DAVID STEPHENS -People against the War Memorial’s grandiose extensions project.

Apr 23, 2019

On 23 March, the Canberra Times carried a story about an open letter from 83 distinguished Australians opposing the plan to spend $498 million on extensions to the Australian War Memorial.  

The signatories to the letter included Australian authors Richard Flanagan, Thomas Keneally and Don Watson, historians Marilyn Lake, Stuart Macintyre, Mark McKenna, Henry Reynolds, Peter Stanley and Clare Wright, three former heads of Australian government departments (Paul Barratt, Tony Blunn and John Menadue), two former Australian ambassadors (Richard Broinowski and Richard Butler), a former Director and Deputy Director of the War Memorial (Brendon Kelson and Michael McKernan), five former senior staff members of the Memorial, a former Human Rights Commissioner (Gillian Triggs), a former Premier of Western Australia (Carmen Lawrence), and Tilman Ruff, the founding Chair of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.

The story received a massive, strongly supportive response on Twitter, so Heritage Guardians, the committee organising the campaign, started a petition on change.org. The petition extended the arguments in the open letter: the extensions should be opposed because the money would be better spent in other areas, particularly direct benefits to veterans and their families; the Memorial was being favoured over other national institutions; the Memorial’s character would be destroyed (particularly by the destruction of Anzac Hall); much of the new space would be taken up with a grandiose entrance hall and parking space for decommissioned aircraft; the proposed direct feed of current Defence Department activities was inappropriate; and there had been minimal public consultation.

We closed the petition after two weeks, having gathered 1236 signatures from all over Australia and overseas. (By contrast, the War Memorial’s consultation on its plans captured “feedback” from just 134 individuals.) We will present the petition to politicians of all colours.

Of the people who signed the petition, 224 (18 per cent) made comments. One quarter of these comments said the $498 million would be better spent on direct benefits to veterans and their families. “What an obscenity,” ran a typical comment, “that such funds aren’t used to support the families of young men and women put in harm’s way at the behest of old men and women in suits.”

Another one quarter of comments complained that the Memorial was becoming less a place of remembrance and more a military and militaristic theme park, full of equipment manufactured by its corporate donors. “The constant expansion of the AWM (which is really a war museum) only serves to normalise war as the only way to resolve conflicts, and to legitimise Australia’s ongoing participation in overseas wars. Instead, we need to acknowledge the terrible human, environmental and economic cost of war and find ways to actively promote peace.”

Seven per cent of comments said the Memorial was big enough as it is and five per cent objected to the proposed changes to the structure of the place, particularly the demolition of Anzac Hall. (“The idea to knock down Anzac Hall and rebuild it smacks too much of the same sort of thinking dominant in the NSW stadiums situation.”) Five per cent said the Memorial should have more to say about peace and four per cent felt it should commemorate the Frontier Wars.

Eight per cent of comments complained that the money was being wasted, eight per cent that it would be better spent in other areas, from foreign aid to the environment, and seven per cent that it should go to cultural institutions other than the Memorial. (“The money should be spent on other national institutions such as the National Archives. This over glorification of Australia’s military history is unnecessary and dangerous.”) The remaining comments ranged from accusing War Memorial Director Brendan Nelson of ego-tripping to suggesting off-site building options.

The signatories of the open letter, and now the petition, are not dangerous radicals or unpatriotic, though people who question the received view of Anzac are often accused of lacking patriotism. Director Nelson recently described the open letter signatories as “intellectuals, academics, retired public servants and a bunch of fellow-travellers.” But then he had a sympathetic ear from revved-up 2GB shock jock, Chris Smith, who called the signatories “turkeys.”

These cheap shots do not detract from the power of the letter and from the thoughts of the people who signed the petition. These people are not turkeys, simply thoughtful Australians who are saying “enough” to Anzackery, the over-the-top, sentimental bastard child of a legend that deserves more honest treatment than it receives from eloquent spruikers like Dr Nelson. These Australians want to get beyond the seemingly endless portrayal of what great fighters Australians are – and how nobly they die – to look at the really important questions: why Australians go to war, whether it was worth it, and how war has affected Australians – and non-Australians.

Dr Nelson has taken to inviting sceptics on a guided tour of his War Memorial. The likely tone of such tours is clear from his recent anecdotes about veterans making emotional connections with decommissioned jet fighters and helicopters, a mother crying on his shoulder as she viewed equipment which her dead son had used in combat, and politicians gaining psychic rewards from dusting the tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier. It is not just about emotion, Dr Nelson, but about thinking – and questioning.

For people of my generation – I was born in 1949 and had relatives killed in both world wars – commemoration is not speeches by politicians, or parades and wreaths and children waving flags, or even emotive tours with Dr Nelson; instead, it is           something families live every day and every week, forever and down through the generations. People – of my generation or any generation – who grasp that fact do not need coaching in commemoration from Dr Nelson. And they do not need a bigger War Memorial.

* David Stephens is a member of Heritage Guardians, editor of the Honest History website (honesthistory.net.au) and co-editor of The Honest History Book (NewSouth 2017).

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