new blame game.
The occupation of appraising the sixties is back in season, yet again, so, the Weekend Australian magazine for January 5-6 this year ran a feature, “1968”. On the magazine’s front cover was “1968”, and below, “It began as a time of peace, love and psychedelia. But then the dreams were shattered.” The dreams had been shattered for many when they were called up in 1965; Australian soldiers had been killed long before 1968. Anti-Vietnam movements had taken off in 1965—I should know—and the various organisations had reached such a level of activity and penetrated the consciousness of sufficient numbers of the public for Labor, under Calwell, to campaign in the 1966 federal election on an anti-war platform. We suffered a most serious defeat. If you like, the timing was wrong, and the public was not yet convinced, although three short years later Gorton very nearly lost to Whitlam with his sotto voce anti-Vietnam policies.
So the psychedelic experiences of some of the Australian’s contributors were, in a sense, after the ball was over, although I’m sure that this is all that many sixties radicals remember of this period, for that was all they did. Dope, parties, the sexual revolution, larking around in the streets and campuses, with little threat to life and limb. And that, for them, and for our latter-day journalists, is what makes a revolutionary critical mass: x number of hooligans plus one.
Most of the contributors featuring in the Australian came from Sydney, where many things operated differently, but there was one contributor from Melbourne—my town—who says that the prevailing atmosphere of Melbourne at that time was one of oppression (that is, a lot of people disagreeing with him). For one thing, “the Government was trying to kill us”. Second, “they were hanging people”. “They were seizing our books!” (And such books! Lady Loverley’s Chatter, and so on. Admittedly, raunchier than Radclyffe Hall.) “I’ve never forgiven the Liberal Party for conscription. To this day I never vote for them, because they wanted to kill me.” And that’s what it was all about. One of the Me Generation might’ve got killed.
Our editor, Keith Windschuttle, made a quite different kind of contribution. He finishes by saying that since 1990 he has been recanting the views “we expressed then, because in a lot of ways they were disastrous”. He is trying to atone for what he did ... to serve his penance.
I don’t think anyone got that war right, from beginning to end. Or the social revolution which followed it. Those who insist they got things right from the beginning, and have nothing to atone for, remind me of Edith Piaf. Or else Walt Whitman: “I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself.”
I never held many of the exciting opinions of the anti-war contributions to this Australian feature; and I always felt, “a pox on the counter-culture”. It was irrelevant. But I kick myself for many mistakes. First, as usual, I was a hopeless judge of human nature. I thought the students, for example, didn’t oppose conscription because they were afraid of being killed, but because they thought the war was unjust—they hated the taking of human life—and they feared that they might have to kill others, including civilians.
I think I got that wrong. I don’t think many students knew about, or cared about, or believed in, a Just War. Or an unjust one. Bob Santamaria and I did, but I wonder who else. And they didn’t mind the Viet Cong, or the Maoists, taking lives by whatever means they chose. As I told some student leader: “If the Viet Minh had aircraft, they’d bomb defenceless villages. If they had napalm, they’d use it. And when they felt like using torture, they used it. No—you’re not in a position to play Holy Joe. I can, because I think both sides are now conducting unjust wars. They should make peace, or have it imposed upon them.” Naturally, this made me very popular on both sides.
When (after an absence of nine years) I returned to Australia in 1964, the Vietnam War had been going, in one form or another, for twenty years. But it was never really big news here. The few political activists were focused on Europe, the Cold War, and events in Africa and Indonesia. At Monash, my new kip, there were healthy political clubs, including a good DLP club. But also there were many other clubs formed, or forming, and most students were joining these. Generally, most students studied, and enjoyed life, and felt grateful and excited to be going to university.
The coming of the draft shattered the dream these people are talking about. The government is trying to kill me! Get me out of here! Without conscription there would have been no mass anti-war movement.
Now this desire to avoid a dangerous experience, or to avoid suffering a negative transformation of your lifestyle, is perfectly normal. Selfish, mainly. Cowardly, perhaps. But not really needing a battery of moral and ideological reasoning to justify what, for many people, comes naturally. Just ask Thomas Hobbes.
