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National Observer Home > No. 57 - Winter 2003 > Articles

Wars, Demonstrations and Peace Movements: Memories and Observations

Max Teichmann

There was a recent report of a thousand school children marching past the Melbourne State Library protesting about the Iraq War. Some bore signs reading "Books Not Bombs" (try dropping books on Hitler or Saddam); others carried Iraqi flags. Some of the children were eating ice-cream. The whole stunt was organised by the National Union of Students.

This collection of "student" politicians and bureaucrats, notable mainly for their endless internecine battles to gain control of their union, is either ignored or detested by most students, partly in view of their parasitic designs upon student union fees. But their uses to the Labour Movement — organising demonstrations such as that one, leafleting, poster work, scrutineering and obtaining donations? — mean that they are protected by official Labor. Student Union fees will remain compulsory.

Student union apparatchiki and propagandists dream of becoming a Labor member of parliament or Left-union leader, an ambition that they often go on to achieve: frequently via a stint as a teacher.

The public, for their part, strive to ignore these infantile, ultimately sordid happenings. But they should not. For what kinds of schools are producing students that wave the flags, not simply of another country, but one with whom we are at war, and whose soldiers, in the pursuit of victory, are trying to kill our soldiers, just as ours are trying to kill theirs? What kind of teaching has been going on and by what kind of teachers?

The Beginnings . . . Vietnam Agonistes

In fact the practices just castigated go back to the Vietnam War, and produced the first big split in the peace movement. I had assumed that peace movement members all wanted peace and an end to war, as soon as poss-ible, and that if that proved impracticable, for example if our great ally would not listen, then in their view we should pull out our troops, possibly to encourage other combatants to threaten to follow suit — unless the major combatants took peace as a real option. On this basis we would no longer be associated with a futile and bloody war. This did not entail believing that the United States was wicked and deserving of defeat; or that the North was right, and should be supported, and should win.

But it steadily became clear that some in the peace movement — organised around political groups with a revolutionary, anti-Western ideology — were working to produce a Communist victory, and a Western defeat. So the breakaways proposed, at one point, smuggling military aid to the Vietcong. That tokenistic and deliberately provocative proposal was rebutted, but it helped to fill out some grey areas in the political map. For it revealed that there were people in our midst who hated America more than any other country, who put no value on their own country and who, in the Vietnam case, actively supported other countries because they were Communist, or anti-imperialist, or anti-colonialist. And that they were working to undermine our soldiers, not to produce peace, but their defeat.

They were not against war, as such, and did not see peace as the prize. They wanted a Communist victory — no matter how long it took.

The Progress of the Contemporary Humbug

The present situation is in some respects analogous. The anti-Iraqi War movement started as defining Peace as the greatest Good and War as the greatest Evil. It involved no praise or support for Saddam Hussein. It criticised America as the aggressor — whose motives were said to be those of seizing Iraqi oil: either to keep the price of oil up to help big shareholders George Bush and Dick Cheney, or to give the United States a strangehold or semi-monopoly on the world oil market.

So the anti-Iraqi War movement tried for a time to don pacifist clothes. All wars are bad, always have been, always will be. Ergo — we should pull out our forces (then demobilise all of them: for all killing is wrong). The younger demonstrators, having been taught no history, were able to pass judgment on all wars that had ever been and ever would be. Meantime they watch a never-ending torrent of films, videos, war games, killing and physical aggression, with gusto.

But the pacifist position, apart from its impracticality, rules out the expression of spleen and destructiveness, which however appears to lie behind a great deal of the "goodwill to all men, turn the other cheek philosophy" practitioners: a massive exercise in Denial of their own predatory, aggressive feelings.

So most peace and anti-war movements, when the chance arises, as it has here, soon move from impartial peaceloving and non-violence to side-taking, hating one crowd, idealising the other and creating public mayhem.

Since the side that is invariably hated turns out to be one's own government — for the identity of the other part of the spleen target is optional and changeable — the practical violence and destruction will almost invariably be visited against one's own society.

Therefore, our governmental symbols and infrastructure can be blockaded and damaged, because "they" (our custodians) sided with the loggers, the miners, the bosses or in this case the Americans (either as an Imperial Power or International Globalist). That is, we are the constant target of the demonstrator-dissenter, rather than the other establishment delinquents whose identity can change from year to year.

At least nowadays, peace movements, say-sorry movements, anti-migration control groups, anti-globalist activists and anti-union reform demonstrators are substantially interchangeable. This can be seen by noting the same clientele or type of clientele appearing and reappearing (but not disappearing), while a travelling circus of political parsons, public intellectuals, stalinoid union spokesmen, crumbling thespians and fading popstars, service the shifting mini-marches of protesters with enviable promiscuity. So this heterogeneous mass is really homogeneous — with the same political, cultural and class origins (largely middle class, aspiring middle class, or lumpen middle class, that is, the ferociously unemployable of middle class origins or with middle class tastes).

