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Australian Draft Resistance and the Vietnam War -
statements by Michael Matteson and Geoff Mullen

Cover of Peacemaker Magazine, Sep-Dec 1971, showing Michael Matteson

The following two articles are from Peacemaker, Sept - Dec 1971 Vol 33 Nos 9-12, published by the Federal Pacifist Council of Australia. They highlight that anarchists were active within the Draft Resistance Movement during the Vietnam War.

Much has been written about the Vietnam anti-war movement in Australia, but there has been little acknowledgement of the role of individual anarchists or anarchist groups.(1) Anarchists were active at all levels of the anti-war movement.

Sydney, in particular, has a long libertarian tradition deriving from the Sydney Libertarian Push. A contemporary account in Tharunka of one Sydney Vietnam Moratorium written by a member of the University of NSW Libertarians - Intercourse without Orgasm - provides an example.

In Brisbane the Self-Management Group, which was a highly structured libertarian organisation of over three hundred people, led Brisbane's marches against Vietnam in the early 1970's. 1945: The Saigon Insurrection published in 1977 in Brisbane reflects on Vietnamese nationalism and the anti-war movement. Brian Laver was a prominent member of the SMG during this period and is still prominent as a proponent of Libertarian Municipalism, standing as a mayoral candidate for Brisbane City Council in recent times.

In Melbourne, several student anarchist groups were very active during the late 1960's and early 1970s at Melbourne University, La Trobe University and Monash University. They issued statements on Conscription (1967), Czechoslovakia (1968), On the N.L.F. Ten Point Peace Plan (1969), disrupting Defence Department recruiting (1969), a Pre-Moratorium Leaflet (1970), and satirized the authoritarian left at protest marches (1970), and the hypocrisy of the maoists (1972).

Anarchists were active in the Melbourne Union Resistance Commune at Melbourne University in 1971, where an occupation by four draft resisters and others occurred, barricades were built and a pirate radio station - 'Radio Resistance' - was broadcasting. The main group in the commune, the Radical Action Movement, was committed to non-violence and to organisation through a strong participatory democracy structure. Maoists were also active in the Commune and abided by democratic decisions and worked with the anarchists in practicing building barricades for when the police were sent in. The occupation occurred for two and a half days, with the four draft resisters in attendance able to escape capture when the Commonwealth police raid occured. (2)

Conscription under the National Services Act was not universal; selection was based upon a ballot process based upon birthdays. This process of random selection for callup was also seen by some of 'middle Australia' as inequitable: either conscription should be universal, or not at all. The Cabinet documents of 1970 reveal that the conservative Government were initially concerned about the growth of conscientious objection and outright opposition to the National Service Act. Federal Cabinet consided instituting an option of alternative civilian work program for conscientious objectors - a 'Siberian labour camp' option, in an attempt to reduce the numbers of objectors going to jail. This was never instituted, but was widely rumored at the time. Such work would have been menial labouring jobs in remote locations such as north and western Queensland, western NSW, and northern South Australia. (3)

In Cabinet Submission Number 200 for 1970, Appendix 1(4), case studies of 17 men awaiting prosecution for failure to undertake service show a broad spectrum of opposition to conscription. Reasons include:

Draft Resistance never posed a threat to the number of conscripts required, but the campaigns did have an increasingly political effect on the Government of the day, and was a factor in the election of the Whitlam Labor Party to power in December 1972, the first federal labor government in 23 years.

In the end it was the fact of people like Geoff Mullen and Michael Matteson campaigning extensively while 'underground', then going to jail which made conscription an election issue in 1972, and ultimately forced its withdrawal from use by the new Labor government.

Takver, January 2001

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Michael Matteson

This isn't really an article but rather a collection of notes. One reason for this is that there are a number of things I want to say something about that don't quite fit easily in as a whole in this space. A more important reason is that there are a number of views on all this within the Draft Resisters' Movement and I don't went to tie others to ideas I know they disagree with.

These two statements on why we're opposed to conscription were drawn up by the Draft Resisters' Conference in September 1971. Within the Draft Resistance movement (DRM) the maoists only oppose conscription for imperialist wars, and so don't accept the first statement.

  1. Conscription claims that a man's life is only a tool of the government to be used for the purpose of the government. We hold that the actual lives of men are involved in conscription, that men have a right to complete self management in all things they are involved in, and that conscription is only a form of pseudo-democratic slavery. We assert the basic right of the individual to act according to his conscience and oppose the authority of the state to conscript for any purpose.
  2. Conscription in practice must be seen not as a form of home-defence which it is not, but as a necessary part of Australia's participation in the systems of Imperialism that at present controls relations between all countries. Imperialism can be seen as the use of different means, from economic 'aid' to genocide, to secure economic and strategic advantage over a people, to use them as a necessary and depressed part of a system advantageous to a major power.

