Underground : Marsupial Outlaws and Other Rebels of Australia's War in Vietnam by Mirranda Burton

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At a time where the post-traumatic stress many Veterans of the Vietnam War suffer is becoming more well-known it is timely to reflect on the way the war was perceived at the time. In this beautifully illustrated graphic novel we are first introduced to wombats, great Australian diggers and survivors, then to the Artist Clifton Pugh, recently returned from WW2, who in 1952 with other artists, bought land on the edge of Melbourne and established an artist colony which became Dunmoochin. Soon Marlene Harvey moved in with him and began taking care of orphaned wildlife. It was a time where the communist threat was seen everywhere and one of the people concerned was their friend Jean Crosland whose Russian Jew mother had taught her to be wary about war and propaganda. In chapter two we are given a snapshot of Australia in 1965 and an explanation of conscription. Twice a year “voteless young men turning 20” had a one-in-ten chance of being selected for national service to go and assist the U.S. military fight communists in Vietnam. There is a particularly dramatic illustration on pages 18 and 19 of "… the death lottery” with two young men marching among skeletons with lottery balls as heads. Chapter three, Save our Sons, explores how Jean, Marlene and others started the women’s movement against conscription. As Australians watched the war on their TV’s every night opinion gradually shifted and the movement garnered increasing support as the war dragged on for years.

This 250 page book proceeds to look at the war from different perspectives including that of volunteer Bill Cantwell and Mai Ho, a Vietnamese refugee. The timeline shifts backwards and forwards keeping the narrative engaging. Always the stark black and white images leap from the page, often skilfully scratched into a blackness that adds drama and depth, while the wombat, Hooper Algernon Pugh who was allegedly conscripted in 1972, is a charming character and deserves his own children’s book. There are notes and references on all the chapters and biographical notes on the main characters, making this an important and accessible insight into the period. The recent release of Carolyn Collins book “Save our Sons: Women Dissent and Conscription During the Vietnam War” suggests that the time is right for such examinations of women’s roles in Australia.

Themes: War, History, Resistance, Conscription, Refugees, Mental health, Women.

Sue Speck