01 December 2008

John Zarb's free lesson in protest

John Zarb's free lesson in protest Alan Howe The Herald Sun 01 December 2008 12:00am - ALL of Melbourne once knew John Zarb's name. You couldn't miss it. By the end of 1968, "Free Zarb" signs were painted all over town.

In October that year, Zarb became the country's most famous protester, and the first conscientious objector jailed here for refusing to comply with a call-up notice for National Service.

For years I used to see one of those signs twice a day in letters perhaps a metre high on the fence along the train line behind Box Hill Cemetery, which remained there, and I would suggest was from time to time touched up, well into the 1980s. If it's still there it should be heritage-listed.

These days Zarb, 61, is retired and lives in Canberra's suburbs, where he tends a vegetable garden and speaks proudly of his three daughters - one of whom, he tells me, works for the Department of Defence in intelligence analysis.

Zarb, a postal worker when he was packed off to Pentridge, which had only recently hanged an inmate, worked hard to get an education, finally matriculating and later completing a degree part time and then working as a statistician and analyst with the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

His daughters have all passed through university, and he even took one to a protest.

"I planted a cross on the lawn of the Indonesian embassy," said Zarb of his joining others at the time of deep trouble for an East Timor still controlled, often brutally, by its powerful neighbour.

"Later I bought 500 shoes and put them on the driveway."I said they represented the souls lost in East Timor." The ambassador apparently missed the pun, but respectfully chose not to drive over the footwear.

Zarb won again.

During his jail time Zarb was sustained by letters sent to him from around Australia. "There were three or four big mail bags coming in for me nearly every day."

The year of Zarb's jailing was the turning point in the Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong took South Vietnam's biggest cities by surprise with the Tet Offensive that January. It may not have delivered lasting military success, but it was a powerful PR coup.

A few weeks later American troops massacred hundreds of unarmed villagers at My Lai and the war was losing its appeal on US breakfast television.

By 1968, there were more than 500,000 US troops in Vietnam, 14,592 of whom were killed that year alone.

In August 1969, when the Free Zarb signs had done their work, 55 per cent of Australians wanted our troops brought home.

Zarb was ordered to be released by governor-general Sir Paul Meernaa Caedwalla Hasluck, a man as remarkable as his name. Hasluck, despite being trained as a journalist, was an outstanding intellectual, who of course realised the significance of Zarb being incarcerated for his beliefs.

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