Performing Anzac: Brendan Nelson and the emotion of remembrance

Aug 27, 2020

Dr Brendan Nelson came out swinging recently, providing a submission to the Public Works Committee defending the project he championed, the $498 million makeover of the Australian War Memorial.

Leaving aside the ad hominem swipes in Dr Nelson’s diatribe, particularly his suggestion that some critics of the Memorial project were motivated by resentment, we can focus instead on some Nelsonian rhetorical trademarks and point to an illuminating comparison on the other side of the world.

In Dr Nelson’s case, we have: anecdotes standing in for evidence, emotive tropes encouraging the audience to forsake reason and go with the sentimental flow, and the suggestion that his personal tutoring could give a visitor to the Memorial a special insight. ‘Not one of those appearing before the Committee in opposition to the project responded to my invitation to allow me to take them on a tour of the Memorial to see what it does, what it means, what the problem is and why it urgently needs to be addressed’, he said.

When he was Director of the Memorial, Dr Nelson also invited people, particularly politicians, to dust the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier, suggesting this act gives sharp insights into the ‘service and sacrifice’ of the men and women whose names appear at the Memorial. (I put that phrase in quote marks because it is essentially a euphemism, given that service is subject to orders and ‘sacrifice’ is better read as ‘sacrificed’.)

There is an implication in Dr Nelson’s public stand that those who do not feel a connection to ‘service and sacrifice’ are somehow disloyal to an idea of Anzac, or of what it means to be Australian, or both, since Dr Nelson inevitably ties the two concepts together. I would argue also that Dr Nelson’s approach to commemoration is not primarily about encouraging an appreciation of our Australian history but rather about engaging people through an emotional performance, in the same way that actors engage with their audiences in live theatre.

Anyone who accompanied Dr Nelson on one of his Memorial guided tours would have been fully immersed in the show, as it moved from Gallipoli to Fromelles to Kokoda to Long Tan to Tarin Kowt, in each case presented through the Nelsonian filter. Anyone who dusted that tomb would have found it difficult, according to Dr Nelson, not to undergo, ‘a transformative spiritual and emotional experience’.

There are parallels in the world of commemoration. Turkish historian, Ayhan Aktar, wrote recently about the Turkish battlefield guides at Gallipoli:

The battlefield guides transformed themselves into performers. By preaching their narratives, they were effectively acting and performing in the war memorials, cemeteries and remnants of the trenches … The affective and sentimental dimension of their craft was probably more important than the historical truth. The performance of the battlefield guides is actually “a performance of memory”. It is a composition of acting, in movement and gestures, and sentiments implanted in speech. The theatrical way in which many of the guides deliver their material, often using dynamic gestures, makes their speeches highly memorable. As [the historian Jay] Winter states, “the performative act rehearses and recharges the emotion which gave the initial memory or story embedded in it its sticking power, its resistance to erasure or oblivion”.

That Dr Nelson, Memorial guide and chief public spruiker, was, above all, a performer is shown by reading his speeches in cold print rather than seeing and hearing them happen. Viewed in bulk, Dr Nelson’s speeches are notable for their lack of structure, their repetition of stock phrases, their reliance on anecdote, their carelessness about facts, and their cribbing of key phrases from other sources. They often do not read well.

Yet, audiences again and again have been captivated by the Nelsonian delivery, including his ability to work without a script or notes. He must have a photographic memory but, then again, he used the same lines so often in his speeches as Director that it is no wonder they came out so easily.

Those lines were delivered with such emotion, however, that Dr Nelson more than once made himself cry, as is shown in this remarkable series of photographs of him in full flight at the National Press Club in 2017. ABC cameras at Dr Nelson’s many Press Club appearances were always well-primed, roaming the audience, looking for teary eyes.

Anyone who took up the invitation from Brendan Nelson, Memorial guide, would have had an emotional experience. Whether such tours ever got beyond emotion to ask – and try to answer – the really important questions, like why wars happen and whether they are worth it, is an altogether different matter.

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