It’s not what they know, it’s what they choose to tell us: reading the Australian War Memorial

Apr 23, 2021

Many more things happened in the past than are recorded in history. Some versions persist. Others have currency for a time, then get put aside, because fashions change or because the version does not fit political agendas or notions of what audiences expect. Some versions have been sanitised. Others are just suppressed. The Australian War Memorial has form in this regard, although there are some glimpses of change.

Honest history is interpretation robustly supported by evidence. Alison Broinowski and I wrote that in the introduction to The Honest History Book, published in 2017. It is as true now as it was then. Much as some of us (including former prime minister Howard) would like there to be just one, immutable version of history – which we might like to call “the truth” – history is always changing as we interpret and reinterpret the past. “All historians select evidence”, as we wrote in the book. “It is how they select it that matters, not the fact that they do.”

Here are a few examples. The Memorial still displays on its walls the famous, “You, the mothers, who sent their sons …” words, supposedly those of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Turkish Republic, even though there is no strong evidence that the man ever said or wrote them, and plenty of evidence that he did neither. The Memorial’s website retreats a little by saying the words are “often attributed to Atatürk in 1934”, but the casual visitor to the Memorial is unlikely to read that.

The Memorial continues to spend vast sums on paintings by Indigenous artists of massacres of First Australians and related incidents but has no plans for a dedicated Frontier Wars gallery. It encourages families to provide information about their dead ex-service relatives for possible commemoration in the daily Last Post ceremony but then censors the stories to ensure the right tone prevails. (Difficult to include that Uncle Harry went Absent without Leave many times or joined the peace movement after the war.)

On the other hand, the Memorial’s staff is “reaching out” to the community to get ideas for what should go into the extended galleries in the Memorial after the big $498m build is completed. For example, there’ll be more space given to the efforts of Australian members of United Nations peacekeeping forces in various theatres, though it’s less certain that more will be said about why those wars started and what Australia could have done to prevent them.

Memorial Director Matt Anderson reacted to the Brereton Report by saying the Memorial wanted to be “a place of truth” about Afghanistan but seemed to become a bit more cautious after strong reactions from, successively and quickly, 2GB shock jock, Ben Fordham, the prime minister, and the Memorial Council. Now, the mantra is “hasten slowly”, strategy, nothing will be taken down (not even the portrait of innocent-until-proven-guilty Ben Roberts-Smith in martial pose) and nothing will be put up.

Some encouraging signs, then. But why does it matter? It matters because what the Memorial makes of our wars is important. What the Memorial chooses to tell us tends to become our received wisdom – what we know. Tourists spending their one or two hours at the Memorial often have no other source of information about our wars than the Memorial. They might be looking for Uncle Harry’s name on the wall and they love the view from the steps (soon to be obliterated by building work as the Stokes-Nelson legacy project gets underway) but mostly they are not military history buffs and often they have no more than a passing interest in the place.

Meanwhile, children are channelled to the Memorial by the PACER subsidy scheme (their travel to Canberra is subsidised provided they go to the Memorial, Parliament House, and the Electoral Education Centre, but there is no compulsion on them to go to any other cultural institutions in the city) or by a desire to gawp at war machines made by BAE, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Thales and so on. (Fortunately, the awful Discovery Zone for children has been closed by COVID, for the time being at least.)

Children lap up the sanitised stories of the Drip Gun (a good yarn but irrelevant to the Gallipoli evacuation in December 1915), G for George (Lancaster bomber over Europe, a very dangerous assignment for those flying it, but even more so for German civilians on the ground, though visitors don’t get much of that side) and the Army sniffer dogs in Afghanistan (one of them is in a display case, stuffed but still cute).

The young visitors also find out that the force at Gallipoli included New Zealanders helping to save the world from the Kaiser and the Turks, but they probably miss the history that, long before Gallipoli, in the 1860s, 2500 white Australians went to New Zealand in the much less worthy cause of killing Maori. These children still look like those of a decade or more ago, whom historian Anna Clark thought had absorbed the idea that military involvement was an inevitable part of being Australian.

To finish with a song title, “Taint what you do (It’s the way that you do it)”, which dates back to 1939 and has been sung by Ella Fitzgerald among many others. And the end of the verse runs, “And that’s what gets results”, which is very relevant to the public relations style of the Memorial, as it has changed from the long tenure of the former Director, Dr Brendan Nelson, to the incumbent, Matt Anderson, now just finishing his first year in the job. The Director’s job is above all about public relations.

Nelson sought to get results from emotional and emotive outbursts, such as the one in support of his friend (and Memorial mascot for a while), Ben Roberts-Smith in 2018 (Nelson asked where was the national interest in “tearing down our heroes”) and in gratuitous and inaccurate abuse of the critics of the Memorial redevelopment. Nelson cried a lot during his many speeches to the National Press Club. He is now a big wheel at Boeing.

Anderson, on the other hand, is quieter and more measured, but still not beyond spinning the Memorial’s story, most recently in his claim in Senate Estimates that the Memorial’s Afghanistan exhibition is “currently in an exit corridor”. It is actually in two places, one is a corridor leading to the Memorial shop – the exhibits here are very popular – the other is a wide space one floor down, through which occasional researchers and staff proceed to the Memorial’s Research Centre.

Despite this dissembling, Anderson seems to be committed to the Memorial covering more aspects of our wars than it has done in the past – though he uses that slippery term “truth”, as in “the Memorial should be a place of truth”. It will be interesting to see how far he succeeds in his ambitions, against the likely opposition of shock-jocks, nervous politicians, and some returned service people. It would certainly be a tragedy if the new, bigger Memorial were to tell the same old sanitised and emotive stories that it has mostly specialised in over the decades since it opened in 1941. We should wish Matt Anderson well.

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