Manufacturing consent: Australian War Memorial has become a cheerleader for war

Mar 3, 2021

The Australian War Memorial is being transformed, against the wishes of the Australian people, from a place of war commemoration to a place that honours war itself, a militaristic and rousing endorsement of every decision to send Australians to war.

The $500 million expansion of the Australian War Memorial can be added to the long list of national scandals where public money has been treated as the plaything of those in power, in this case mostly military and former military personnel on the Australian War Memorial Council.

Consider the farce that was the public “consultation”. This followed, rather than preceded, the Prime Minister’s November 2018 announcement of the extension plans.

Strong public opposition to the redevelopment has been apparent at every step, but the views of the public have never really been wanted. Consent has been manufactured, including by a series of surveys designed to give the desired responses. The most recent, conducted in early February, included multiple questions with no options for participants to write their own views.

For example, to the question: “Which of the following statements best reflects your view of the Australian War Memorial?”, the only possible responses were positive, with no space for critical comment.

Contrary views have been marginalised, ridiculed and dismissed. Even the advice of the government’s own heritage advisory body, the Australian Heritage Council, that the project should not go ahead, was brushed aside.

But what is at stake is not simply an unconscionably gross overpayment for a plot of airport land, or the allocation of sports grants for political advantage, serious though these transgressions are, but the militarisation of our nation.

While the immediate issue is the partial demolition and expansion of this pre-eminent institution to make way for large displays of weaponry and for exhibitions of wars that have not even finished, the problem runs much deeper.

The $500 million expansion is transforming the focus of the war memorial from a commemoration of our war dead to a place that honours war itself.

Where once we commemorated family members and others who died in Australia’s wars, we will now honour all those who fight and have fought: past and present, dead or alive, disabled by their service or fighting fit. We will gaze in awe at the machinery of warfare, the tanks and fighter planes that will occupy most of the additional 24,000 square metres, and pretend that we understand war better for it.

The Australian War Memorial’s corporate plan for 2020-24 states that the institution’s purpose is “to commemorate the sacrifice of those Australians who have died in war or on operational service, and those who have served our nation in times of conflict“.

The words in italics – to include all those who have fought – appear to have been unilaterally tacked on by the AWM council, disregarding the significant distinction between dying and not dying.

The words are a stark departure from the relevant words in the 1980 Australian War Memorial Act, which refers to a national memorial to Australians “who have died on, or as a result of, active service”.

One of the major problems with honouring the living and current wars – as well as the dead and past wars – is that of truth-telling. Responding to the release of the Brereton report into alleged war crimes committed by Australian troops in Afghanistan, War Memorial director Matt Anderson said that the institution is “a place of truth” where the darker parts of Australia’s history should be acknowledged.

That is an admirable goal. But is Anderson really suggesting that the War Memorial would tell the unvarnished truth about current wars, even when such truth-telling undermined enthusiasm for a war or the morale of our fighters? On the contrary, exhibitions on current wars are always at risk of simply become propaganda tools, the antithesis of truth-telling.

The memorial’s corporate plan also sets out the institution’s vision as being “To ensure that their sacrifice is not in vain – We remember them.” But what of the situations where Australia’s wars have been in vain? The vision assumes magical qualities for warfare where there must always be a silver lining.

Whether or not a sacrifice is in vain will be judged by historians; it is not for the AWM to arbitrarily determine. Extraordinarily, there is not a single historian on the Australian War Memorial Council. Following the death of Les Carlyon, who was the sole historian on the council, he was replaced a military officer.

The reality of lives lost in vain can be unbearably harsh for those left to grieve. The remedy, however, is not to shape history to our liking, but for our political leaders to honour their responsibility towards our service people – to get right the decisions about going to war. In this, they have grievously failed.

Last week, the Public Works Committee of Federal Parliament rubber stamped the $500 million project, despite the fact that a strong majority of the large number of submissions were against the project. In a rare turn of events, ALP committee members David Smith and Tony Zappia, who objected to the price tag, wrote a dissenting report.

But on Thursday just one member of parliament, Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie, voted against final approval.

The Australian War Memorial risks becoming an honouring of war itself, a rousing endorsement of every political decision to send Australians to war, instead of what it should be: a memorial to our war dead.

The struggle to save the AWM might not be over. The Australian Institute of Architects, in a scathing critique of the Public Works Committee decision and the whole process, stated: “How could we stay silent when we know without doubt that this unpopular and inappropriate development will negatively impact one of our nation’s most significant monuments?”

But time is running out. The final rubber stamp needed before the bulldozers move in is that of the National Capital Authority. We will see how highly the NCA rates public opinion.

A different version of this article was published in the Canberra Times on February 27, 2021. 

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