Conflict and Social Change in Australia

Throughout history, conflict has been the trigger for great change in societies. Australia's experience is no different.  Perhaps the greatest testament that our involvement in both World Wars demonstrated,  was a profound sense of community and duty, such that it precipitated wholesale enlistment by citizens across the three armed services. The recruiters concentrated on filling enlistment quotas.  Given Australia fielded an all-volunteer Army this was no mean feat.  Recruiting advertisements targeted the very well-developed sense of Duty that prevailed at the time. 
In the First World War (WW 1), Emancipation (women getting the right to vote) and Conscription were the two hot issues; the latter dividing the nation along religious and class lines.    
In the Second World War (WW 2), Australia established high level manufacturing capability but it needed to mobilise the female population to provide a labour force to replace the men who had been sent to war.

AWM ARTV00332.

Australia's WW 2 experience in the SW Pacific and engagement in a series of post-colonial conflicts in SE Asia was a portent to a dawning realisation that we are part of Asia, not Europe.
Korea saw the start a period of East West tension through the Cold War.  The fear of nuclear holocaust gripped the globe and underpinned a series of incidents during which the limits of brinkmanship were tested during a period of "Mutually Assured Destruction" which fortunately was never realised.  

The onset of "rapprochement" between the USA and USSR led to a 'thawing ' of the threat followed by the fragmentation of the former Soviet Union.  However, the nuclear arsenals remain and a proliferation of nuclear armed States and a shadowy periphery has added a new, less defined dimension to the nuclear threat. 

Vietnam coincided with another great period of social change and liberalisation of society. Mass street protests against the War in Vietnam began in the USA and spread to most Western countries. In Australia, protests spilled on to the streets in the late 1960s. Widespread community opposition eventually triggered a withdrawal in 1972. 

The Canberra Times, Saturday 25 July 1970.
The most disturbing aspect of this phenomenon was the vilification of returned service personnel in both the USA but particularly in Australia, by some sections of society. This behaviour caused deep and lasting emotional scars among tens of thousands of veterans who having done their nation's bidding with distinction were physically and emotionally attacked on their return. This was compounded by the fact that they often returned as individuals as their 'Tour of Duty' expired, rather than as part of a formed unit. Thus were they often socially isolated and without the support of their comrades.

Fortunately, this behaviour has not been repeated in more recent conflicts.  A greater realisation has emerged that our service personnel do the bidding of the government of the day. In a free, democratic society the Defence Forces are servants of the people via an elected Government. They go where they are sent, to perform the nation's bidding.  And thus it has always been. That relationship and commitment needs to be respected and valued and is a key tenet of the RSL's raison d'etre (reason for being).   We hope this site will help contemporary understanding of the role of citizens in the defence of the nation and the protection of other nations and people under threat of aggression.   

 © Steve Larkins, RSL Virtual War Memorial