By Rowan Cahill
A personal reflection by Rowan Cahill on a life of activism that started when he was conscripted to the Vietnam War as a 20 year old.
The report that God is on the side of the Big Battalions is propaganda put out by the Big Battalion commanders. They hope thereby to spread alarm and despondency among the smaller forces. Claud Cockburn
As I engage with my seventh decade, I am variously approached by researchers and others for details of, and information about, my life and study of dissidence and activism on the left. This activism began in 1965 when I was among the one in twelve Australian males selectively chosen by the recently introduced conscription lottery for a two-year stint as part of the Australian Army and the Vietnam War. The lottery cynically targeted males on the cusp of their twentieth birthday, before they gained the right to vote, which in those days was accorded upon reaching the age of 21. I was among the few at the time who said no, and the rest is history. 
Some questioners and seekers ask big questions, along the lines of ‘what do we do to change a world where violence and authoritarianism and disregard for human rights and social injustice and environmental degradation are rampant, a world in which the individual seems so powerless against a status quo hell bent on preserving the abhorrent?’ It is a valid and important line of questioning, but the phrasing tends to come in a way suggesting the expected answer will be like an Ikea flat pack –– all that needs to be done is to open the pack, lay out the contents, follow instructions, and with the aid of an allen key and screwdriver, assemble a specific item of furniture.
The question is asked in good faith, at times as a challenge setting the stage for an ideologically framed debate the questioner hopes will follow. Listening, I am reminded of the tailored package delivered by Vladimir Lenin in response to his rhetorical question What Is to Be Done?, published as a pamphlet with that title in 1902, which precipitated the future of radical socialist politics in Russia leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.
Questioners want something like this, a plan, a course of action, all laid out, steps to follow, a ‘to be done’ that ‘when done’ delivers significantly, convincingly. For me however there is no flatpack, no tailored package, no grand plan; and maybe the question is not ‘What is to be done?’ but rather ‘What can be done?’.
For me, so far as activism is concerned, what it comes down to is that each individual does the best possible, with whatever abilities and skills s/he is endowed with or has gained, to attempt to bring about a better, more equitable, and just, world for all, one in which the notion of the redistribution of wealth is neither a stranger nor unimaginable. We do what each one of us can do, what we are capable of doing, what we can imagine, what we can live with and feel personally comfortable with, regardless of the bigness or smallness of the action taken. Individuals, being individuals, some will be able to do more than others, and some will be able to do that which others cannot. Activism is not a contest, and one size does not fit all.
Activism can be done individually, or collectively. Some will work on small canvasses, others on large ones; and there will be many ways of going about it, understanding that contexts, opportunities, and circumstances ameliorate all. What also needs to be borne in mind is that in this age of pernicious legislation seeking to close down dissent and opposition, it might be circumspect, depending on what form the activism takes, to shake free of the ‘selfie’ culture and aim not to leave paper or cyber trails.
Some individuals will find themselves plucked by fate to take on roles they had not foreseen, to make decisions they did not plan. Which is what happened to me in 1965. Back in the early sixties, in my late adolescence, I never imagined a political future. All I wanted to do was to write poetry, work, and one day be able to afford a small yacht and cruise the Northern waters of Australia.
I had read E. J. Banfield’s Confessions of a Beachcomber (1908) and had imbibed his transcendental feel for the area. I had in mind a 22’ plywood Bluebird class yacht, like the one I had crewed and raced on out of Middle Harbour (Sydney) during those years. However, conscription changed all that, and I became instead an anti-war activist, and according to my subsequently compiled ASIO file, a bona fide enemy of the state. Simply, being conscripted made my future something other than I had imagined. It placed me in an historical position whereby I could cooperate and go along with the state and its war, or to stand against both. I did not go out and seek this future; in a sense it came to me. 
AGENCY AND SAYING ‘NO’
From my reading of history, individuals have agency; what counts is their compliance/complicity or otherwise. The greatest evils and abnormalities in history come down, in the end, to the decisions individuals make, or do not make. In an existential sense, the importance of resisting, of protesting, of working for a better world, one underpinned by equity and social justice, is that the acts of doing, successful or otherwise, small or large, are what is important. To subject activism to accounting procedures, with a sort of profit/loss mentality, what was achieved or not, what gains were made or not, etcetera, while useful for strategic and activist learning purposes and future endeavours, can also be curtailing and negative. There is an activist dimension the Quakers understood, where the act of saying no, of speaking truth to power, is its own validation. Indeed, if these acts cease, if they are no more, then we enter a night of pitch darkness, unbroken by comforting stars or lights of any kind.
It is worth revisiting the questions Bertolt Brecht famously posed in his poem ‘Questions From a Worker Who Reads’ (1935): Who made the great structures, and who fought the great battles, of the ancient world, he asks. So, for example, ‘The young Alexander conquered India’. But, asks Brecht, ‘Was he alone?’ Take another example: Julius Caesar, ‘defeated the Gauls’. Fair enough, but ‘Did he not even have a cook with him?’ asks Brecht. Working through a list of ‘greats’ and the great achievements historically ascribed to them, Brecht makes the point that ordinary people –– slaves, soldiers, sailors, workers –– did the hard yards, put in the physical labour, made the sacrifices, had the skills, built the structures, fought the wars, enabling the achievements ascribed in historical accounts to the single ‘great man’.
