For richer, not better: the prostitution of the Australian War Memorial

Feb 14, 2023
Australian War Memorial Canberra.

There has been a flurry of mention of the Australian War Memorial (‘AWM’) concerning the removal of Chinese-made security cameras from Government buildings . The new Chair of the AWM, Kim Beazley AO, announced that it would so do, out of ‘an abundance of caution’ (codespeak for ‘this is complete BS but we will do it to shut you up’).

Beazley is far too intelligent to respond to a fleaweight like James Paterson, but this matter runs deep. From my time at the AWM, I am confident that any material of significance for national security is certainly not on display.

The AWM is not a military appendage nor a part of ‘national security’ – it is a cultural institution. Its function is to respectfully commemorate the actions of those who sacrificed their lives in defence (whether in fact, or more often through governmental mendacity) of the nation, to educate about the realities of that service and to provide access to information through use of its National Collection of artefacts and records.

It should not be part of the Defence portfolio, but for several decades now it has been appropriated for purposes for which it was never intended. It has been prostituted to serve both persons and governments in ways that ethical people repudiate.

The meme of ‘the Anzac Cloak’ is pervasive; reference Henry Reynolds’ quote from Alan Tudge (yes, that one..) that Anzac Day ‘is the most sacred day in the Australian calendar.’ Under Tudge, no education was to be allowed to question that assertion – straight-up indoctrination of youth.

But not just Tudge. There is far more pernicious and dangerous use of the AWM as a stalking horse for our involvement in illegal and immoral military/military adjacent actions in the last 50 years.

As for persons: The curious case of Brendan Nelson.

Nelson’s career is a breathtaking record of ‘falling upward’ unmerited by his actual achievements. In office at the AWM, he garnered more than $500m from the Labor government for the commemoration of WWI (ludicrously more than any other combatant nation) and then an additional (so far) more than $550M from the Coalition government for the almost universally hated expansion project at the Memorial.

Nelson staunchly defended the considerable donations to the AWM by Arms Manufacturers; then he marched into a senior position with Boeing several weeks after departing the Directorship. I draw no conclusions from that, though his apparent successes of persuading governments to loosen the purse-strings in majestic amounts may have been noted by those whose presence at the AWM he championed.

Though putrid, it is of little national consequence. We wave Nelson goodbye and good riddance as he assumes high office at Boeing in London. Hopefully, we shall not see his like again.

Such largess probably did not result from Nelsonian awesomeness but due to a darker governmental trajectory for the AWM. It’s no genius work to fill your hat with money when it is raining dollars.

The use of the Anzac Cloak with the AWM as its avatar to block criticism of governments joining overseas military actions for reasons that have no possible positive value for the nation is deeply concerning.

The duplicity of Howard’s galloping to the side of Bush and Blair for the invasion of Iraq needs no further comment. He also took us into Afghanistan twice. Rather than have me catalogue other ‘actions’ of the last 50 or so years, see the hagiography the AWM has produced in support of its current expansion project.

Donning the Anzac Cloak to camouflage the realities of these actions enables governments to escape almost scot-free from excoriation. Criticisms are (sadly) as effective as penny candles in a coalmine: casting no useful light and sometimes causing explosions from choleric military blimps/politicians with a guilty conscience.

There is no objective summation proving value to Australia as a result of its ‘modern’ overseas military jaunts. The generation of antipathy towards us is much better evidenced.

Now, the AWM – illegitimately consecrated as ‘the soul of the Nation’ – is to become a vast, repugnant, bloated talisman protecting governments from criticism of past engagements – and potentially of future engagements.

It has been a long journey to drag the AWM to this point. The last PM with the courage to disengage from an unjust, immoral, and useless-to-Australia conflict was Gough Whitlam. (Morrison did not voluntarily withdraw from Afghanistan).

Whitlam extricated us from the miasma of the Vietnam War. William Shawcross’s ‘Sideshow provides detailed examination of how depraved and illegitimate Nixon and Kissinger were in their pursuit of a ‘victory’ in Vietnam; James Curran’s ‘Unholy Fury’ records the incandescent reaction of Nixon when Whitlam stood up against the absolute bastardry of the bombing of Cambodia.

Using the AWM as a shield against criticism of engaging in conflicts is moral and ethical turpitude. Using vast amounts of commonwealth revenue to do so is fraud – there is no benefit, just malfeasance of purpose. Promoting the AWM for that reason verges on treachery.

When the theme of ‘all warlike action is honourable action’ is reinforced by the concept that ‘if it is represented in the AWM, it must be honourable’, we may end up with a China War gallery.

With the exhibits captioned exclusively in Mandarin.

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