But once students had learnt that they weren’t likely to go into the forces, for there seemed to be so many ways by which a middle-class kid could keep out (as against working-class kids), everything changed. Given the good news—not called up in the ballots, or else deferred—the tempo altered. Many students simply faded back into the student body, but many moved to the counter-culture, and Mao’s Little Red Book. Then, life was sweet and psychedelic.
A few years later, the dreams of not a few were shattered again, when the war ended. Our sedentary heroes feared that they’d no longer have an excuse to go wandering down the streets, shouting, locking themselves in the dunnies of some bank or corporation and tearing up all the paper, while waiting for the photographers; storming the filing cabinets in their own administration, and rummaging through other people’s files. Oh, and I nearly forgot: insulting and provoking the “pigs”. With the end of Vietnam, these dreams appeared at an end, and the fearful prospect of work, and taking some responsibilities, appeared—like an evil apparition. But as we know, the structured delinquency and Pavlovian exhibitionism has lived on, as a lifestyle, for those seeking a new cause with some new banners.
To go back to conscription, and the resistance of many of the young to the martial experience: conscription would not have been necessary had the young men among the DLP and the Liberals been ready to do what, in their opinion, others should be forced to do. Namely, they should have taken the Queen’s shilling, joined up, and helped keep the Reds out and Australia white. But our poltroons of the Right, in the main, didn’t join up, though they weren’t averse to presenting the equivalent of the white feather to youths seeking to conscientiously object.
The real heroes were the soldiers engaged in an apparently endless struggle, and the poor locals caught in between with no place to hide. I remember little sympathy for our men, but beatification of the enemy soldiers and their scungy Great Power allies—who also wanted the war to continue, ad nauseam, and bleed America to death. For our new juvenile cognoscenti, the only solution to this was total victory—for the communists—and total surrender by us.
Then there was the question of outside influences, including foreign sources, upon the actions and agendas of our peaceniks. Ever since the First Fleet, we have had to accept that the issues, the arguments, and the organisational modes of our social and intellectual life should be derivative—other people’s flowers. The Vietnam War debate here, on both sides, consisted almost entirely of adaptations of overseas propaganda. The student groups on campus were convinced they did it all spontaneously, themselves. Whereas older, and often considerably older, figures were supplying home-cooked advice, propaganda, even directions, from the fringes.
For example, there was one week when the pro-war student paper described me as the undercover communist who was masterminding the struggle at Monash and elsewhere, while the Left rag described me—on the same day—as the running-dog of the CIA. Fame! In fact, I knew the outsiders who wrote the copy. The conventional anti-war movement, if you could call it that, had a variety of backers, all with their own agendas. The CPA, the Marxist-Leninists, various Left religious groups, a wedge of anarchists, Trotskyists and so on; long-standing peace and women’s groups, some of which, at least, seem to have been turned into pro-communist fronts years before. Then, there were those with no strings, and no connections, but just against the war. The genuine opponents. Most critics of the war, in the real community, were of this kind—but sadly under-represented, right through the period of public debate.
As I became acquainted with the shonky backgrounds of more and more of these protest groups, their predictable and essentially inauthentic reactions to events, I realised I shouldn’t be there. For the traditional left-wing groups, Vietnam was just another Station of the Cross, on the way to ... what? Oh, the Revolution.
When masses of Arts students started to pour out onto the labour market, from the beginning of the 1970s, the best jobs, often the only jobs, for the low achievers—this low achievement often the result of three years of playing revolutionary or campus bohemian—were in school-teaching, or the low churches. So our school staffs have been heavily weighed down, over the years, by autodidacts, who usually have been deadheads earlier, helped across the line by the emerging sub-culture of recycling, plagiarism, and doctors’ certificates. In the ensuing three decades, these dead souls from the sixties have gained virtual hegemony over education, the arts, and latterly the media. The accession of the Untermensch. Which only goes to show what shallow roots these institutions had struck here in the first place.
The Quadrant Book of Poetry: 2001 - 2010
edited by Les Murray