National Service has always been a highly contentious matter in Australia, particularly during the Vietnam War era when 20-year old conscripts were required to become combat soldiers in a real “shooting war”.
Ultimately some 63,000 young men were called up between 1965 and 1972 and 15,380 served in Vietnam. 184 National Servicemen died there and 880 were wounded in action.
Australian troops arrive at Saigon Airport
during the Vietnam War - Wikipedia image
Towards the end of the war the opposition to sending conscripts to Vietnam had become very strong, with several large public demonstrations taking place in capital cities and organisations such as the “Save our Sons” group gaining considerable support.
The war had become generally unpopular by 1972, to such an extent that the then leader of the Opposition, Gough Whitlam, made the ending of conscription one of his key election issues. It certainly did play a significant part in producing a change of Government, and primarily for this reason successive political parties have steadfastly avoided any plans for the reintroduction of National Service.
The Hon. Gough Whitlam, 21st Prime Minister of Australia
But perhaps it was not National Service, as such, that was the basic problem, but more the way it was implemented. The selection system, involving the drawing of a marble from a Tattersall’s lottery barrel, provided a date and all 20 year old men whose birthday fell on that date were called up. The Leader of the Opposition in 1965, Arthur Calwell, described this system as the ‘lottery of death’.
Then there was the fact that conscripts were sent into a war zone. It’s bad enough when an Australian soldier is killed in an overseas war, but when a National Serviceman is killed in action, the situation becomes political dynamite.
But National Service does not have to be like this. There are ways of instituting a system that avoids these highly contentious issues and is still of considerable benefit to both the individual and to the nation.
Various schemes have been suggested over the years and here is one of these.
A call up for all twenty year olds is instituted – men and women – with the requirement for a three - month period of service. The inductee would have a choice of various electives and these could be chosen from the following areas:
The Army – a basic training course
Community work – Meals on Wheels, shopping and gardening for the elderly, work in nursing homes, Salvation Army, Vincent de Paul.
Council work – bushland regeneration
State Emergency Services (SES)
Rural Fire Services (RFS)
If Australia is involved in armed conflict at the time there would be no requirement for the conscript to become involved unless he or she volunteered and this would require leaving the National Service scheme and joining the regular Army.
“Points” could be attached to these activities depending on Government priorities, and
after a certain number was amassed, the conscript would be entitled to a subsidised home loan.
The SES in Victoria attend a vehicle accident
A considerable amount of useful community work would be undertaken – work which is presently in “on hold” because of the lack of people power.
And finally, such work would be of great benefit to the individual. Apart from the character building and discipline that comes from involvement in work of this type, unique networking opportunities arise from the mix of people that comes with National Service.
Would it work?
Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country - President John F. Kennedy, January 20th 1961.