The D.R.M. sees conscription and war as two separate issues. Pacifism within the movement is usually linked to a form of marxian socialism, a form of participatory democracy that doesn't go as far as abolition of the state, or a form of anarchism combining anarcho-syndicalism and Paul Goodman-type community anarchism. However, while a number of pacifists have been in favour of alternative service, the section of the DRM that is mainly concerned with self-management would oppose this as being as much conscription as military conscription; the section mainly concerned with anti-imperialism would oppose it as in no way affecting the government's ability to raise troops; and both would reject it as being simply a way for Australia to contain opposition while continuing with the same policies.

The National Service Act has never been a National Service Act but only "a-few-troops-for-foreign-wars" Act. The government needs only a small number of men "to win friends and influence his uncle". Anti-conscription strategies based on crippling the Act solely by mass refusal to register can't work. The government is not deprived of any troops by refusal to register. The government gets exactly the number of troops it wants. Government dealing with non-registrants at present has never been incompetent. The government has no need to prosecute the 11,000 offences at present untouched. They have only to keep enough prosecutions going to answer attacks that they are doing nothing; while they are seriously looking for those of us who are underground they have issued no more warrants. The government has no need for an ideally functioning National Service scheme - all they need is a working system that gets them what they need while provoking no more opposition than they can finally ignore.

I think the most effective strategy is mass refusal by people who will follow it through to jail. Our aim has always been to abolish conscription by mass jailing. For this we need two things:

  1. a way to get warrants issued:
  2. a way to get warrants carried out.

Since the Melbourne action we will have no trouble getting warrants carried out. What we now need is a way to get warrants issued. Our actions should be designed to cause the right-wing in Parliament and the press to put pressure on the government to issue warrants and attempt to enforce conscription at the point of 18 months jail. If 50-100 resisters are then jailed and 300-400 are waiting to be jailed, there will be strong public opposition to the Act, leading to its abolition.

For this it is important that

  1. people not registering must know all that it must entail to be effective;
  2. the DRM takes the initiative in forcing the government to issue warrants;
  3. emphasis is placed on the 300-400 resisters rather than the 11 ,000 offences the government can live with;
  4. those opposed to conscription organize in the DRM to make clear the aims and strategies of the movement so that people realize what conscription is and the cost of keeping it --hundreds, potentially thousands in prison.

It can be argued that the government will never jail 50 or 100 at one time, and that the public was largely unmoved by Geoff Mullen's imprisonment. But the whole point of this action is to make a situation where the government will have to imprison 50 or 100 within 6 to 8 months. This will make a situation that hasn't existed before where people will see what the cost of conscription must be and reject it.

We should be in jail before the Federal elections in order to expose what conscription is and to make it something that people are conscious of. This could make conscription and mass jailing an actual issue in the elections whether the parties want it to be or not. At this stage a Labour government would have to abolish conscription and release imprisoned draft resisters. They would have to because there are several Labour members who would threaten to cross the floor and bring down a Labour government that has kept draft resisters in prison. This would force the ALP to appear more seriously against conscription than they want to, and make it very hard for the ALP to bring it back when they want it.

Geoff Mullen and I are both anarchists. We both believe that you must take personal responsibility for your actions and follow this wherever it leads you. We were both influenced by the Orwell of "Homage to Catalonia" and the collected essays. However the practical form of anarchism that I support, and which Geoff would reject as largely futile, is the anarchism that has always seen itself as the left-wing of the labour movement. This is the anarchism of Mikhail Bakunin's "libertarian socialism" of the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists who carried out successful workers' control in 1936-37. It identifies with the popular movements that struggled for self-management against the Bolshevik counter-revolution 1917-21, and workers' councils of the Hungarian revolution 1956.(1)

"Ever increasing capitalist alienation at all levels makes it increasingly difficult for workers to recognise and name their own misery , thus placing them in front of the alternative of rejecting the totality of their misery or nothing. From this the revolutionary organisation must learn that it can no longer combat alienation with alienated forms".(2)

The revolutionary organisation that can do this is not the political party but the movement of people united in concrete actions. The modern image of revolutionary change is France 1968, where students and workers seized control of their universities, schools and factories with a developing aim of running them themselves. In the mass meetings in these places there was no separation between the people and the day to day control of their own lives.(3)

If the people doing this decide to use committees, socialists see their work as getting on these committees to steer them in the "right" direction, while anarchists think their work is to stay in the mass movement, trying to convince people to keep powers in their own hands to make committees rotating, to have all decisions made or rejected by the mass meeting.