The proles are in this context the union stand-over activists rather than ordinary working class members. In my long experience, the authentic, self-motivating worker finds middle class types — especially the unctuous, narcistically verbose teacher/public servant characters — off-putting, and not so secretly elitist. And as to the professional radicals, the mischief-makers, proles distrust them and often disapprove of them. Feminist apparitions move them not: nor does kitschy ethnic attitudinising. "Let us just get on with it, shall we", is the attitude of the general prole (as against the professional prole or the prole manque, who likes turning demonstrating into an art form and protesting a way of life, sucking the bitter lemon of resentment dry). Class memberships have altered drama-tically since 1968. The Culture of Complaint has seeded and sprouted in many areas of social life where earlier it had no place.

Some eighty per cent of working Victorians are now classified as white collar workers. Industrial workers are now an endangered species, which accounts for much of their leadership grandstanding and a desire to attach their members to any radical anti-establishment cause.

But the number of bored, underemployed, under-educated but indoctrinated students has multiplied enormously since Vietnam, partly as a reflection of the disappearance of so many career paths, crafts and just jobs per se. Young people are being kept longer at school, then being hung out to dry at one of our countless tertiary hideaways. Many of our latter-day students do not really want to be there nor in institutions who once would not want them there either.

Given their cynicism and their isolation from a real world which the young once understood, and in which they might have prospered, complicated by their largely unfounded feelings of superiority over people who still do not have the degrees they possess, it is perhaps surprising that there are not many more resentful young rebels looking for a cause, than there in fact appear to be. Here spectator sports, partying, alcohol, driving big cars and other diversions have been a factor.

The Stages in Protest Movements

But, although these two war protest movements (in regard to Vietnam and Iraq respectively) are very different and the participants somewhat dissimilar, their developmental cycles are, depressingly, the same. Starting with calls for peace there is a rapid move to vilification of the enemy — nowadays, the United States.

Upon reflection, this trend in the Vietnam debate seems even more bizarre than the present animus being directed against the United States. After all, Russia was a superpower, nuclear-armed, her fingers in many pies, with a great captive population of Eastern Europeans, Balts and Central Asian Muslims, and with a network of supporting parties and spy networks throughout the world.

Russia also had one of the vilest tyrannies in modern times. Nevertheless, the Soviets did not interest the protesters. Neither then, nor at any time since. Nor have the manifestly malign activities of Communist China, the consequences of the Great Leap Forward (30 million deaths and horrendous famines) and the unfolding Cultural Revolution distracted the protesters from the main game. In fact, China could do no wrong. Mao was a demigod and the Red Guards role models for our local radicals. America was the Great Satan, from the world of Victorian melodrama. This Pavlovian fix was destined to be carried undamaged within the breasts of our ageing sixties radicals unto this present day, ad nauseam.

China was and is the good internal object; America the bad, persecuting internal object. And the faceless, neutered state is the Magic Pudding.

Now that Russia and China and attempted Third World substitutes have sunk into apparently irremediable disgrace, our sixties people have been in deep, secret despair and much anger. Especially as they dimly realise that many of their ill-conceived but often extremely damaging intrusions into every aspect of Australian society have, predictably, repeatedly failed. But the archaic Left have been powered and sustained all this time by the hubris and the imaginary prestige that they conferred upon themselves by opposing America in the Vietnam War, like a row of crows sitting on a wire, taking the credit for the train crash.

But now Iraq has turned up, and our radical wrinklies and their media proteges have seen a chance to relive Vietnam. How? By being anti-American, anti-our Government, and supporting their antagonist: in this case the long-time butcher and tyrant, Saddam Hussein.

Indeed, it may be that the mythology of Vietnam took over the new protester industry from the beginning or that the Marxist hard core groups which gradually wrested control of the original anti-Vietnam War movement from the moderate mainstream, jumped in immediately this time, and assumed control, and have been leading the charge, setting the tactics and the propaganda from inception.

This may explain why the anti-Iraq War agitation has moved so quickly to the later, publicly unacceptable stage of the Vietnam protest movement, which constituted violence and obstruction, burning flags, abusing Australian and American leaders, carrying the opponent flags and chanting "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh".

It has been difficult for our present day protesters to drum up much support or sympathy for Saddam — though bin Laden received plenty, carefully phrased — but Iraq became the hope of the radical side, and the public media began searching frantically for any good news about allied casualties (and of course, setbacks) while chaffing impatiently for news of civilian deaths.

