Disturbing the war


Disturbing the War: Melbourne Catholics and Vietnam
By Val Noone
Spectrum, 1993
Reviewed by Karl Miller

This account of the Vietnam War and the movement against it targets Melbourne Catholics from around 1960 until Australian troops were withdrawn in 1972. Noone's interesting narrative is carefully set in the national and international context. For example, he begins with the European invasions of Vietnam and of the future site of Melbourne during the 19th century.

Disturbing the War focuses on the differences in approach to the war between the Catholic hierarchy and friends, Archbishop Knox and B.A. Santamaria amongst them, and rank-and-file Catholics working in groups such as the Young Christian Workers.

Noone examines some of the theological debates around war and conscription issues, including the notions of just war, social sin, the Sermon on the Mount and liberation theology.

The book is organised very clearly and well documented, making it a good reference tool. The US war against Vietnam is divided into five periods. Each period is examined from an overall perspective, then through the (systematically exposed) arguments of the pro-war leaders and thirdly through the activities of Melbourne Catholics in the antiwar movement.

As a short general history of the war, this book will also serve well, particularly the introductory chapter to each period. There are excellent dissections of the arguments of the pro-war leaders, in the US and Australian governments, and among the Catholic hierarchy, from bishops and the National Civic Council to the pope. On the peace movement, Noone provides a very useful cross-section of the breadth of its activity.

As the focus of the book is Catholics, rather than the peace movement as a whole, it doesn't do so well as an account of the discussions within the antiwar movement. They are mentioned, but not drawn out. Some participants are for peace in general, others against this particular war, others against conscription, others active in the struggle against imperialism and so on, but their different approaches to arguing for and organising the movement are not considered.

Noone writes that the international moratorium campaign was a success, contributing to the decision to withdraw US and Australian troops from Vietnam, because "VMC's strength lay in mobilising a wide range of ordinary people around clear cut common goals". He agrees with the general thrust of the argument that the war was between US imperialism and the Vietnamese national liberation movement.

The name of the book comes from a US activist who, when arrested for picketing, declared, "I'm not disturbing the peace, I'm disturbing the war!".