Over eighty years later Brecht’s questions are still worthy of consideration. The answers to his questions determine how we view ourselves in the present. Either we, ordinary everyday commonplace citizens, are historical makers and doers in our minds, and in actuality should we decide to act upon this sense of agency, or we are not, and we roll over and acquiesce, and let ourselves be steamrollered by the rich, the powerful, the ruthless –– Brecht’s ‘great man’. Ironically, by rolling over, we are participants too by default, in that we allow history to be made for us, often at our expense and peril.
Back in 1964 when Australian Prime Minister Menzies sneaked conscription in during a late night parliamentary session (10 November), I and my voteless peers were never consulted. Decisions were made for us and we were expected to obligingly accept. Some of us did. Some of us did not. In the end, eight years later and after growing discontent and protests, and the election of the Whitlam Labor Government after over two-decades of conservative rule, the naysayers won out. Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War officially ended even though US involvement would continue; all Australian troops were brought home; conscription ended; those who were in prison for their anti-war activities were released; those who were ‘underground’ in a network of safe havens, metaphorically re-emerged into the light of day; and 350 pending prosecutions of anti-conscriptionists were dropped. In the end, all it took was a stroke of a pen, but that stroke had taken a mighty lot of coaxing, and that coaxing had been a bit more than ‘gentle’.
‘KEEPING IT TOGETHER’
Another question I am asked is about morale, along the lines of ‘How do we keep it together when the odds against us are so powerful, seemingly so overwhelming?’
The question is sometimes phrased as a plea, hinting that the plural ‘we’ is really the personal ‘I’, and brings with it attendant senses of exhaustion and isolation, that the questioner feels alone in a David vs Goliath battle, without the faith that David’s projectile has or will have its effect upon the Leviathan.
Looking back on dissident histories, those before my time, and during my lifetime, I cannot help but think that there are times when there were possibilities other than what transpired, had people and organisations been able to work together, to find common ground, to compromise, to hear the nuances, to not view others through ideological blinkers, to not rush to judgement. I wonder too if there is not a pathology at work amongst some dissidents and radicals, a mindset geared to perpetual defeat, perpetual loss.
As I write, near the end of 2019, popular uprisings and rebellions are coursing through the world, from Algeria to Zimbabwe and an alphabetical atlas in between. Some of these uprisings and protests are small, brief flaring intensities; others are popular and intense, big enough to threaten governments. On the surface, especially as represented in the mainstream media, and if they are reported at all, and most of them are not, these uprisings and rebellions are time and place specific, not connected in any way, shape or form.
However, according to writer Ben Ehrenreich in the venerable US progressive weekly, The Nation, there is a common factor at the root of these uprisings and rebellions, neoliberalism, which he characterises as ‘a globally applicable method for preserving the current overwhelming imbalance of power. It works microcosmically on a municipal level –– think decaying public transit systems with an apparently bottomless budget for racist fare enforcement, while billionaires hop in helicopters from rooftop to rooftop –– and macrocosmically on a planetary scale, in which national elites collude with multinational corporations and international financial institutions to keep labor cheap and wealth and resources confined into established channels’. According to Ehrenreich, if activists wherever, feeling isolated and alone, would pause and look around, they would see they were not alone. 
Relevant here is a recent book: Dissidents of the International Left by young American freelance writer Andy Heintz (New International Publications, Oxford, 2019). The book brings together 77 interviews Heintz conducted globally over a four year period with activists and intellectuals on what he broadly calls the ‘Left’, in his hands a broad inclusion of ‘human rights activists, women’s rights activists, feminists, liberals, progressives, anarcho-syndicalists, democratic socialists and adherents of libertarian and democratic socialism’. It is a broad definition, probably too broad for some purists, but his cut has a notable almost 50/50 gender divide, a rarity in the ‘noteworthy people’ genre of ‘collections’ in which males tend to dominate, and noteworthy too because the collection draws from a mass of activists seldom heard of, or listened to, or reported on, in the English language world. Translators and interpreters have worked overtime here, and the collection crosses not only cultural boundaries, but also those of religion, ethnicity, class. What emerges from the collection, and a point Heintz makes, is that there are commonalities within this diversity, and that if we avoid the quick leap to judgement, the quick resort to labels, we can detect the nuances and common values. What emerges from Heintz’s collection, is that rather than a mass of isolated/disconnected thinkers and doers and causes and outfits and actions and upsurges and activisms globally, there is in fact a ‘broad and multifaceted resistance movement’, one battling to create a form of democratic globalisation in which ‘all citizens feel like they have a voice’. He cites in his final wrap-up the words of the great stateless radical activist/philosopher Thomas Paine (1737–1809), while distancing himself from Paine’s eighteenth-century male-centredness: ‘The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion’. Again, connections amidst diversities.
