John/Togs Tognolini 14-1-08
Children burnt by napalm.
30 April 1997 Green Left Weekly
This article was written as a reply to a feature article by Tony Stephens in the April 10 Sydney Morning Herald. The Herald declined to publish it. Peter McGregor is one of the curators of Viet Nam Voices and a lecturer at the University of Western Sydney, Nepean.
Tony Stephens' article about Viet Nam Voices, a range of events at the Casula Powerhouse over the next two months, does ``give voice'' to six ``participants'' in the Viet Nam War. Yet Stephens' article is restricted to the stories of people from one ``side'' only -- what used to be called ``our side''.
Legitimacy for antiwar voices is withheld by their absence. Yet, as ex-soldier Sam Wilson says, ``We thought we'd gone to fight the baddies. I still don't really know what it's all about.''
That's precisely the point of the Viet Nam Voices project: more than 20 years after the end of the war, to reassess just what the war was about, as another step towards reconciliation between the parties that made the war.
Unlike other wars where Australia has been on the side of the winners, the apparent defeat of our side in the Viet Nam conflict raised the issue of whether we were on the wrong side. The comments of the other two Australian soldiers are also revealing.
Ian Kuring still believes in the domino theory, as, incidentally, does Robert McNamara. Yet, while unrepentant hawk Kuring regrets we didn't ``fight with both hands'', McNamara's shift, from hawk in 1961 to covert dove, evident by 1968, was based upon the empirical refutation of Kuring's Rambo theory: ``It's [the bombing campaign] done nothing. They've dropped more bombs than in all of Europe in all of World War II, and it hasn't done a fucking thing.''
Matthew d'Arcy's story sounds like the reminiscences of someone from Tim Spicer's Executive Outcomes. D'Arcy elaborates his approach -- as a ``war lord'' -- to ``winning the hearts and minds'' of the villagers in an essay in the Viet Nam Voices Catalog, proudly admitting involvement in the Phoenix program (covertly assassinating Viet Cong sympathisers).
Just as the issue of war crimes in Cambodia under Pol Pot remains unresolved, the responsibility for the treatment of villagers by ``our side'' during the Viet Nam War also remains unsettled.
Where is the balance to these three Australian veterans? What about a voice from a VC guerilla soldier, or a North Vietnamese regular? What about a voice from those Australian ``veterans'', like draft resisters Michael Matteson, Geoff Mullen et al, who stayed in Australia and ``fought'' the war on the domestic front? Or even Australian soldiers like Brian Day, who changed his mind after fighting in Viet Nam, becoming a communist, opponent of ``our side'' and organiser of medical aid to Viet Nam? Now there are some ordinary Australians who became extraordinary because of the war. Certainly heroic.
Perhaps Stephens was only seeking a balance around gender, rather than around politics? Ex-go-go dancer Lynne Lawson, as a result of the war, abandoned a music career for community service. Yet it took until the October 1987 Welcome Home March for Lawson to deal with her Viet Nam experiences. Lawson now works as a psychologist and counsellor with Viet Nam Veterans.
June Roe, through marrying a vet whose post-traumatic stress disorder has recently forced him to give up work, is now ``up to her eyeballs in Vietnam''. The Viet Nam Voices seminar she is coordinating for vets and their families looks as though it may include as many Viets as Aussies.
The only Viet Stephens includes is Ann Pham, a southerner whose middle class family became boat people soon after 1975 and are now firmly settled in Australia. Yet, when asked about the war, Ann says, ``There's so much I can't understand''.
Viet Nam Voices is multifaceted -- a (massive) ``art'' exhibition that both documents people's experiences of the war and also expresses their feelings and thoughts; floor talks by participants; the launch of John Cheeseman's new documentary film, The War that Changed my World; play readings; education workshops for schoolkids; June Roe's seminar for veterans and their families; and a weekend seminar on the war itself (with many speakers from diverse perspectives -- the seminar papers to be published in a special issue of the History Teachers Journal).
These latter events especially are attempts to make explicit the assumptions and issues that may otherwise remain covert. For instance, there's the issue of who really won the war.
