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Greens win the war but lose defence
by Sasha Uzunov - November 24, 2009
When prominent Australian youth worker Les Twentyman throws his political weight behind the re-introduction of national service or conscription, you sit up and take notice.
Twentyman told the Herald Sun newspaper that a return to national service would help to combat street violence and unemployment.
Whatever the merits are of conscription in terms of taming wayward youth, there may be another benefit.
In recent months we have seen a high profile sacking and a resignation over the direction of the Afghanistan War but without any immediate effect upon American foreign or defence policy. This has enormous repercussions for Australia’s involvement in that conflict.
First, United Nations diplomat the American Peter Galbraith was sacked by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon over refusing to take part in what he claimed was a “cover up” of election rigging during the Afghan Presidential poll. Now we have the resignation of US diplomat in Afghanistan Matthew Hoh, a former US Marine Corps captain.
"I'm not some peacenik, pot-smoking hippie who wants everyone to be in love," he said. "I want people in Iowa, people in Arkansas, people in Arizona, to call their congressman and say, 'Listen, I don't think this is right'."
In Australia, Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon has, in a thought-provoking article, called for a proper discussion on Afghanistan:
In Australia, while opposition to the war is strong, public debate about this country's military presence in Afghanistan and our tactics in fighting terrorism is muted in mainstream political circles.
This is an issue our Government can't ignore any longer, and it's one that I will certainly be taking up in Canberra if my run for a NSW Senator seat at the next federal election is successful. The silence within our own political conversation on this issue means that no longer is it just the Taliban who show contempt for democracy. When the regime that we are supporting passes such demeaning laws, we join them in making a farce of any attempt to portray our military involvement as a commitment to promoting democracy and humane values.
Senator Rhiannon may be right about the level of public opposition to the Afghan War but that is irrelevant. Her beef is that the Rudd Government is not responding to opposition to the war. The irony is that the Greens, and their predecessors and fellow travelers the anti-Vietnam War movement protestors, were so successful that they have in fact lost leverage over governments in power when it comes to defence and national security issues.
How on earth can you come to that conclusion, you might rightly ask? The answer is quite obvious but too sensitive or taboo to mention! During the late 1960s and early 1970s the anti-Vietnam War movement only gained ground at the tail end of that conflict. In 1966 and in 1969 federal elections the sitting conservative government which supported the war was returned.
Respected authors on the Vietnam War, Paul Ham and Michael Caulfield, have argued that the impetus for the anti-war movement came about because of conscription. That is when you force members of the general public, namely young men, into a war; then the public becomes interested in the debate. Mortgages and the economy take a back seat when your own life could be threatened by going to war.
Since the ending of National Service in late 1972 by the incoming Whitlam Labor government, the average person in the street has lost whatever leverage he or she had over defence experts and the professional volunteer defence force.
The reality is that professional military forces and politicians do not like conscription, because of the intense public scrutiny it brings. Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard was willing to bleed our special forces, the SASR and Commandos, dry fighting conflicts in East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq rather than have our regular infantry battalions do the fighting or for that matter using conscripts.
From a political strategic point of view it would be in the interests of the Greens to support the re-introduction of conscription, to act as a break against military adventurism. The question remains, will the Australian Greens be brave enough to support such a controversial issue?
History is full of political-ideological u-turns.
Joschka Fischer began his political career as a radical, left-wing, brawling taxi driver in the then West Germany in the 1970s. During a riot he beat to a pulp a German Police officer and almost blinded him. On becoming a Greens politician and later Germany’s Foreign Minister, Fischer apologised to the policeman and also supported the war in Afghanistan.
In 1972 South Australian Premier Mike Rann was a Greenpeace activist in New Zealand who actively worked against the French Security forces in the South Pacific by sending boats to disrupt nuclear testing by encroaching upon French territory. Rann has now moved to the right within the Labor party.
Conscription remains one of the last taboos in an Australian society where drug use, sexual orientation, rape, incest, mental health are now talked about freely.
About the Author
Sasha Uzunov graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia, in 1991. He enlisted in the Australian Regular Army as a soldier in 1995 and was allocated to infantry. He served two peacekeeping tours in East Timor (1999 and 2001). In 2002 he returned to civilian life as a photo journalist and film maker and has worked in The Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. His documentary film Timor Tour of Duty made its international debut in New York in October 2009. He blogs at Team Uzunov.