I am reminded here of the anti-Vietnam War/anti-conscription movement in Australia during the late 1960s, early 70s, when the size of street protests were numbered in their thousands as opposed to the small mobilisations earlier in the decade. I have been asked why it took so long for the large events, culminating in the three Moratoriums of 1970–71 (at the time the biggest public demonstrations in Australian history), to eventuate. As one who was on the ground and helped build that movement, I explain that the building took a lot of time and effort. Yes, public and media opinion eventually turned against the war and conscription, and the big end-of-decade protests manifested this, but in terms of movement building, it took a lot of time, patience, effort, in which frustration and senses of despair were not uncommon, to build bridges and develop the mutual understandings and trust necessary to bring together school students, university and technical education students, apprentices, workers, trade unions, adults of all ages and social classes, leftists of all hues, ex-service folk, religious organisations and so on, together … and, in Sydney at least, I recall future leading members of the Liberal Party in the last of those big mobilisations. There were at least 146 outfits actively opposing the Vietnam War and conscription.
Building social movements of consequence does not come simply, or easily, or without cost. Personally, juggling as I was at the time university studies, prominent activism, associated prosecutions under NSW State and Commonwealth laws and staving off lengthy prison terms, it produced what in retrospect I recognise as a form of burn- out.
I think too of one of the great oppositional movements of the twentieth century, the legendary and often romanticised French Resistance organisation, really a movement, against the Nazi occupation of France and their collaborationist Vichy puppets during World War II. It began in small ways –– isolated groups of friends and individuals printing anti-Nazi leaflets, cyclostyling illegal newsletters, individual acts of defiance, some spontaneous and reflexive, others planned, women and youth prominent amongst the early actions, amateurish acts of sabotage. In time it grew to become a significant strategic and military force. But only after a seemingly bewildering array of oppositional groupings across the political spectrum, often compounded by local and regional differences, had been brought together after a lot of bridge building, and compromises had been made and understandings reached. It was not a smooth, seamless unity, it wasn’t without its internal tensions, and as historian Matthew Cobb points out, it retained a ‘wide range of voices, approaches and attitudes’; but it worked. That it could not or would not survive the end of the war as a political force, though elements of the Resistance tried, was not what mattered or matters. The defeat of Nazism, the end of the Vichy collaborationist regime, and the liberation of France were what counted. And this all came to pass. 
THE FALL-BACK POSITION
If after all this, questions persist, I have a fall-back position, beyond which I cannot go. Answering from history I go back to a letter the Italian philosopher and politician Antonio Gramsci wrote, channelling his favourite novelist Romain Rolland , and three years into an eleven-year prison stretch in one of fascist Mussolini’s prisons: ‘I am a pessimist because of intelligence’, he wrote on 19 December 1929, ‘but an optimist because of will’. Good words I think.
Finally this: History is not scripted. Each one of us is a maker of history, either by what we do or do not do. And history surprises. For those of us around in the 1960s, no one saw the worldwide social protest rebellions and uprisings of 1968 coming; nor in the present, as I write, did anyone see young Greta Thunberg and the Climate protest millions coming.
*Part of this article was published on the ‘Radical Ruminations’ page of the Radical Sydney/Radical History blog http://radicalsydney.blogspot.com/, as ‘On Grand Plans and Allen Keys’, 22 November 2018, and incorporates part of the Guest Speaker talk I gave at the 34th NSW Australian Association for Environmental Education Conference Dinner on 4 October 2019.
1. For a selection of my writings see ‘Selected Works of Rowan Cahill’, https://works.bepress.com/rowan_cahill/. I have published a few pieces about my experiences of the 1960s/70s: Rowan Cahill, ‘Vietnam Reading’, Overland, Issue 150, Autumn 1998, pp.11-15; ‘A Conscription Story, 1965-1969’, The Hummer, Winter 1995, pp. 17-22; ‘ Joining the Dots: c/58/63’ in Meredith Burgmann (editor), Dirty Secrets: Our ASIO Files, NewSouth Publishing, Sydney, 2014, pp. 159-170. There is a 44 minute colour film interview about my experiences, made in July 2014, in the Australian War Memorial Collection, catalogued as Accession Number F09712. This footage was shot for Larry Zetlin’s documentary work in progress, Hell No! We Won’t Go.
2. My ASIO file is designated as C/58/63. Volumes 1 and 2 have been digitised and are in the National Archives of Australia at NAA: A6119, 2749, and NAA A6119, 3044.
3. Ben Ehrenreich, ‘Welcome to the Global Rebellion Against Neoliberalism’, The Nation, 25 November 2019, https://www.thenation.com/article/global-rebellions-inequality/
4. See Matthew Cobb, The Resistance: The French Fight Against the Nazis, Simon & Schuster, London, 2009.
This article first appeared on The Labour History Melbourne website by The Australian Society for the Study of Labour History labourhistorymelbourne.org
- Lessons learned_Reviews_Reflections
- Movements_Campaigns - Anti war
- Movements_Campaigns - Anti War - Vietnam (1961 - 1975)