Melbourne, Australia – Bob Manz was 19 years old when, in 1967, he received his conscription notice for service in the Australian Army during the Vietnam War.
“I was about to turn 20,” he told Al Jazeera. “It didn’t feel real to me – it never felt real to me that I could end up in Vietnam with flying bullets.”
In 1964, the Australian government pledged to send troops to Vietnam to support the United States.
On a trip to the White House, then Prime Minister Harold Holt said his nation would “go all the way with LBJ (Lyndon B. Johnson)” – even if that meant conscripting young people. men like Bob in “national service”.
Still, Bob – and many young men like him – would take the dramatic step of becoming a draft resister; someone who was required to join the military for service by law, but who would actively refuse to do so.
“When I became a draft resister I was doing it because I wanted to do whatever I could to prevent the Australian government from participating in the war on the grounds that it was an unjust war,” he said. .
Bobbie Oliver, Senior Lecturer at the University of Western Australia, is currently researching and writing a book on conscientious objectors and draft resisters.
His research revealed that between 1961 and 1972, over 60,000 Australians served in the Vietnam War, a third of whom were conscripts.
Of the 521 Australians who died in action, nearly half were enlisted in the military.
But conscription also met fierce resistance.
Oliver said the conscription was unpopular because it was not obtained with the consent of the public or Parliament.
“When national service was brought back in 1964, it very quickly became that the option was to send conscripts to Vietnam,” she told Al Jazeera, noting that opposition to the project was also swayed. by the protest movement in the United States.
“There was no referendum. It was not agreed upon by both sides of Parliament or anything. We just announced that this would happen. This is one of the reasons there was such a strong objection to this national service program.
An “ undeclared war ”
April 25 marks ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand, when residents of both countries remember the various conflicts their troops have been involved in, often in partnership – New Zealand has also sent troops in Vietnam, but not conscripts.
But while the day highlights the sacrifice and personal commitment of those who went to war, little is recognized by those who opposed such conflicts, often at considerable personal cost.
Oliver said those who refused to serve would initially seek conscientious objector status, which meant going to court and proving strict adherence to pacifism, usually on religious grounds.
However, she said that “around 1967 and 1968 there were a lot more people who just refused to comply.
“Many did not oppose for Christian reasons or for any form of religious motive – many specifically opposed the Vietnam War which was an undeclared war,” she said.
For young men who would either become draft resisters or conscientious objectors, the penalty for failing to comply with the military plan or for not proving outright pacifism could be severe – including long prison terms in some cases. military or civilian prisons.
Teacher William “Bill” White was one of the first publicly known opponents when, in 1966, his conscientious objector claim was rejected by the courts.
After refusing to heed the other notices of appeal, he was dragged out of his home by the police and jailed.
In 1969, the two-year imprisonment of conscript John Zarb in Melbourne’s notorious Pentridge Prison also drew large protests, with the government eventually releasing him after 10 months.
Oliver said his research reveals “some pretty horrific stories in the way they were treated. [in prison] – kept bread and water, woke up every hour and night, said to get up and give his name, rank and number.
– Russell Crowe (@russellcrowe) April 24, 2021
It’s not a very popular point of view… but for me, Anzac Day is more and more historically irrelevant. We commemorate the war, but not those who fought it.
I am ready for strong opposition to what I just tweeted.#nzpol
– DRD (@NZedAUS) April 24, 2021
These sanctions – along with social and family exclusion and harassment – meant that some conscientious objectors and draft resisters ended up with psychological scars.
“People have had experiences of former co-workers or parents who refused to talk to them afterwards,” Oliver said. “Some have told me that they have been disadvantaged at work and have been denied promotions.”
After refusing to appear for a medical examination, a magistrate sentenced Bob Manz to one week in prison, which he said would give him a taste of prison if he did not still respect his draft.
After being released, Manz went into hiding after ignoring the final “recall” notice and spent most of 1972 “staying one step ahead of the police”.
Fortunately, the election of Anti-war Prime Minister Gough Whitlam that same year meant the end of the war and conscription.
It also meant that Manz could re-emerge into public life.
“Whitlam won the elections on Saturday and Wednesday, [the conscripts] were out of prison, ”he recalls. “And that was it. Normal life. I was free, I could walk around.
The Australian War Memorial, which oversees the country’s military history, included in its Vietnam War display information about opposition to the war and the role of conscientious objectors.
The Memorial also houses photographs, films, interviews and articles about the protest movement in its archival collection.
But Bob Manz said more should be done to recognize opposition to the Vietnam War, as well as to support veterans whether they are drafted or not.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently announced a Royal Commission on Veterans Suicides – including those who served more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At least 400 Australian Defense Force veterans have committed suicide since 2001, compared to 41 combat deaths in Afghanistan during the same period.
“Veterans have suffered a terrible injustice over the years,” Manz said. “They justify our understanding and support. And while we are at it, we must reaffirm the contributions of the anti-war movement.
Ahead of ANZAC day, Bob – now 73 – reflected on his role as a draft resister.
He has no regrets.
“I am always very proud of what I have done. I think it was the right thing to do and I’m glad I did.