How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must the white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes and how many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they’re forever banned
Bob Dylan – Blowin’ in the Wind 1963
Starting in 1962, the war in Vietnam was considered by most Australians to be necessary to stem the spread of Communism. Conscription was introduced in 1964 and by 1970 many Australians wanted all troops withdrawn. This was especially so as the number of casualties grew. Young people marched in demonstrations, carrying banners and chanting anti-war slogans.
Joanne was fairly immune to all the controversy until her second year at college and her introduction to Shauna’s passionate views.
‘Last year the moratorium marches in America showed that more and more people oppose the war,’ said Shauna. ‘This year they are going to be held all over Australia. We are going to march against conscription and bring about the end of the Vietnam War!’
Joanne helped Shauna and Margo paint a few posters but declined to participate any further. She had to go home for the weekend. She was amazed at the strangers invading their share house, all preparing for the march. Margo and Shauna told her that a new friend of theirs had been called up in the draft and was refusing to go. ‘He’ll get prison if he’s caught,’ whispered Margo.
Arlo Guthrie sang on the record player.
You can get anything that you want at Alice’s Restaurant.
Meanwhile Leo had a dilemma. His American cousin was coming to Sydney on R&R from Vietnam. He was planning a day trip to entertain him and thought a visit to Canberra might be a good thing to do. He asked Joanne if she would ask a girlfriend to come with them on a double date.
Joanne asked several girls but they were not available. She wondered about Margo, who was preparing to march with Shauna.
‘You want me to go out with an American soldier?’ Margo looked at her in disbelief.
“Well, he was drafted, so he can’t really help it if he’s in the war,’ said Joanne. ‘ He needs a bit of normality after what he’s been through.’
Margo agreed to go. Leo’s cousin seemed happy to have some female company. Joanne was not so happy. Just days before their planned trip the phone had rung at Mrs Kruger’s house. It was her mother, Annie.
‘Look, I don’t know what you want to do, but I’ve just had a phone call from the American chap who stayed with us in the Christmas holidays. He’s back in Australia and wants to see you.’
Joanne had received several communications from the American. He had returned to the United States but was now fearful of being drafted in the Vietnam war. He thought if he moved to Australia he might avoid conscription but was doubtful how long he could stay. Now he was coming to Yerrinbool on Sunday to have a talk about the future.
She felt she had to tell him face to face that she had moved on, but how?
Finally she arranged with Leo to stop at her home and leave her on the way back from Canberra. She would catch the rail motor to Wollongong the next morning.
They had an interesting day in Canberra, viewing the embassies, visiting Parliament House and exploring the Australian War Memorial. Margo was stressed by the graphic depiction of war and announced she was going to throw up. What the cousin thought we’ll never know but Leo and Joanne sang all the way back and it was with some sadness that Joanne bid the others farewell when they left her at her childhood home.
The American was there, keen to tell her of his plans to move to Australia. She told him about Leo and he said that was wonderful and that he had high hopes that there was a future for him with his other penpal.
Time passed and the American had to go home, was drafted and served in Vietnam. Joanne often wondered what happened to him but she was sure she saw him on an American reality TV show late one night.
Leo’s cousin finally was demobbed and returned to his home.
Conscription ended in Australia in December 1972. 63,735 national servicemen served in the Army, of whom 15,381 were deployed to Vietnam. Approximately 200 of those conscripted men were killed but the mental and physical aftermath of the ‘American War’ will never be fully realised. As for servicemen from the United States and the Vietnamese people themselves, the scale of death and destruction cannot be put into numbers or words.