The Weekend Australian Magazine, March 22-23, 2003
Why have we drifted apart? After all, we started off together. Born within days of each other. In the same month. Of the same year. In the same country. Both of us into Christian homes mine Congregational, yours Methodist. And both of us belonging to one of the luckiest generations in the history of the lucky country.
Our first wails coincided with the beginning of World War II and we were just six years old when it ended. You were christened Winston, presumably in honour of the bloke who'd become a great wartime leader. And my first nickname at school? Adam Bomb. In honour of the weapon that had incinerated hundreds of thousands of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, dooming even more to lingering deaths from radiation.
But we didn't know about that, did we? Kids were protected from that sort of knowledge. We were given A.A. Milne and Biggles books to read, not harrowing accounts of nuclear war or the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo.
And we wouldn't hear about the Holocaust until we were much older. Lucky kids from the lucky country. While we played Cowboys and Indians, millions of children our age were bombed, starved or piled into cattle trucks for extermination in the death camps.
When the next war came along, one sanctioned by the UN, we were still too young to fight. Korea? It seems as remote as the Battles of Hastings and Agincourt.
But both of us were in the firing line when it came to National Service. Perhaps you were a school cadet already and couldn't wait to thump around in army boots. But I was balloted out. Come to think of it, you'd have been in the same ballot. So, yet again, we were lucky.
Then along came Vietnam. Did you volunteer for that one? The war in which we were embroiled by one of your predecessors. Harold Holt might have died in the surf at Portsea but he lives in the infamy of that silly catchcry, "All the way with LBJ", which ensured that lots of young Australians died in the jungle. (You should have learned from that. Never go all the way with the USA. On Anything. Yes, let's be friends with Washington and with the American people. But, surely the Vietnam disaster represents the sort of history we should avoid repeating.)
I'd left school at 15 and promptly joined the Communist Party. They expelled me shortly thereafter. At about that time I suppose you were joining the Young Liberals.
When Australia's direct involvement in Vietnam began in May 1962, you and I were 22. But neither you nor I ever plodded through the rice paddies. I was actively opposed to the war but presume you volunteered, only to be rejected because of a problem with your eyesight. Or perhaps your hearing.
On the other hand, you might have considered that Australia needed you to continue at university. As I recall, you were studying law, that marvellous preparation for a life in politics. Either way, the war remained something we watched on the telly. Lucky us.
Now, 40 years on, another war. And once again, Howard and Adams are lucky. Because we're too old. Oh, come on, we can fight over it, fight about it. But we won't have to fight in it. Not when we both turn 64 in July.
These days you're the prime minister and I like to think of myself as one of your sternest critics. Yet I can't find words stern enough to criticise you for what you've become and for your readiness to put other people's kids in harm's way. For your willingness to have our kids kill other people's kids, in a war that has bugger all to do with us. A war that's even crazier than Vietnam. A war, like that war, that's tearing our nation apart.
Yet there you are, night after night, asking for the nation's sympathy. Posturing about the pangs and pains of your role, about your awesome responsibility and the spiritual torment you have to endure when sending young people off to the Middle East where they may, very possibly, die. And die horribly.
But lucky you. You won't have to suffer what the combatants and the innocent victims will have to suffer. You won't be burned alive. you won't be blinded or burned beyond recognition. So spare me your finer feelings and self-pity. poor John? You chose a course of action a long time ago. You volunteered, on behalf of others, for the valley of death.
I'm not a pacifist. Had I been born in 1919 rather than 1939, I'd have signed up for World War II. However, a pre-emptive strike against some pissant little country that in the last Gulf War failed to kill any members of the "coalition of the willing"? That wasn't a war. It was a turkey shoot. It was, until Gulf War II, the most one-sided war in human history.
I'm writing this column at a time when the war is still a threat on the horizon. By the time it's printed the worst may be over, or the horrors may be even more dreadful than we imagined. But the point is you've helped urge this war on the world and forced a reluctant nation to take part against people who deserve our sympathy, not our bombs. And none of your arationalisations is convincing.
Too young for this war and this war and too old for that one and that one. Yet it seems you're exactly the right age, at 64, to send our children off to die. To kill other people's children for the Iraqi Army is full of conscripted kids who'll fight without enthusiasm and die without choice.
Soon you'll be gazing at a cake covered in 64 candles. As you bend over to blow them out, feel the heat of the flames on your face. Think about the agonies of being burnt and bombed. And as you blow out the candles, think of lives being snuffed out.
John, the bloodstained pages of history are full of men like you. Old men who send young men off to die. Does it make you feel heroic?
©-free 2003 Adelaide Institute