The judgement on Ben Roberts-Smith’s defamation case delivered a heavily damning summary of conduct. That would have come as little surprise to many; rumour abounded for a decade or more.
Not only has Roberts-Smith been severely impacted. The ordure is spread widely but not thinly. It will stick perniciously to individuals (Roberts-Smith being just one), organisations (the SAS specifically and the Australian military more generally), institutions (the Australian War Memorial being front and centre) and even the Great Australian Trope: the ANZAC legend/myth.
ANZAC and the Australian War Memorial are indivisible. Two people created an additional nexus to Roberts-Smith. The fall of Roberts-Smith drags the Memorial down with him and seriously wounds the ANZAC legend/myth.
The farrago of an (increasingly mythical) ANZAC trope, the highly-focussed lionisation of Roberts-Smith and the Memorial’s widely hated expansionary project has been somewhat rectified by the hard landing of facts by the Judgement – not before time. This view is masterfully articulated in Paul Daley’s article of 1 June 2023.
Two persons drove Robert-Smith’s veneration as a ‘Warrior Hero’, which transmogrified at the Memorial into justification for a vast, unwanted and legislatively unsupported development project: ‘telling the story of modern conflicts’. This unauthorised mandate to pervert the Memorial’s primary purpose – to commemorate those who died on active service, as specified in AWM Act 1980: Section 5 (I) (a) – into being a military museum is antipathetic to the Memorial’s concept.
Those two persons are the ex- Chairman of Council Kerry Stokes, and the also-ex-Chairman (and for the gestation of the Memorial’s development project, Director), Brendan Nelson.
Stokes and Nelson supplanted the simple and dignified recognition of the honour signified by the award of the Victoria Cross in the Hall of Valour by creating a grotesque temple to Roberts-Smith, complete with an Idol via the presentation of a mounted uniform and an Icon in the form of a huge portrait: the larger-than-lifesize ‘Pistol Grip’. Also featured: another, more reasonable, portrait in case visitors overlooked the highlight of the Roberts-Smith extravaganza.
This was likely to become the cherry on top of the pie for the development project. A shiny new ‘ANZAC tradition’ Hero. A new iteration – The Adoration of the Warrior Hero – of the ‘ANZAC Spirit’ of service and sacrifice. Incredibly, it was commenced well after the rumours of Roberts-Smith’s and SAS more widely suspect actions had surfaced. Both Stokes and Nelson at that time ridiculed suggestions of caution against sanctifying Roberts-Smith. Nelson describing allegations as an attempt to “tear down our heroes” and Stokes expressing concern at the “media pursuit of Ben Roberts-Smith.”
This media pursuit was in the end proven to be justified, and deaths in Afghanistan were not just a case of ‘killing bad dudes’.
“I still don’t agree with the fact BRS [Roberts-Smith] is here, under extreme duress, for killing bad dudes we went there to kill.” (Person 24, B R-S court proceedings).
Neither Justice Besanko nor Justice Paul Brereton have accepted that the only Afghan deaths were of ‘bad dudes’. It is not in the remit of soldiers to decide who is / is not the enemy and unilaterally turn them from civilians into ‘legitimate targets’.
Misjudgement is one thing. Murder is a crime and must be judicially determined to have occurred; that has not been found of Roberts-Smith, but he stands judicially described as having committed murder ‘on the balance of probability’. Further investigation by the OSI may settle the matter.
Public repudiation of the temple to Roberts-Smith at the Memorial has already started with clamour to remove it. The Memorial is in an invidious position (and Chair Kim Beazley’s very careful initial statement shows he is acutely sensitive to this), since the criteria for Roberts-Smith to be included in the Hall of Valour remains currently valid – but the Memorial is badly tarnished even so. If it removes the offensive display whilst Roberts-Smith holds the VC, he would have been denied natural justice; but while the display remains, the Memorial will be seen as failing to repudiate the actions sheeted home by Justice Besanko.
That the Memorial should ever have been placed in this position by its Chairman Kerry Stokes and Director Brendan Nelson will forever be their legacy.
The damage to the AWM is probably irreparable. Collateral damage at a tectonic scale to an institution frequently described as ‘the soul of the Nation’ and an ideal that – even though ubiquitously pimped to a myriad of unworthy associations – has hitherto played a significant part in the development of ‘Australian’ (i.e. post-1901 national) history.
Lest We Forget.