My marble enters the barrel and I am ‘saved’ by the luck of the draw
In 1965 I knew of only one other young man – Laurie Cohen’s friend Peter – who had contemplated draft resistance but I had lost contact with him. I had not heard of anyone embarking on the path of civil disobedience. In fact, the first public act of draft resistance likely to incur a gaol sentence was Sydney schoolteacher Bill White’s refusal of the call-up in July 1966. White was drawn in the first ballot (1965) but claimed conscientious objector status. His claim was rejected because his convictions were personal rather than religious.
Did I have the guts to go through with it? There seemed to be no one, least of all my parents or the Church, I could turn to for advice and sympathy. My fellow workers at Kraft sniggered ‘it would make a man of me’. An extract from my 1965 diary – Tuesday August 24, 1965 – records my mother expressing ‘her sorrow at my national service position’. Also, an undated extract from notes written in 1965 records the following illuminating episode with my boss at Kraft:
At work the boss called me in and I could tell by the tone of his voice it was no usual matter. Just as I thought – ‘What have you done about ‘National Service registration, Ken? Oh, you have registered. I see, and what are your thoughts?’ The part was ready made. I settled in beside the desk and with a dignified air told the same story that was now firmly entrenched in the mind of the Kraft Personnel Officer.
‘What else could one do’, I said. ‘I had no choice’. But I would be back at Kraft at the end of my two years. I would let the company know of all developments. I told him I preferred things as they were with my life.
‘Well, that’s the way the country’s run, son’. The blood tickled my ears but I controlled myself.
I had never before felt so alone. I do not remember any nocturnal nightmares, only the diurnal ones:
I wasn’t far when I met a car – the local cop inside
Although I swore he beat me more and quickly had me tied
He slammed the door and said ‘there’s war – you’re in the Army now
To join the other conscript suckers at Puckapunyal’21
The second registration period started on July 28. To this day I retain in my personal archive some of the key (Government) National Service documents of 1965: National Service Act 1951-64 – Registration Form; Commonwealth of Australia National Service Act 1951-65 (26 pp.); Preliminary Medical Examination for Regular Forces of the Navy, Army and Air Force (‘Instructions to Medical Practitioners’).
My registration form duly arrived – and I dutifully registered. I look back now and wonder if this indicates I lacked the courage of my own convictions. My consoling recollection is that, along with almost everyone else, it never occurred to me not to register. Not even pacifist organizations advocated non-registration. The anti-war movement’s advice to young men at the time was to seek personal exemption through the legal conscientious objection provisions of the scheme. Less than 1% failed to register in the first ballot of the 1964 scheme and none of these seemed inclined to take a public stand on their non-registration. But I remain convinced I would not have let them take me if I had been called-up.
As a prisoner of fate I waited for the September 10 ballot. Eventually I received a letter from the Department of Labour and National Service ‘indefinitely’ deferring my call-up:
‘Your liability to render service under the National Service Act is indefinitely deferred...you will not be called-up for service under the present arrangements’22
I’m proud to say however that in subsequent years, as Australia’s involvement in Vietnam escalated, I became deeply committed to action – including civil disobedience – against Australian and American aggression in Vietnam. If the Liberal Party had wanted to avoid producing a phalanx of lifetime anti-war activists they sure went the wrong way about it.