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The Beginning Of The End Of Modern Day Conscription

One of the shortest but most successful political campaigns in New Zealand began fifty years ago at the Victoria University Union Building on 22 February 1972.

On that day a small group of students, many from the Student Christian Movement, launched the anti-conscription organisation, OHMS; the Organisation to Halt Military Service.

OHMS was launched by a new young wave of NZers concerned with NZ’s support for the US war of aggression against Vietnam which had continued since 1963. This deeply unpopular war had seen growing numbers of NZers from all walks of life taking to the streets to denounce NZ’s involvement in the war. It was now time for the next generation to step up.

Although NZ did not send conscripts to Vietnam, unlike the US and Australia, the act of requiring the male population of NZ to register for military service within two weeks of reaching the age of 19 became a touchstone of youth opposition to the Vietnam War as well as to conscription itself.

Up until that time, the act of registering as a Conscientious Objector (CO) was the main route that 19 year old males chose to express their opposition to the Vietnam War. However, things began to change in the 1970s. First, Victoria University student Bruce Preston was jailed for failing to attend a medical examination as the next step to his conscription after being rejected as a CO by the CO Tribunal a few months earlier. A year later in 1971, Roger Fowler was jailed in Auckland for non-payment of fines relating to his failure to attend military camp.

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At the end of 1971, I was a student at Lincoln College. I was firming up my personal opposition to the Vietnam War and had just left the Young Nationals after unsuccessfully raising opposition to the war at the Dunedin National Party Conference in July 1971.

My 19th birthday on 11 November 1971 (yes Armistice Day!) was rapidly approaching and I was considering what I should do when I reached that age. My original thoughts had been to register as a CO and, being a practicing Christian, it was likely I would have been accepted as one. But as the date drew closer, I became more and more uneasy with this option seeing it as a cop-out by neither challenging conscription nor the war against the Vietnamese people.

There was no internet then but magazines and books about draft resister groups in the US and Australia trickled into NZ and could be found at Resistance and other left-wing bookshops throughout the country. The more I read, the more I was convinced that non-compliance and refusing to register for military service was the only way to go. However, I also knew that it was no use being an individual martyr for the cause and it was necessary to build a nationwide movement of 19 year olds refusing to register for military service, even if this lead to huge fines, which if unpaid would lead to prison sentences. Unknown to me, across town, two other Christchurch lads, Brian Newman and Marty Braithwaite were having the same reflections and had also decided not to register.

As I sat in the Lincoln College Library, studying for my final exams of the year, my mind kept wandering as to how to build such a campaign. Suddenly the physics symbol for resistance caught my attention. It was Ohms, and had the Greek omega letter for its symbol. I also realised that O.H.M.S. stood for On Her Majesty’s Service and was used on all official government postal envelopes at the time. The irony was too great and so the name Organisation to Halt Military Service (OHMS) was born.

I travelled to Wellington after final examinations to pitch my idea to one of my mentors (the late) Rev Don Borrie and he introduced me to the President of the New Zealand University Students Association, David Cuthbert. Both were impressed by the idea and Don arranged for me to workshop it at the Student Christian Movement conference in Masterton early 1972. David Cuthbert asked me to come to the next NZUSA National Executive meeting in Auckland, where they not only endorsed the new organisation but made me International Vice-President of NZUSA to fill a vacancy after Trevor Richards had left the position to concentrate full time on HART. The NZUSA position did not pay, but it had a travel budget which was just what we needed to build OHMS around the country.

I returned to Dunedin after finishing my 1971 year at Lincoln College to try and find summer employment and immediately came up against the consequences of my decision. The administration for the National Military Service (NMS) Act was undertaken by the Labour Department. Finding a job in Dunedin at the end of 1971 was not so easy so I went to the Labour Department to look for work or go on the dole if I could not find anything. I filled out my unemployment registration form and handed across the counter to a grim looking DoL official. “I see you have turned 19, have you registered for military service,” he said. “No,” I responded. “Then do it now,” he grumped and slapped down a NMS registration form. “No,” I said again, with a slight quiver in my voice. “You are required by law to register for military service and until you do you can’t get the dole and we will not help you find a job,” he retorted. (Yes, there were mandates even then!!) I took the form and said I would think about it but never went back again.

Two day’s later an old school friend of mine told me there were jobs going with a local cleaning company. I went to their offices and was given a job. In a further ironic twist, my job was to clean the Dunedin Central Police Station. So, although the National Military Service Act had me committing an offence every day by not registering within 14 days of my 19th birthday, this criminal (me) cleaned the police commissioner’s office every night for the next few weeks often finding some very interesting documents just casually left on his desk.

With the new university year starting at the end of February 1972, I came up to Wellington to help formally set up OHMS. On 22 February 1972 we launched the organisation at Victoria University. I was elected National Chairman. Little did we know at the time the disruption that we would be able to cause to the conscription system, the court cases that would follow, the imprisonment of resister Geoff Woolford, nor the widespread support we would get and following the election of the Kirk Labour Government 9 months later, the end of compulsory national military service in NZ. And, even more importantly, the last NZ troops withdrawn from Vietnam on 22 December 1972.

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