Not a Salubrious Spectacle

Another difference between the two wars is that the Labor Party was quite circumspect during most of the Vietnam War, allowing shock troops led by people such as Jim Cairns, Gordon Bryant and left-unions to attack the American case, while the bulk of the party moved with considerable care. Suggestions were made at the time that had the Labor Party taken over the anti-war movement, the radical Left groups would not have been able to gain the prominence or generate such negative images as transpired. However, the electoral cost to Labor in the short term might have been severe, groups of Labor supporters might have split off in anger at such a commitment and, in any case, the hard Left would have continued with its agenda.

With Iraq, on the other hand, the Labor Party jumped in from the outset, calling for our forces to be immediately withdrawn and producing criticisms of the United States and the American President not heard for many years, except in Sydney journalists’ pubs. Such was the public reaction to these tactics that the Labor party has had to back away. Up to date, Labor Party hopes that this war, and Labor's leading role in its denunciation, would raise their support, have not been realised. In fact, the reverse has occurred.

And, most humiliatingly, Labor spokesmen played a minor role in the demonstration campaigns, their presence being greeted with indifference. Simon Crean's philosophy in this context seems to have been, "I am your leader. I will follow you anywhere."

Having lost all hope of influencing the autonomous or manipulated protesters Labor might have been well-advised to avoid these issues and instead to attack the government on the domestic front.

Normally they would expect the media to take the hint and change tack with them, so as to help their old friends. But for as long as practicable the media has continued headlining demonstrations, abusing the Americans, distorting or falsifying reports of the war, because war and violence are news — but also because the Left-members of the media, very numerous and dominating the agenda, locked themselves into an Iraqi victory and a Coalition defeat. This led to a loss of media credibility.

And this returns us to the earlier question — where did our current, politically-bemused young people, copy-catting and play-acting in our streets, come from? What kind of schools produced them? What kind of teachers taught them? What have these teachers been giving them?

• • •

From the end of the 1960s, at least in Victoria, 70 per cent of arts graduates from Monash and La Trobe went into teaching. A great many of them, from my observation, were not particularly interested in children or aware of their feelings or their vulnerabilities. Those graduates still enjoy the Peter Pan role far too much. The kind of educational theory new graduates were given at the gung-ho teacher training colleges was ideologically skewed, simplistic and yet, strangely elitist, from the beginning.

That teacher intake had rarely contained academic high-fliers, and it became apparent that the dogmatisms, the intolerances, the careless scholarship and the boundless self-satisfaction with which their brand of university culture had already imbued them, was simply re-emphasised by the teacher training institutions. Too many chalkies closed their books and their minds as soon as they left university and have not opened either since. To encounter them socially or intellectually, to discover what they are now reading and to inspect what kind of syllabi they construct for their charges, the lessons they teach, the books they use, is to find oneself in a world where Rip Van Winkle has just fallen asleep, uncanny and weird. Their clocks stopped at 1968.

Yet this infantile Communist, bogus egalitarian, anti-traditional culture mindset is still blocking out the sun in too many schools — and two generations of students have been robbed of the broad, undogmatic education which earlier students received as of right. Instead of which they are fed simplistic outbursts of bile and discontent about the institutions needed to support all viable societies, and inaccurate summaries of often complex historical, moral and political questions, which they have neither the necessary background nor the experience to evaluate. These are supplied by teachers who are only too often in the same condition. Only their ignorance is invincible.

As we were recently reminded, when in a survey in the late 1990s parents were asked whether they trusted teachers to teach civics and citizenship to students, 60 per cent said they did not trust teachers to teach impartially, and, as has been reported, there is widespread concern that teachers are either not well-enough trained or professional enough to teach this programme (civics) without bias. This critique may be extended to the instruction being currently provided on multiculturalism, the environment, Aborigines and immigration. Parents would be expected to provide similar responses here, as they did to the civics survey. There is now a situation of deep distrust and an absence of confidence on the part of most parents with respect to the education and the proper care of their children. And they, after all, observe and have to live with the ongoing results.

One consequence is the excretion of young people onto the streets urged on by teachers and that permanently radicalised time warp, the teachers’ union. When the young demonstrate on matters like, for example, Iraq, concerning which they possess virtually no reliable information, nor the means of analysing or grading such information, little wonder that their demonstrations seem so capricious and unstructured, nor that, when interviewed, their affirmations are so monosyllabic and cliche-ridden. Cliches from the usual Left journals are their resort — from Green Left Weekly, Socialist Worker and flyers of ageing Spartacists. All in all, students are being provided with a misleading structure for the purpose of undertaking radical action or wishing to change society. Not only schools, but, it would appear, some parents also have failed these young people.

National Observer No. 57 - Winter 2003