Throughout this there would probably still be some form of State. For socialists a "workers state" is a necessary stage that they should take part in and push in the right direction. For anarchists any State is the negation of self-management and can only be replaced by constant struggle, people taking all the necessary co-ordination done by the State into their own hands. For anarchists the development from below of a viable federation is a basic problem.

The Russian anarchist-syndicalist, Maximoff, wrote of the defeated Russian workers' revolution in September, 1918: "There was an urgent need for systematic organisation and for the co-ordination of activities. The Revolution looked for this but too few elements were aware of the necessity and the possibility of federalist organisation. And the Revolution, not finding it, threw itself into the arms of the old tyrant, centralized power, which is squeezing out its life breathe".

"We were too un-organized, too weak, and so we have allowed this to happen".

Problems of alienation, of what happens when people's lives are warped around the needs of a system not under their control(4), can only be solved by people organising to make the action of their everyday lives their own.

Self-management is a minimum definition of a changed society in two senses:

  1. the programme outlined is the minimum change worth struggling for, the basic change from other-management to self- management;
  2. and, if the analysis is right, many theoretical problems of self-management, such as apathy, will disappear with the system they are a function of.(5)

The Problems of self-management can only be solved in practice, or lived with, as most are today. For anarchists there must be constant organisation against all alienated relations, against all using people as objects of someone else's needs or interests. The aim is a classless society .Without the State. Which doesn't wither, but is replaced by viable forms of management and federal co-ordination, arrived at through constant struggle.

Within the left there has been a change from mis-directing the Women's Liberation movement to supporting those aspects of it that have no structural effect on society.

There is support for the idea that women should have equal pay only if they do equal work. Apart from accepting the idea of unequal pay rather than a common rate according to need, this assumes that there are some jobs that are women's jobs and deserve less pay, which is the same as saying there are some jobs which are blacks' jobs and deserve less. And if you say no, it's not the same, the only reason you can give is that blacks are equal but women are inferior.

Opening to women some of the positions of power and exploitation that some men have isn't liberation, but continuing the problem. And in practice for women to "gain" these positions they must become like the men who have them, which isn't the way anyone should be.

The women's movement itself, however, through challenging unexamined personal relations and the received women's roles these are based in, has come to new ideas of what people can be, and has tried to work towards these through organising without authority or hierachy.

The fact that there has been change in men in contact with the women involved in the women's movement rather than through male liberation groups (which have been attempted), is perhaps a sign that while all dominating/ repressive systems demean both parties, only the dominated/repressed are likely to do anything about it. If effective, they must cause changes in the lives of those who are trying to relate to them in roles they won't play.

It is partly the same idea as that a workers' control revolution in industry would mean change throughout all of society. If there are to be no managers, how will the ex-managers live? If administration is taken up by the producers, the ex-managers must become producers, everybody then being neither managers nor producers but people producing by self- management.

The Draft Resistance Movement both in Australia and America have been associated with a slogan: "Girls say yes to boys who say no". It is a major criticism of the movement that it could accept, even as a joke, a call to take part in exploitation, to join in the use of other people as rewards and objects. It is worse when it is remembered that the slogan was popularized by women (e.g. the Joan Baez poster) in answer to the question: "What is the role of women in the DRM?" Women could see their only answer in reproducing within the movement their roles of commodity and passivity in the most obvious form of sex object and emotional prop for the warriors. That the question could be put is a sign of the elitism in the movement. At the DRM conference in September 1971 men not going to jail voted on recommendations for men going to jail; women were excluded from the voting. But their relation to people going to jail was the same as that of the men not going. This exclusion was not a structural effect of different situations but of elitism.

In the meantime, if the slogan "girls say yes to boys who say no" is used, it should only be used with the slogan that goes with it: "blacks say sir to boys who say no".

There is a kind of personality cult developing in the movement. This is no good for anyone. One of the ways of resisting is only to write or speak when you have something to say, i.e. to avoid commodity production. The section on women's liberation, which many consider irrelevant, is my price for writing this article.

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Geoff Mullen

Before he was gaoled on March 22, 1971, Geoff Mullen made the following statement: "Whenever I do something I like to think that I have a sufficient and rational reason for my action".

It is now some 11 months later and Geoff will shortly be due for release. Looking at the changes which have taken place over that period - or the lack of them; faced with the continued existence of the National Service Act, even in its shortened form of service, will he feel that the step he took was justified.

