Kari McKern: Sixty years and twenty-seven days ago Australia sent 30 advisors to Vietnam

Aug 30, 2022
Tan An, Vietnam War 1970
Image: Flickr / manhhai

That war has lessons for us today.

Although initially enjoying broad support due to the perceived threat of the rise of communism in Southeast Asia, an anti-war movement slowly developed in Australia during the sixties.

Protestors were confronted with pervasive myths in the anti-Communist atmosphere of the Cold War: The Yellow Peril and the ‘Domino Theory held sway.

Conventional wisdom at the time had it that should Vietnam fall to the “International Communist conspiracy” Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia would soon follow.

Academics, students and activists who questioned this conclusion and the leading role of the United States as the ‘World Policeman’ in the 1960’s and therefore the ANZUS failsafe against the “Asian hordes”, were hated and vilified, it got you an ASIO file. Being identified in a protest marked you as a dupe, a fellow traveller and suspected communist.

Protestors, had, in turn, become radicalised by looking into the actual evidence and history of the war, they were affronted by the deliberately concocted lies-the lie that our Government had been invited to intervene by the South Vietnam Government; the lie of Two Vietnams; the lie of ‘Aggression from the North’.

That the whole stupid bloodletting was based on what David Habersham called, in his history of the war “A Bright Shining Lie”.

(See”Streets against the Vietnam War’: A Timeline History of Australian Protest 1962-1972” looks at events from the point of view of the Labor left in Victoria.)

As a junior space cadet it was confusing and horrible, the anxiety of the Cuban missile crisis ran into the battle for Skaro and the war between the Thals and the Kaleds was fought in the jungles of Vietnam.

Sometime after `On the Beach` but before humans has landed on the moon, I had fairly concluded that nuclear weapon states carry a spell that guarantees them the tragedy of the Kaleds. That nuclear states appoint Davros and turn into Daleks.

And I decided that men who could think to turn spaceships into mega death were evil. No exceptions, no ifs and no buts. That half of the scientists and the technologists on the planet, the people I most respected and admired in the world, were working on weapons made me feel ashamed to be human.

What an awful cosmic joke we can be.

Nothing that’s happened since has served to change my mind on the wisdom of Western Civilisation lugging around that Sword of Damocles.

Even George F. Keenan, the architect of containment, called for disarmament at the end of the Cold War and and warned against the expansion of NATO in 1997.

Alas, a civilisation occasionally births an Empire and then the human family gets so caught up in a fight over the best room they forget they are one household and at risk of burning the house down.

Probably the reason is because, like, Dionysius in the legend, all Empires commit cruelties in their rise to power and therefore are burdened with an unacknowledged fear of having done to them what they once did to others.

Better to make senseless war than acknowledge we’re not all we’re cracked up to be; that our claims to an enlightened exceptionalism are as delusional as the Kaleds.

That there are two sides to every war.

The most astonishing thing to me about the war that began last February is that, just like in Vietnam, only the good stories are being told and that our adversaries have been reduced to monstrous madmen and evil dictators whose motives are said to be inexplicable but who’s goals include world domination.

Well I don’t know about you but in 2022 that sounds like the politics of projection, the paranoid exceptionalism of our alliance partner’s runaway military industrial complex.

Sadly we must seriously consider if the current government of Ukraine may be a geo-political artifact and creature of its foreign supporters, as was the Diem regime and therefore ultimately unworthy of support and the the best outcome is a change of government and peace in a Ukraine divided by war like Vietnam before it.

But whatever the outcome of the war, the great shame for me is that in 2022 at every level, we seem even less capable of respectful disagreement then we did in my childhood. Surely a true democracy would intuitively understand that the diversity of opinion is a society’s strength and that war and peace are the most serious topics of all.

Not to mention that we have set the planet alight anyway and there’s no more time for warrior bullshit, we are already in a flat chat race for utopia or dust.

As Joseph Campbell warned us. `The national idea, with the flag as totem, is today an aggrandiser of the nursery ego, not the annihilator of an infantile situation. It’s parody-rituals of the parade ground only serve the tyrant dragon, not the God in whom self-interest is annihilate.`

I tell you that not only can you disagree over the war in Ukraine, you must.

In any case, as a citizen and former servant of a state where dissent is lawful, I feel it’s my sad public duty to condemn our participation in armed conflict in Europe.

If you disagree with me, I’m sorry about that. Just don’t imagine that supporting the war means you’re a patriotic Australian and I’m not.

Abraham Lincoln observed ‘Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?’.

Well, I think by now we should do be doing a lot better and making love, not war.

Peace, people.

Kari McKern grew up in Coogee, travelled widely in her 20s. Once a Third Division Officer at the ABS and Library IT specialist at the State Library of NSW. She describes herself as passionately engaged with the region.

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