While ``our side'' may appear to have been defeated -- at least militarily -- it was Viet Nam that was left in ruins: 500 Australians and 58,000 Americans dead, but 1.5 to 3 million Viets; fewer than 3000 US MIAs compared to 300,000 MIAs in Viet Nam. The effects of Agents Orange on US and Australian troops is dwarfed by the much more massive effects upon Viet Nam, which lacks an equivalent, sophisticated medical system to handle it. And then there's the legacy of all the mines and unexploded ordnance.
Such discussions raise belatedly the need for compensation for Viet Nam -- the people and country -- as an integral part of any meaningful reconciliation.
Meredith Burgmann being arrested during the 1971 South Africian Springbok tour in Sydney.
Breaking the rules: the campaign in Australia against apartheid
17 November 1993 from Green Left Weelky
Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have. — Margaret Mead
Without agitators, there would be no advance towards civilisation. Without dissent ... democracy in its true sense remains incapable of achievement. To dissent at the right time, in the right place, and in the right measure is to support the democratic ideal. The choice of time, place and measure can be determined only by the dissenter. But it is upon those in dissent that democracy depends. — Jocelyn Scutt
In the early 1970s, a young maths teacher resigned from his job to play a leading role in organising the sports boycott against apartheid. Within a few years, the demands being made by the AAM (Australian Anti-Apartheid Movement), a radical minority, not only became government policy, but in many ways changed the face of Australia.
One of the most remarkable characters I interviewed for my documentary Political Football, which concerned the anti-apartheid protests in Australia during the early 1970s, was Peter McGregor. Unfortunately only a fragment of the interview could be included. However, many of the things Peter talked about, vis-a-vis the nature of protest and the method of creating social change, are particularly relevant today.
Following, is an edited extract from that interview, conducted in October 2004.
How did you become involved in the movement against apartheid?
I became involved through meeting some South African exiles, especially John and Margaret Brink. John had been arrested and imprisoned in South Africa under the State of Emergency following the Sharpville Massacre in 1960. These people had to leave their country and they informed me, and many others, about what was going on.
At the beginning of 1971, I was a maths teacher. Having established the AAM during the 1970s, we needed someone to do the daily campaign organising. I decided I would much rather do this, so I chucked in my job and was paid $20 each week by the movement.
How did the AAM come about?
The movement developed as a radical complement to Campaign Against Racism in Sport (CARIS), which in turn had formed out of SADAF (South African Defence and Aid Fund), which in turn had been set up, during the 1960s primarily, to assist South African political prisoners.
John Myrtle was the coordinator of CARIS. One of our first actions was handing out protest leaflets outside an Australian swimming competition to select a team to tour South Africa. We were a respectable front. We didn’t then know that Meredith Burgmann and friends were conducting their own protest by throwing dye into the pool. We started talking and there was a synchronicity.
Our first action in 1971 was a protest at Coogee beach against the South African lifesaving team. I remember Meredith and others throwing themselves under the South African lifesavers during their march past, and the South Africans just marched right over them.
We then started connecting up with other groups including the Builders Labourers’ Federation. They were a wonderful union, not just concerned with increasing wages and their own working conditions, but with the sort of society they were living in. They were defending the environment and heritage architecture, much of which would have been lost if they weren't around. They were also anti-war.
So it was a coming together of South African exiles, the student movement and visionary unions. Then suddenly these seven amazing sports people came forward, willing to use their position as Wallabies to oppose the [1971 Springbox] tour of Australia.
Then the movement started taking off like wildfire. We were amazed because in less than six months it was huge. We thought it was pie in the sky stuff that we would actually stop this specific tour, let alone successive tours.
Why the move to a more radical, confrontational form of protest?
In 1969, I believed that if you presented your case to people in authority and you had a good case you might persuade them. I came to see authority didn’t listen to reason.
Take Vietnam; it didn’t make any difference how many people came out to protest, the government ignored them. And it was clear the South African government wasn’t going to listen to reason. It wasn’t going to play sport by the rules, where the best man or woman is allowed to win. People of different races weren’t allowed to compete. We realised we’d also have to go outside the rules.