The answer to that perhaps lies in another of his statements, in which Geoff's determination to be an individual also makes itself evident.

He said: "I am in gaol and I suppose all the official records will say I am a criminal. I might, of course, plead that I have a moral duty to oppose conscription while at the same time the government has the legal duty to imprison me.

In this way I might see myself, and be seen, as a moral young man who takes gaol and suffering upon himself to forge a way to a better Australia. But this is not so. I don't really give a buggar about moral or legal systems, governments, religions, better worlds, 'pie in the sky' or anything like that. I want solely to live my life without interference or interfering, now. And to my mind, conscription is always an unreasonable interference with any man's life. Not even 'freedom and democracy' can justify the taking of a conscript's freedom".

This is but one of the many statements made by a young man who at one and the same time presents a front of extreme simplicity and directness, and yet to many, even closely associated with him, he has remained a partial mystery, diffcult to got close to and determined to preserve his rights to act as a free agent.

Although the time Geoff has spent in gaol has been, to some, unproductive and ineffective, for him there almost certainly could have been no other way.

Although the press have given scant recognition to his presence in Her Majesty's prisons, except to note his transfer from one to another; although his voice has been silent and his opinions unheard; almost certainly the most important result of his 'sacrifice' will, to Geoff, have been the maintaining of his integrity.

Shortly Geoff will again have the chance to make his own voice heard, and then we will have his own assessment. However, now is perhaps a good time to look over some of the things he said in the past, and to remember that the young man who put forward these views was prepared to sacrifice freedom to support them.

Geoff first came under the impact of the National Service Act in January 1967, when he registered for National Service, a step which he later came to regret, and which led to his refusal on February 1968 and on August 15, 1968, to attend medical examinations.

In November 1967 when he made his decision not to comply vvith the National Service Act, Geoff wrote to the Department of Labour and National Service explaining his action. In part he said: "it was foolish of me and, I see now, immoral of me to register. In doing so, I gave implicit approval to a government act which I now realise to be evil and unjust. This is not to say I ever regarded conscription or our intervention in Vietnam as morally acceptable. Rather these were not 'relevant' considerations in my decision to register. I did so in self-interest and delusion entirely in the hope that I would be missed in the ballot, thereby causing discomfort neither to myself nor the government.

"Since I was balloted in, I was then compelled to consider more closely the morality of the situation in which I was placed. I had to decide if there were in fact valid reasons for killing people in Vietnam or if not would I then commit murder merely on the imprimatur of the government.

"It may seem unreasonable that any man, myself least of all, should make pretensions to morality in these times. I am no saint nor would-be martyr and I live as I have to live. Yet I am convinced that life is not worth living if one is not, at least on the important issues, the master of one's own decisions. If others can make me kill and maim against conscience, I am less a man, a beast to be used and manipulated. Thus I could fight in Vietnam only if I considered it a just cause."

Later in the same letter he said: "if I cannot fight in Vietnam, I cannot for the same reasons implicitly approve the war by taking non-combatant status nor indeed can I continue to tolerate this iniquitous system of conscription and argue that mine is a special case that should obtain exemption for me. The Vietnam war and conscription are not only wrong for me but for all Australians, For my own case, I henceforth refuse to recognise any government legislation that is unjust and I dissaffiliate myself from any such laws ......

"This act in no way constitutes disloyalty to Australia. In doing so I am more patriotic than any of those merchants of death in Canberra. In opposing conscription and our aggression in Vietnam, I am doing my utmost that Australia should not become a nation of slaves or barbarians."

Taking his commitment a step further was Geoff's refusal to pay fines amounting to $89 for non-attendance at medical examinations, and his subsequent gaoling for 29 days for nonpayment of these fines in January and February 1969.

Just prior to this first term of imprisonment he issued a statement in which he said:

"I refuse to be conscripted as I consider conscription is the first step towards a totalitarian state. If there be any difference between Australia and the communist regimes that we hate, it should be that Australia shows some respect for individual liberties. Conscription narrows and for some obliterates this difference.

"While I am opposed to Australian intervention in Vietnam, I feel that conscription and Vietnam are two separate issues; I would reject conscription even if it were not for the Vietnam war.

"I consider that non-cooperation with the government is the only effective way of working for the repeal of the National Service Act."

