“No Australian who has ever fallen in our uniform has ever died in vain, ever” The PM and the AWM

Aug 31, 2021

Prime Minister Morrison’s recent statement to the ABC that “No Australian who has ever fallen in our uniform has ever died in vain, ever” is glib, facile, devoid of any content and oblivious to the catastrophe in Afghanistan and to Australia’s role.   It is little more than an arbitrary assertion – that Australia’s wars, by definition, bring good outcomes – that would absolve our leaders of any responsibility and accountability for disastrous outcomes from these wars.

Such a stance is particularly dangerous because it slams the door shut on any capacity to learn from our history of expeditionary wars, such as those in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan – wars which resulted in untold human suffering.

This refusal to learn is of course not confined to government.  Of key concern here is the Australian War Memorial (AWM), which helps mould the role of warfare in our national identity. It carries a heavy responsibility for historical accuracy and truth-telling– the very thing that successive prime ministers have shunned.

The Memorial is governed by the 1980 AWM Act, which refers to a national memorial to Australians “who havedied on, or as a result of, active service” (italics added). By contrast however, the AWM’s corporate plan for 2020 – 2024 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” (italics added).

This expansion of the Memorial’s remit to all those who have fought, whether dead or alive, fighting fit or permanently disabled, and including wars that might not even be finished, has arisen from a series of unilateral decisions by the AWM Council. It greatly alters the Memorial’s focus from commemoration of the dead to honouring the institution of war itself.

The AWM’s corporate plan also sets out the Memorial’s Vision as being “To ensure that their sacrifice is not in vain” – the sentiment echoed by our PM.

But what of the situations where Australia’s wars, by all objective evidence,have been in vain?  The AWM vision confers magical qualities for warfare where there is always a silver lining. Whether or not a sacrifice is in vain will be judged by historians – of whom the AWM Council has none – and others.  It is not for the Memorial, nor the PM, to arbitrarily determine.

In responding to the release of the Brereton report into alleged war crimes committed by Australian troops in Afghanistan, AWM 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 admirable, but is Anderson really suggesting that the AWM would tell the truth about current or barely-finished wars, even when such truth-telling would undermine current political or military reputations or goals?  On the contrary, exhibitions on current wars could simply become propaganda tools, the antithesis of truth-telling.

To add to concerns that telling the full truth is not a key priority for the AWM, the institution appears in no hurry to remedy the lack of historians on its governing body, the AWM Council.  On 19 August, Anderson announced the formation of three new groups to advise on content of the new galleries – the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Advisory Group, Access Advisory Group, and Veterans’ Advisory Group. There are two more to come, on Youth and Diversity. Again, there is no specific recognition of the importance of including historians in the Memorial’s advisory and governing bodies.

Add to this the ongoing acceptance by the Memorial of donations derived from the profits of war from some of the world’s biggest weapons companies, for whom wars and instability are essential.  To them, telling the truth about what really happens in wars would be anathema.  There is a blatant conflict of interests.

Accurately portraying what happens in wars takes on particular significance in relation to children.  The AWM’s “Discovery Zone” for children has closed for COVID, but a replacement area is planned in the new Memorial space.  The image here gives a flavour of the happy faces the Discovery Zone aimed to elicit.  As one example of the “educational” activities on offer, there was a World War I trench to play in, which lacked only the bodies that drowned in mud, the body parts, the screech of shells, the maggots, the stench of death, the screams of the dying and the fear of being the next to join them.

Such sanitised displays must be called out for what they are – propaganda.

The reality of lives lost in vain can be unbearably harsh for those left to grieve.  The remedy, however, is not to rewrite history, but to learn from it.  It is critical that our political leaders honour their responsibility towards our service people – to get right the decisions about sending them to war.

One step that would help significantly to achieve this is war powers reform, so that Australians cannot be sent to wars outside Australia without prior debate, scrutiny and a vote in our parliament. That reform is long overdue.

In the meantime, the rest of us must do all that is possible to keep alive the notion that truth matters, especially when the stakes are so high – as in going to war.

Parts of this article have been previously published in the Canberra Times and in Pearls and Irritations.

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