Memorial Wars and our hypocrisy

Dec 8, 2020

The commemoration of war must force us to remember the people – the victors and victims, men and women, patriots and pacifists, soldiers and civilians. It must connect, confront and complicate, rather than celebrate, petrify and simplify.” Dr Sam Edwards (Historian).

Credit – Unsplash

Four generations of my family have served in the military, my great grandfather, great uncle, grandfather, father and husband. Four of the five men went to war. Three of them were killed as a consequence. Roy, Clem and Paul are all honoured in the Australian War memorial. My grandfather Maurice came home and never spoke of the war, and my dad Maurie served all his life in the RAAF and speaks about it all the time.

Service runs deep in my family, pulsating as thick veins do the hard yakka so that we can sleep safe and sound. This is part of the fixed story we tell ourselves, so that we wake up in the morning nightmare and conscience free. This intergenerational connective tissue has been cauterised somewhat, with my children not having the faintest of interest reviving its pulse. Nonetheless, it’s an intentional act, the result of sombre reflection and of not forgetting nor sanctifying their service and sacrifice. We try and tend to it with love, humour, critique and respect. At times my tending has also been messy and embarrassing. It also found me in a place of working with asylum seekers, victims fleeing wars of the Middle East.

How we memorialise war and the way we recognise those who have died, survived and suffered through war is a deeply personal and also a collective understanding and responsibility. Capturing the personal and collective dynamic through remembrance rituals and displays of understanding is undoubtedly the heavy burden of memorialising war. Whilst not perfect, under the guidance of historian and correspondent Charles Bean the Australian War Memorial has arguably balanced the personal and collective dynamic well, to capture and create evolving reverential spaces, acts of remembrance and commemoration.

A lot of people have rallied to maintain this balance in response to a proposed $500 million dollar expansion plan. Such plans threaten the intentional integrity of the current war memorial. Plenty of people are concerned and given thoughtful evidence to a parliamentary Inquiry into the proposed expansion plan. Veterans, curators, architects, journalists, peace activists, indigenous advocates, historians, ex memorial directors and staff and an ex-Chief of the defence force, have expressed vast concerns about where this beloved national institution is heading. And then is Kerry Stokes and Brendan Nelson. They are passionate and driven, formidable personalities, but they have also clearly disrupted the art of balancing the personal and collective dynamic of memorialising war.

I first heard about the $500 War memorial expansion as an announcement from our prime minister in November 2018. Preceding the announcement was what looked to be just a two month consultation period as stated on the war memorial webpage. In barely a blink of an eye, the train has left the station. And as all things war-related, politicians can’t speak to it without the momentum of grand rhetoric. In the case of the war memorial expansion announcement is inevitably legitimate because it is the ‘soul of the nation’.

Don’t get me wrong. I agree that the war memorial is not static. A nationally significant institution that should be updated over time, but I’m not buying into this grandiose misadventure nor the  questionable advertising campaign, that underpins it. There is no doubt the price tag of these expansion plans will buy a lot. The plan includes displaying a mass of military hardware, expanding shiny arms dealer plaques and conference rooms named after them, a live feed into current-day operations as well as knocking down the architecturally awarded $17million ANZAC Hall.

This renovation is designed to bring us closer to the virtual experience of modern warfare, celebrate our war warriors, promote the versatility of the ADF and sanitise political decisions and sensationalise war experiences. It sounds and looks more like a recruitment drive rather than a reflection and remembrance space—steering off the sombre road towards sanctification highway. My great grandfather Clem, was a bombardier in the Second World War, he survived, but his younger brother Roy was killed very early into his deployment in Egypt, I can’t imagine the horrors of trench warfare they endured. Clem died on return to Australia as a consequence of the physical injuries he sustained in combat. I suspect his psychological injuries were significant too and perhaps explain why his son, my grandfather, never spoke about his own combat experiences. With new wars in Vietnam, my father serving in the RAAF at the time, put his name forward. Then with the wars in the Middle East, where my husband was to be killed in action, evidence that combat-related trauma and an awareness of psychological injuries, is slowly, very slowly catching up with the reality.

Department of veteran affairs and the Department of Defence has been criticised for its complicated and clunky service provision in responding to these misunderstood injuries. These system flaws have exacerbated rather than alleviated contemporary veterans trauma. The rise in veteran charity support groups, in part, has grown to help address this gap. But as efforts for a Royal Commission into disturbing rates of veteran suicide, so does the political platitudes. One mother’s concerns about the failing government systems to address veteran PTSI have been placated with the offer of a medal. It’s a patronising gesture. The concept of memorialising veterans who suicide as a result of the psychological injuries they sustain in conflict is evidence of another dimension of the brutality and consequence of war. It stretches the traditional concept and imagination of what honourable sacrifice looks like. Especially because it challenges the warrior image and hero adoration rhetoric, which has become so normalised as a part of our national identity. While a group of family members have successfully negotiated with the Australian War Memorial to have a memorial for their loved ones lost to suicide as a result of psychological injuries sustained in conflict, it is incomprehensible that they have been told that they will have to pay for it. For the many millions of dollars proposed for the Australian War Memorial expansion, you would think this would be afforded.

When ex memorial director, Brendan Nelson, announced the expansion, he said, “if we are to deal with and prevent PTSD, it is important that no young servicemen or women or family feels that what they have done doesn’t count.” Such a claim captures our sensibilities but for all the wrong reasons. Rather than provide the most basic request of these families to honour these deaths, which easily fits the charter of the war memorial, it proposes a more elaborate proposition, one which it is neither qualified nor tasked with achieving. Transforming the war memorial into some sort of therapeutic service to treat those experiencing PTSI undermines the clinical and compensatory responsibility of Veteran Affairs and the Department of Defence.

The expansion plan becomes more dubious when we consider the private financial contribution of 2 million dollars by Kerry Stokes, the chair of the board and public outrage of ex-director Brendan Nelson in defence of individuals who are alleged to have committed war crimes. By weighing into these matters financially and publicly, they are effectively choosing sides. Whilst they proclaim to be defending the reputations of war heroes, an image they have invested in, which is threatened, they do so at the expense of those who want to preserve the reputation and uphold the integrity of honourable service of their regiments and international laws of war. What is their brave honesty and integrity worth? Things have become more complicated, with Brendan Nelson claiming that the alleged war crime leaks essentially come from those who want to tear down their war heroes because they are jealous. The allegation of war crimes is deeply alarming and no doubt threatens the hero imagery so heavily invested in by the war memorial in recent times. It is certainly not a theatre of war our war memorial should choose to fight in nor embed itself in a chain of command that it is not entitled to and embellish in the surrounding gossip.

For me, the hypocrisy is even more enhanced when war memorial volunteers are told that they must not express any opinion in regards to the expansion plans. At the same time, other paid staff, and war memorial elites, such as Kerry Stokes and Brendan Nelson have had free range to use their power and political influence to undermine conflict of interest and integral governance policies, Our prime minister has attempted to reassure the public that the war memorial is in good hands now that Tony Abbott has replaced the only historian on the board. Mr Abbott, a one-time prime minister, is quoted as saying to ADF members before they deployed to Afghanistan, “I can’t fight with you, but I can train with you”, illuminating the armchair warrior politician. He also oversaw the centenary of commemoration that far exceeded costs of other countries. I fear that this appointment will only reinforce the direction the expansion represents.   

It is reported Kerry Stokes had a quiet word in our prime minister’s ear about how he should consider the evidence of critics to a parliamentary inquiry examining the War Memorial expansion plans. If Clem, Roy and Paul had the opportunity to have a quiet word in his other ear, I suspect it would have been a different message.

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