By the end of 1970, I’d become an active protester, willing to do non-violent civil disobedience. I was willing to break the law, to be arrested and go to court.
Why did you resort to civil disobedience?
We’d abandoned working through the normal channels of protest because they weren’t working.
What was your approach to violence?
We were a movement that believed in civil disobedience. We didn’t believe in violence. We were fighting a system that was based on violence. We would go out of our way to avoid violence but, if we were attacked, we would defend ourselves.
Were you ever arrested?
Yes. I was charged with throwing an orange at one of the matches. The charge was later dropped.
Were you aware that you were under observation by ASIO?
We presumed some level of surveillance was going on.
Did that affect your activities?
We acted on that presumption.
Getting back to the movement, what were its objectives?
We were trying to make it impossible for matches to continue. We were engaged in direct action not symbolic action and to make it impossible for sport with apartheid to continue.
It was clear that sport, in particular cricket and rugby, were important elements in white South African society, and that targeting South African sport could be a means by which white South Africans could be made aware of political repression as well as human rights’ violations going on in their country. As well as this, we were part of a global solidarity that was fighting apartheid, and the movement had decided to focus on sport.
Why do you think the movement took off?
There were two main aspects. One was our willingness to demonstrate, cause problems, run onto the field and get arrested. We were a practical problem. If we were not willing to do this we would not have worried the government or sporting administrators. The ethical problem for them was the seven Wallabies who openly opposed the tour. Elite sports people who’d been to South Africa and were willing to put their careers on the line forced the public, politicians, sporting officials and spectators to think twice. It was great that sports people were saying the demonstrators are actually right.
How far were you prepared to go?
The AAM picked up on the feelings of the anti-Vietnam War movement. There had been three major rallies or moratoriums in 1970, but we still hadn’t stopped the war. A lot of activists felt that we had to go beyond peaceful protests and engage in civil disobedience — non-violent direct action — to achieve any meaningful change. The feelings among us were that you needed to do something more than protest peacefully to create any change.
The concept of sabotage was discussed. There is a distinction between violence against property (sabotage) and violence against people (terrorism). These days, unfortunately, the two seem to have merged.
Until the early 1960s, the African National Congress had only ever supported non-violent civil disobedience. But when the ANC was banned and it couldn’t engage in peaceful protest it had to engage in sabotage. That meant damage to property, telegraph lines and buildings.
We started to explore whether we would engage in violence against property. A good example was at the Australian swimming championships [to select an Australian team to go to South Africa] that were held at Drummoyne pool and Meredith Burgmann and others threw dye into the pool, making it opaque. Sabotage. It stopped the swimming carnival.
Peter Hain [MP and now leader of the House of Commons] was the leader of the movement in England, and we brought him out to discuss tactics. We asked how he felt about sporting facilities being damaged and he wouldn’t have a bar of it. But, as the rugby tour of 1971 continued and we weren’t succeeding in stopping matches, we felt something more drastic should happen.
Two members of the BLF proceeded to cut down the goalposts at the Sydney Cricket Ground and were arrested. They were engaging in sabotage.
Did you feel at all threatened during the campaign?
There was a lot of anger on both sides. As well as the police attacking us quite ruthlessly, we had to deal with rugby vigilantes, who were determined we wouldn’t interrupt their games. There was also the extreme right. I remember at several of our meetings and demos we were threatened by neo-Nazis, and it certainly seemed the South African government was funding them.
At the beginning of 1971, about 10 of us were meeting when six neo-Nazis started attacking. No one was seriously injured. Some people were worried about reds under the beds, but I was more worried about Nazis! On two occasions Neo-Nazis were convicted of assaulting me.
You didn’t succeed in stopping any of the games? Did you think you’d in some way failed?
We didn’t manage to stop the rugby tour, but the South African cricketers were due to tour a few months later and the head of the Cricket Board, Don Bradman, began writing to us. We would then write to Hassan Hower, the head of the Non-White Cricket Board in South Africa, who would answer the issues Bradman was raising. We’d then write back to Bradman with all this information.