Again emphasising this aspect of freedom was an article written in the Sydney Morning Herald of March 30, 1969, just after his release from gaol. In this article he said:

"Conscription...... harms Australians far more than Asians. It is first of all opposed to any concept of democratic freedom. If a government exists to protect the liberty of its citizens, then surely conscription is inconsistent with this notion. One hardly preserves a person's freedom by taking it away. This seems so obvious to me, and yet it is incomprehensible to many Australians. I see my own task as two-fold: first to maintain my own integrity and second to re-affirm to others the importance of their own dignity and rights."

A wider view of our society's problems and his disquiet at the attitudes he saw around him was evident in another newspaper article written during April 1969, this time for the Tribune:

"In Australia, to safeguard our democratic freedems, through conscription we dispense with them. To eliminate violence in the community we legitimise it with a blue uniform and a gun. To secure our economic future, we let our natural resources pass into foreign control.

"........ The government at the present dare not introduce immediate wide-spread brutal repression. In their blustering way, they will continue to bash a few heads at demonstrations and lock-up objectors from time to time. Gradually they will need to increase the pressure since each bashing or gaoling makes a more active dissenter. As the government escalates, so will the dissenters. There will be no end of strife until one side is destroyed or capitulates.

"........ This is what I fear most of all that should go the way of an insane America, with a violent people. If the Australian government continues to ignore individual freedom, there is seemingly no alternative."

In a number of his statements Geoff showed that he was in no way politically unaware - he had strong overall views, and in common with a number of other draft resisters, came to believe more or less in an anarchistic form of social structure. However, he also demonstrated a deal of scepticism as to the effectiveness of protest.

Comenting on anarchistic principles Geoff said, this time in N.S.W. University's Tharunka: "The concept of an anarchist organisation is a feasible one, at least in terms of a model ...... The one value of anarchism is freedom and histrorically the role of the anarchist has been to oppose those people and things that restrain freedom."

On the effectiveness of action prior to his current gaoling, and on further steps which could be taken, he said: "I think the protest over the past five years has been next to useless. The reason that America is getting out of Vietnam is basically that the Viet Cong are beating the arse out of them. I don't think marching around the streets has been effective. If sufficient numbers of young men refuse to go - action such as the Seaman's boycott of the Boonaroo. There are lots of ways that unionists are working for the army at the moment - the army isn't a self-sufficient force. Tax resistance too would be effective if it could become large enough. Conventional marches might provide their participants with an emotional pleasure, but to think that is enough is insane."

One of the more unusual steps Geoff took during his campaign against the National Service Act was his nominating for election to the House of Representatives in 1969. Standing against the then Minister for Labour and National Service, Mr Bury, Geoff managed to poll over 1300 votes in his attempt to "demonstrate, not any deluded desire ...... to enter parliament, but rather the corruption of the democratic ideals that our government represents". It was after this period that Geoff seems to have developed further his anarchistic philosophy.

Arrest came far from swiftly on the heels of his refusal to obey a call-up notice for December 2, 1968. Summonsed for this offence on October 14, 1970, he did not appear in court and a warrant was issued for his arrest. However it was February 18, 1971 before the Commonwealth Police took him into custody. The court remanded him on $300 bail until March 22, 1971. Although he had been living in a flat complete with name plate on the door, the prosecution stated in court that he had evaded arrest. He was gaoled for two years, the period of National Service he was liable to serve, on March 22, 1971.

Almost exactly a year before, he had been asked during a Tharunka interview what he thought he could achieve by going to gaol. He replied: "So far as my ultimate aim is concerned, that is the repeal of the National Service Act, relatively little. I have gained a more realistic view that I had before concerning society in general. I am not concerned to achieve great and striking things. I am only responsible for my own behaviour. Even more certainly now, after gaol, (his first stretch for non-payment of fines), my intergrity demands that I continue on the course I chose earlier. The Quakers describe this quite well. They consider conscientious objectors who suffer for their views, not as great doers, but rather as witnesses to all-important values. It is not important that the world be changed by mine or other people's activities. It is important that people do what they think is right and guide their own behaviour accordingly. Of course the world will be changed if people in fact do that."

Now that the ordeal is almost over no doubt having spent much of his time considering his actions and those of others fighting the same battle, it will be with great interest that we await Geoff's views. What will be his advice to those who follow after him into goal? Does he now think he could have achieved more by resisting arrest and maintaining his freedom as long as possible, as Brian Ross and Charles Martin indicated after their release from gaol? Or does his action still best seem to fit his aim of maintaining personal integrity and opposition to being treated like a machine and "used merely as others will"?

Certainly what he has to measure is the total disruption of life over a period of five years, as well as the sacrifice of a great deal of career and other advancements in the following of a belief. Only too well he might ask the question: "What price freedom?"

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