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In Defence of Thoughtful Young People …

I’ve only just seen my old friend Charles Wooley’s piece “Deceptions and such pranks are fun”, which appeared in the Tasmanian Times last April ( HERE ). Charles is an amusing and at times eloquent writer and he was on form with this piece.

The events he describes did happen: close on 50 years ago, a group of us re-arranged the white-painted stones of the KEEN’S CURRY sign in South Hobart to read NORM CURRY. It stuck out like dog’s bollocks on that hillside and a Mercury scribbler wondered if it referred to Arnold Curry, an ex-Communist union official who was known as Norm to his mates.

However, as Charles relates, we had in fact “outed” an ASIO agent of that name for spying on students and staff at the university. Sadly, Charles and I today can only agree on the mechanics of what he regards as a “prank”. Otherwise we are two old blokes at political loggerheads.

Old men often regret what they see as the “excesses” of their youth, sometimes with good reason, but more often because they have abandoned the principles they held so passionately in their youth. Sipping their Grange Hermitage and shuffling their share certificates, such old fogeys have made their peace with the bourgeoisie they once loved to shock — and even dreamed of overthrowing.

Alas, by his own admission Charles didn’t even make it to old age before morphing into a “good conservative” and today he disowns his youthful ways. He laments that “young and thoughtless we took this [the exposure of the agent] to be a giant hoot”. “How terrible it must have been,” he moans, “when all over town he [the agent] heard people asking ‘Who is Norm Curry?’”

It’s touching that Charles frets over a spook’s career blighted by the naughty students but I doubt that Norm was enrolled at the university under the name on his birth certificate and he was probably quietly transferred when his cover was blown.

But there are more serious objections to Charles’s belated and misplaced concern. Norm Curry was not some inoffensive pencil pusher; he was an agent spying on behalf of the government. As Charles himself reminds us, the Vietnam War was raging at the time and we young men were forced to register for what the Liberal government euphemistically termed “National Service” and the public called “the Nasho”.

We weren’t allowed to vote, but if your marble rolled out in the Tattslotto of death that was the farcical selection ballot, you’d be whisked off to basic training and a decent short back and sides at Puckapunyal. There, along with rifle drill and other military skills, you were filled with bunkum about the Domino Theory and how Australia was supporting the allegedly “democratic” leaders Diem, Thieu and Ky in Saigon.

Many of the 19-year-old “nashoes” found themselves shipped off to Vietnam. There in the jungles and paddies, they fought farm boys and girls who had never done anything to us and who were fighting to unite their country and drive out the latest foreigners in a line that had had variously occupied it since 1858.

Quite a few of my boyhood friends were “nashoed”. Old men said it “made men of ’em” but conscription destroyed the lives of countless young men. One kid I grew up with lost a leg and another came back with shrapnel wounds all up his back. Over 500 Australians died there and thousands came back with what the Yanks called the “thousand-yard stare”. Many still bear the physical and psychological scars of a war that was none of our business. Some of them had been bathed in Agent Orange and they had to fight the government, the bureaucracy and the R.S.L. for an admission of what it had done to them.

Menzies and the other old men responsible told the public that we had to be in Vietnam to stop the dominoes falling all the way to Australia. I’ve never worked out whether they actually believed it, or whether they knew it was bullshit but justified it to themselves as a necessary fib to maintain the US alliance. Whatever the case, it sucked people in. When a friend applied for recognition as a conscientious objector in Hobart, a fool of a magistrate demanded, “What would you do if a Chinese Communist soldier was raping your mother on the front lawn?”

And if the war was traumatic for the American, Australian and New Zealand boys drafted to fight it (and their families, subsequently), let’s not forget what it meant for the Vietnamese and the other peoples of Indochina. Somewhere around three and a half million Vietnamese died during the Second Indochina, or American, War and this came on top of those who died fighting the French and the Japanese.

The sheer scale of the onslaught by the most powerful country in history on a Third World people is mind-boggling. One author wrote of “the opulence of America at war”. Vietnam’s ecology was shattered by a superpower that tried to “bomb it back into the Stone Age”. In total, the US exploded 11.3 million tons of munitions in Vietnam, dwarfing the amounts fired in all theatres of World War II. Over 72 million litres of herbicides were sprayed, affecting 43% of the cultivated area of South Vietnam and vast swathes of forest and mangrove. On top of this, whole areas were defoliated by napalm, Rome ploughs* and high explosives dropped in massive amounts from B-52s. The effects of the war continue to this day and are summed up thus by a Vietnamese writer: “not since the Romans salted the land after destroying Carthage has a nation taken such pains to visit the war on future generations”.

Norm Curry was not playing some kind of harmless game when he sat in lectures listening what his lecturers said — particularly the leftist ones. ASIO’s brief was to spy on and disrupt those who actively opposed the war and conscription. The Liberal government was perplexed and outraged that young people dared to speak out, march in the streets, occupy the conscription offices, and refuse to register for National Service. We also incurred their ire for opposing apartheid and supporting the Gurindji people’s struggle for land rights. We also distributed leaflets in the Hobart streets giving the exact location of the city’s ASIO offices, with an explanation of the spooks’ activities and we revealed Curry’s identity in another leaflet circulated on campus.