He must have begun to realise that what he was being told by the white cricket authorities was bullshit. It was an incredible victory when Bradman decided to cancel the cricket tour on moral grounds. We were sure it would have given heart to non-white South Africans, and of course it helped increase the isolation of white South Africa.
Any other reflections on your involvement with the AAM?
Kierkergard once said, “Life has to be lived forward but can only be understood backwards”. My life kept moving from schoolteacher to a full-time paid activist, to anarchist/squatter before I went back to academia where I tried to bring my politics into teaching. Since then, and with the recent downsizing of universities, I’ve returned to direct-action activism.
The terrorist attacks on the US — retaliation from the Third World to provocations by the First World — has reset the world agenda for the worse, and many of the things we once fought for might need to be fought for again.
[Peter McGregor was a convener of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Australia along with Meredith Burgmann (now president of Legislative Coucil, NSW Parliament) and Denis Freney (since deceased). James Middleton is an independent filmmaker. Political Football was shown on ABC TV on November 17.]
From Green Left Weekly, December 7, 2005. Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.
Seeking the truth about the Vietnam War
24 June 1998 Green Left Weekly
Cultural Battles: the meaning of the Viet Nam-USA war By Peter McGregor, Scam Publications -- 1998, 214 pp., $16.95 (pb)
Review by Brendan Doyle
As a contemporary of Peter McGregor who, like him, was first politicised by the Vietnam War, I welcome this collection of essays from a committed internationalist who has always sought the truth and shunned ideological straitjackets.
These essays, spanning the years 1976 to 1997, were first published as pamphlets, articles and reviews in the left press and media journals.
The wide-ranging pieces include reflections on the antiwar movement in the '70s, analyses of film and TV accounts of the war and commentary on the role of the media in selling the war to the public.
In the best of them, McGregor writes with uncommon clarity and even-handedness, while retaining the passion of personal commitment. Johanna Trainor's photographs of Vietnam's people and landscape add visual impact to the collection.
Why “Cultural Battles”? McGregor explains in his introduction: “Because the war became so controversial, and because it seemed the West was defeated, battles for the war's ideological meaning and status have continued long after the fighting ended in 1975.”
Already in 1976, McGregor was questioning the propaganda from both sides about what was actually going on in Vietnam. This is revealed by the first piece, a May Day leaflet. Not satisfied with representations of the fall of Saigon as “national liberation” or “people's revolution”, McGregor asks whether such theories were more attempts to maintain the purity of a party line than to grapple with the complex reality. Recent writings by former North Vietnamese soldiers such as Duong Thu Huong and Bao Ninh have justified those questions.
“Reconciliation or Retribution” is an account of a visit McGregor made to Vietnam in 1988 at the invitation of the Vietnamese government. He describes an official ceremony at which prisoners were released after 13 years of re-education. He goes on to question the meaning of the “liberation” of South Vietnam, and discusses the extent and nature of retribution against supporters of the Saigon regime. He also presents evidence that, contrary to US propaganda, the vast majority of former opponents were eventually released.
A lecturer in media studies at the University of Western Sydney, McGregor has included several lively reviews and critiques of film and TV representations of the war. These include Kennedy-Miller's Vietnam mini-series, which, says McGregor, provides useful information about the way the war affected ordinary Australians, and Tran Van Thuy's controversial documentary Chuyen Tu Te (The Story of Kindness), which deals with the civil war's damage to traditional Vietnamese cultural and moral values.
“The Military and the Media” is a fascinating account of an international conference in Brisbane in 1991 at which the media were said to be responsible for “losing the war”. On the contrary, McGregor convincingly argues, “the mainstream news media during the Viet Nam war (as during the recent Gulf War), were overwhelmingly and consistently supportive of Western intervention”.
In “Rambo Rules”, first published in Green Left Weekly in 1993, McGregor argues that, given the devastating effects of the war, the subsequent US embargo and the US's reneging on promised reconstruction funds, Vietnam lost the war despite winning the military battle.
