David Stephens. Parochial commemoration of war.

Apr 23, 2014

Australians are not alone in the world in being parochial but we are very good at it, especially in the way we commemorate our men and women who die in war. The Australian War Memorial is missing many opportunities to expand our commemorative horizons and put our war deaths in context.

Under its legislation, the Memorial is ‘a national memorial of Australians who have died on or as a result of active service or as a result of any war or warlike operations in which Australians have been on active service’. The Memorial is also required to research and publicise ‘Australian military history’, defined as ‘the history of (a) wars and warlike operations in which Australians have been on active service, including the events leading up to, and the aftermath of, such wars and warlike operations, and (b) the Defence Force’.

The Act is not, however, the last word on how the Memorial does its work. The Memorial has given itself a ‘purpose’ clause which puts a gloss on the Act by using the debatable word ‘sacrifice’ to describe deaths in war. Then, there is a ‘mission’ clause in which the ambit is not ‘Australian military history’ as defined in the Act but the narrower field of ‘the Australian experience of war and its enduring impact on Australian society ’. (The history of wars in which Australians have been involved on one ‘side’ is clearly a broader canvass than the Australian experience of those wars.)

This narrowed focus allows the Memorial to target ‘Australian experience’ down to the most trivial level while ignoring events that did not involve Australians. The Memorial’s #OnThisDay ‘tweets’ are a microcosm of this phenomenon. On 19 March this year, the Memorial tweeted that on that day in 1916 one British general, Sir Archibald Murray, replaced another British general, Sir John Maxwell, in charge of the King’s armies (including Australians) in Egypt. Yet, on the same day, 19 March, in 1945, 800 US sailors were killed when the USS Franklin was attacked by the Japanese. The latter event was ignored by the Memorial’s ‘tweeters’.

Not all of the Memorial’s tweets display such clanging incongruity. Nevertheless, the ‘rules of engagement’ at the Memorial mean that any ‘Australian experience’ trumps any ‘non-Australian experience’, even where the latter occurs within a war ‘in which Australians have been on active service’ or where there are many allied deaths, as with the bombing of the Franklin. The Memorial’s exhibitions are a credit to their curators but they have a relentlessly parochial focus. Currently or recently there have been [Australian] ANZAC Voices, Australia Under Attack 1942-1943, Remember Me: The Lost [Australian] Diggers of Vignancourt, [Australian] Rats of Tobruk, 1941, Afghanistan: The Australian Story, and so on.

The Memorial website’s search function provides a crude measure of the Memorial’s areas of interest. ‘Gallipoli’ throws up 885 references to articles, 1064 to books, and 12 713 to collections, including 7639 photographs. ‘Holocaust’, on the other hand, scores 20 articles, 78 books and 23 items in collections. No-one outside Australia would have any doubt as to which of those two events – both part of the history of wars ‘in which Australians have been on active service’ – says more about the experience of war and of the human condition but the Memorial’s ‘Made in Australia’ lens forces these bizarre results.

On a smaller scale than the Holocaust, ‘Breslau’ (40 000 ethnic German civilians dead in the first four months of 1945 while the Russian Red Army besieged the city) provides one article (about ‘the Red Baron’, who was born there), nine books and 39 items in collections. Okinawa (100 000 civilians died there in 1945) tallies five, 18 and 123. Neither event was part of ‘the Australian experience’ so both are virtually ignored.

The wars and conflicts of the twentieth century killed an estimated 231 million people, perhaps 80 per cent of them civilians. By contrast, the wars recognised by the Australian War Memorial took around 100 000 Australian lives during that century, all but a handful of them enlisted servicemen and women. Every single one of those 100 000 deaths was a tragedy but are there in the world any 100 000 deaths so much commemorated as these?

Moreover, are there any deaths in war anywhere which are commemorated with so little regard for the context in which these men and women died? The ‘history of wars’ should involve looking at both sides in each conflict and the full range of effects. Wars have despoiled the lands and the lives of hundreds of millions of people, few of whom – apart from the dead of the Australian Frontier Wars, which the Australian War Memorial refuses to recognise – lived in Australia.

The causes of wars are complex, their progress, aftermath and ramifications traumatic for individuals, families and nations. Yet, in pursuit of ‘the Australian experience of war’, the Australian War Memorial steers away from these aspects while it endlessly mines the stories of our 100 000 uniformed victims, a mere 0.04 per cent of that 231 million.

The Memorial’s Act says, ‘The Memorial shall use every endeavour to make the most advantageous use of the memorial collection in the national interest’. It is surely in the national interest that we understand more of the reasons for wars and the impact of war beyond our own kith and kin. That understanding would do something positive towards advancing the ‘abhorrence of war’ (which all of us ritually claim to feel) and reducing the possibility of future wars.

The Memorial could play an important role in this task and it could do so within the terms of its own Act; it is foregoing that role at present in favour of sentimental and nostalgic commemoration. Picking at ancient scabs has been preferred to making a positive contribution to Australia’s tomorrows.


David Stephens is secretary of Honest History (honesthistory.net.au). Honest History is a broad coalition of historians and others, committed to frank debate and expressing a diversity of opinions on specific issues. Views in this article are the author’s own.


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