United States draftee Mark Murrah was just a semester away from finishing his degree at the University of Georgia when he was conscripted into two years of military service during the Vietnam War. It was an enforced life change that would eventually drive the Murrah family from their homeland in the American south to the other side of the world, so strong was Mark's desire to protect his three sons from a similar fate.
One of Mark's children, Beau, recalls his father's unwillingness to talk about his experiences as a military police officer in Thailand and Vietnam. By contrast, his Dad was honest with his sons about his convictions over the war's futility and brutality, and the way his experiences as a conscript motivated him to resettle his family in New Zealand in the 1980s.
Beau shares his impressions of the way his Dad's experiences as a conscript have shaped his own perceptions of the Vietnam War, and reveals some of the rare fragments and memories his father has disclosed to his son since their move to New Zealand.
My father has imbued me to the core to be anti-war, specifically, to be anti-conscription for anything even remotely like Vietnam. I would dodge a conscription notice if it ever arrived – and feasibly still could in the next two years. I would go to jail rather than be conscripted.
My father's experience over his two years of service as a military police officer, mostly based in Thailand, was disgust on several levels, and he has described a few of the typical experiences of conscripts in Vietnam:
- Strong feelings the war had no purpose, and no plan to win.
- The brutal treatment conscripts received at the hand of figures of authority in the military. For example, the use of bayonets was considered morale-boosting, aggression channeling training for soldiers. The drill sergeants decorated the dummies to be bayoneted during training with racist caricatures of Viet Cong and shouts of "STAB THAT GOOK!"
- Poor treatment by his fellow Americans who did not empathise with conscripts who did not want to fight. My father recalls being transported by bus through the famous Haight & Ashbury Street in San Francisco where hippies threw eggs and shouted "baby killers" at the conscripts inside.
- He talks a lot about the effects of red rock heroin used by some US troops, as well as symptoms like shell shock, alcoholism and depression among veterans.
The experiences my father had with the war came to the fore in 1981 on the birth of his first child, my eldest brother. This prompted his search for a place to call home, to find a piece of land outside of the United States to ensure conscription would never be inflicted upon his son. My Father states it can be said that but for his Vietnam experience, he would not have sought to immigrate.
Dad was managing a food distribution company in the US, and was planning a trip to Australia to check out herbs and vitamins on the market there. A few weeks prior he went to a convention in Atlanta where met a New Zealander selling ground up powdered green-lipped mussels. The salesman insisted he should also visit New Zealand, because it was far more beautiful than Australia.
Dad had no contact with Kiwis during the war, so didn't know what to expect. On arrival, he found Kiwis less brash than Australians, he liked the climate, and after visiting the Coromandel he was sold on the landscape and bought a small lot there.
He states it can be said that but for his Vietnam War experience, he would not have sought to immigrate.
If we had remained in the Unites states we would be a very typical conservative, Caucasian family from the American South. Instead, we are a very anti-war family who have travelled a lot and consider ourselves world citizens.
My father feels that New Zealand was smarter than Australia for the simple fact that there was no conscription here. Politically, New Zealand did not fall completely over themselves to go "all the way with the USA". He says that "the most beautiful thing about New Zealand is how isolated and unimportant it is in world affairs".