He then analyses the MIA scam, used by successive US regimes to continue the war by other means, portraying US forces as heroes and the Vietnamese resistance as the villains. “The POW/MIA myth”, he concludes, “has become a primary symptom and cause of a dangerous national pathology in the US”.
As organiser of the Vietnam Voices Exhibition in 1997, McGregor wrote several in-depth pieces on the Australian media coverage of the war, showing that it was thoroughly permeated by US propaganda. Sydney Morning Herald editorials were sometimes no more than rehashes of US State Department white papers!
In the concluding piece, “War Crimes and Reconciliation”, he calls for adequate punishment for those who still proudly claim to have been part of the Phoenix program of assassination of suspected Vietcong. But he also makes a passionate plea for reconciliation to go beyond blame and apology to embrace Albert Camus' conviction after Nuremberg that “the sanctioning of violence and murder as an instrument/policy of the state has to be rejected”.
Like all good essayists, McGregor grapples with complex truths in this collection, and doesn't find easy answers. The book is well researched and contains plenty of useful references. This is recommended reading for all those who want to continue the struggle against forgetting.
Hans Post's One Man in his Time is an amazing and inspiring story. It's a historically significant autobiography by an only child, born in 1926 to a pro-Nazi middle-class family in Silesia. The cover of this latest book by the new, independent, social justice publisher, Otford Press, conveys the distance of the journey that Post has travelled. We see the icons: from Nazi and the SS, to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), War Resisters and anarchism.
Post metamorphosised out of a youth that was immersed in Nazi, authoritarian culture, to come of age as an adult choosing pacifist, anarchist and egalitarian ways. It's the kind of journey that the German playwright Peter Weiss imagined in his play Marat/Sade, in which “the most important thing is to pull yourself up by your own hair, to turn yourself inside out and to see the world with fresh eyes”.
Post's life story reveals both the appetite for justice latent in each of us and the capacity to change oneself, as a way to also change society. It confirms the validity of an epistemology of common sense — that a mixture of experience, cognition and compassion in the hearts and minds of any of us, not just the learned, is the best distiller of wisdom.
Post has the bold self-esteem to claim the Yiddish status of Mensch, because he has rejected and risen above the way of life into which he was indoctrinated and the suffering and pain he came to experience in the aftermath of the second world war.
As an activist, Post acknowledges that unless each of us address our own history, we certainly won't be able to transcend it. Measures of Post's success are both personal — his second wife of over 24 years, Gina, is a Jewish, feminist, anti-war activist — and social/political. While the former may not be as overtly addressed in the book, the latter certainly is.
Post sees us all as participants in the making of history, either as conscious participants or as unwitting accomplices. And perhaps in a (Wilhelm) Reichian way he conceives of the family as one of the primary ways history is passed on. Hence he expresses sadness at the breakdown in his relations, both with his parents, and also with some of his children.
In the preface, “Goodbye to Germany”, Post gives an overview of his — and his first wife, Lydia's — stepping away from something unacceptable, into the unknown. By the mid '50s, Hans and Lydia became increasingly rebellious and dissatisfied with West Germany and they migrated to Australia. Chancellor Adenauer's re-introduction of conscription was proof for them of the return of state propaganda.
Post makes the case that from the time the Nazis took power, the brain-washing of “a society built on lies” was such that, because “people did not know what was really going on”, it is hard to “measure individual guilt… My conviction of the fundamental value of the individual, of the meaning of freedom, has become ever stronger, in spite of, or because of, my upbringing in Nazi Germany.”
One Man in his Time is written in an engaging and personable style, revealing Post's impressive memory and giving us a feel for the varying times. Post notes crucial turning points, as if it's been an intentional, developmental journey. This isn't just a story for its own sake — it's like a self-help book, offering us something that we need, helping us understand what is wrong with our world and showing us how to change it for the better.
The last photograph in the book is of Hans Post smiling, carrying a CND banner on Hiroshima Day in Sydney, 1995. A humour and warmth permeates as Post presents people and situations with a mixture of compassion and affection, but also dispassion and uncompromising criticism.
[Peter McGregor is lecturer in media and social studies, University of Western Sydney,]