You can read the ASIO reports about those events online today. The spooks didn’t stop when the putative Mr Curry was outed. The files are heavily redacted, but enough remains to show that they sat in on meetings, befriended unsuspecting participants, filmed them, tapped phones, staked out people’s houses, bugged premises, and followed activists about. In some cases, they intervened to prevent people from gaining employment. If things here were as they were in the UK, undercover operatives even slept with unsuspecting peace activists.

By 1973, the spooks had become so arrogant that they refused to provide information to their theoretical boss, Lionel Murphy, the Attorney-General in the Whitlam Government. In response, Murphy led a raid by Commonwealth Police on their Melbourne HQ. It’s the closest they have ever come to getting their come-uppence.

Today, their power is greater than ever. They can arrest people on suspicion of offences, hold them incommunicado, force them to answer questions, and even have them gaoled if they divulge what happened. They can carry weapons. And yes, Charles, as you say, they can have people arrested for revealing their identities.

I for one don’t regret splashing that spook’s name over that South Hobart hillside all those years ago. We weren’t thoughtless and it wasn’t a prank. We were fighting to stop an undeclared and criminal war and in the Keen’s Curry incident retaliating against government spies. Charles, old friend and neighbour, I must say that even as an almost-septuagenarian, I’d do the same again. If there was any thoughtlessness, it lay with those who sent conscripts to fight and die in that awful war—and whose direct political descendants do the same over and over again.

*Rome ploughs were bulldozers with sharpened blades that would operate line abreast with heavy chains slung between them, smashing down the forest.

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7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Leonard Colquhoun

    March 7, 2016 at 7:33 pm

    Actually, Chris, I was alluding to India.

    And despite Christian Europeans participating in the trans-Atlantic West African slave trade for over three centuries, I’m not sure that Christianity endorsed that vile trade theologically. In fact, its end began with the strongly Protestant anti-slavery movement in early 19th century Britain, and was effectively wiped out by the Royal Navy.

    Now, three more points about slave trading:

    (i) the trans-Atlantic trade could NOT have got going unless thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of West Africans themselves were also deeply involved – a few hundred Europeans dying early deaths from yellow fever on the Slave Coasts could not have done it on their own; and next,

    (ii) there was also another slave trade in Africans which had been going for maybe 1500 years already – the trans-Saharan one run by Arabs, and it is still going on; and finally

    (iii) then there was the Berber (aka “Barbary”) ‘slave raiding’ along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of Europe and the British Isles, but which never became organised ‘slave trading’ – largely because local authorities and people in the target areas, unlike their West African counterparts, did not make it so.

    (These points are aimed at the common but faddish and silly impression foistered on us that ‘we’ cause/d most of the troubles in the world, a form of cultural self-flagellation that only safe and cosy, well-off and comfortable ideologues and intellectuals would come up with.)

  2. Chris Harries

    March 7, 2016 at 1:39 pm

    Indeed Leonard. In many respects we were probably worse, considering the population divergence.

  3. Leonard Colquhoun

    March 7, 2016 at 2:39 am

    One of the leaders of the campaign against Afrikaner apartheid (and this point is not to endorse that form of racial segregation) was a nation which had its own millennia-old theologically sanctioned form of apartheid.

  4. John Tully

    March 6, 2016 at 7:07 pm

    Pity they were caught, Chris, but then re-arrangement to read APARTHEID would have been a bit more difficult than changing it to NORM CURRY!

  5. Chris Harries

    March 6, 2016 at 10:17 am

    For the record, during the South African cricket tour (c. 1969) and at the height of antiapartheid demonstrations in Australia a bunch of Hobart university students spent a long night see-arranging all those white rocks on the hillside – attempting to convert ‘Keens Curry’ to ‘Apartheid’. They got sprung at about 4am so the hillside said APARTHURRY and that hybrid message stayed there for several months.

    There are a lot of rocks up there.

  6. Pete Godfrey

    March 5, 2016 at 9:45 am

    Well put Mr Tully, I agree that we had no place in Vietnam.
    We also have no place being in Afghanastan, Iraq, Syria, or any other place that the most war mongering of countries get us to go to legitimise their commercial interests.
    I had a massive argument with a VC recipient once who was calling those who were protesting against the Vietnam war “long haired sons of bitches” because they did not want to go to war.
    I tried to show him that he was being hypocritical, in saying that we are over there fighting for freedom and democracy. I asked him if freedom meant that some people should be allowed to hold different views to him. Well we almost came to blows because of his angry response.
    It appeared that he did not like the idea of us fighting so that others could think their own thoughts.
    My marble moment never came, Gough Whitlam came to power and conscription was cancelled just in time for me.
    I was scared but also was not about to go and fight in a war that had no reason for us to be there. I too at 17 thought the domino theory was complete bullshit.
    Thanks for changing the sign and standing up to the spooks.

  7. Chris

    March 4, 2016 at 12:00 pm

    Tully for PM.
    Shame Fraser/Menzies shame.
    Whats changed only their “Liberal names”.
    Howard followed in their footsteps….he who’ll not become engaged in politics after retirement….
    He who says now Industrial relations need revisiting …all that is required is a shovel to unbury his favourite topic.
    Its amazing how dementia can erase memories.

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