No worries - they're warriors!

By Guy Langham

In the early hours of Tuesday June 3rd 1969, I was serving as an Ordinary Seaman aboard the Aircraft Carrier, HMAS MELBOURNE. We were on manoeuvres, four days out of Manila. The political administration of the day back in Australia was mindfully endangering the lives of the ship's company by deliberately manoeuvring a number of vessels into a fairly tight space, at Battle Speed, whilst following an anti-submarine zigzag course and preparing to 'fly off' a number of aircraft, and all this in the dark of night.

The destroyer USS FRANK E. EVANS was preparing to escort us on our port side, for the purpose of picking up any aircraft and men who may accidentally ditch overboard. This meant coming close to other vessels moving at high speed, when sometimes it is very difficult to see anything except lights. Due to the precarious positions and speeds of the two vessels, the fact that it was dark and to a lesser degree, the inexperience of some officers, our ship cut the destroyer completely in half.

Woken up by the grinding jolt and the piping of "Collision Stations" over the ship's intercom, I got up and hurried out to be mesmerised by the front half of the destroyer directly in front of us rapidly capsizing and sinking. Spotlights had already been turned on and I could hear a Wessex Helicopter starting up on the flight deck. I saw men slashing themselves to pieces, trying to slide and scramble across the barnacled underside of the hull as the front half of the vessel was turning over. I will never forget the screams of men who had the misfortune of hurrying to a porthole, instead of an escape scuttle, sticking their heads out and screaming out their last breaths in vain.

I also saw some of our crew jump over the side to aid American sailors stricken with injury and unable to swim. Notwithstanding the quick actions and heroism of the sailors that night, 74 of the EVANS crew perished. Many of them died before my eyes.

Months before I had been appointed to the position of Welfare Officer for the 130 Ordinary Seamen on board the MELBOURNE. Being an 'Ord' myself, I was sometimes confused as to how I could attend to the welfare of the group, who were expected to do the work which carried the lowest status and drew the lowest pay. In hindsight, probably the best way to tend to their welfare would have been to arrange for a discharge for them all. Despite it being beyond my capacity, I did manage to give evidence to effect a discharge for one Ord who was a friend.

I had told this story sometimes in the past, but sometime around 1990 I attended my first Men's camp, at Woorabinda, in the Adelaide Hills. The very next time I thought of that collision, to my surprise tears came to my eyes and I became confused about why this was so. Of all the mixed feelings and thoughts I have had about that fateful night, none has been clearer than the feeling that all is not right with men's conditioning, and all is not right with society's expectations on men. The clearest thing of all is that the responsibilities that we men accept for ourselves bear heavily on us, making us sometimes reluctant to look to our own safety and well-being.

Campaigning for safety in the armed forces may at times seem like a contradiction in terms. These issues may seem to be of concern to the anti-war lobby, or to some sort of mythical military union movement. The issue of safety of all combat personnel is a political question, as well as a men's issue. For example, in 1990, after a phone conversation with US President George Bush, Prime Minister Bob Hawke announced that Australia would contribute to a Multinational Task Force in the Gulf.

This decision, committing 300 Australian military personnel to risk their lives, was made without consulting either those personnel or the Australian people.

Just as the ships were about to leave, we heard from several sailors who hadn't counted on being sent to a war zone when they signed up. They tried to obtain exemptions or discharges before the ships were to depart. One sailor jumped ship to re-emerge much later on national television.

Although this may be regarded by some to be an act of treason and cowardice, I think that we - as caretakers and mentors of young men - need to consider this more carefully. The decision to choose a job that puts one's life so much at risk is a very serious one. For us as parents, as mentors and as those who care for our children, the decision to commit young lives and sanity to armed conflict is also a serious one. I question who should make this grave decision, on what grounds and with whose consultation?

I would like to make it clear here that I honour and respect the fighting spirit in which our service personnel fight. I do not advocate a reduction in armaments for those who are sent to defend us all. This would merely put more stress on them.

To defend our culture, our land and our community, is good enough reason to fight. But when, unprovoked, we threaten another culture, and we send our young overseas to fight, we send them to fight for and die for our ideas. This is a puny reason for such a heavy endangerment of healthy lives and such an unnecessary sacrifice. I question the validity of defence of our culture, when that defence is carried out from some far flung shore. I question the honour of any institution in which it is a tradition to place one's life on the line to promote the ideologies of the state.

I do not blame any military personnel for commitment to war. This is our responsibility, the responsibility of the state, our politicians and ultimately us, the people, who give our permission and our power to the state.

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