Sipping champagne with the arms dealers

The Australian War Memorial is mutating from the keeper of the flame to the hider of the shame.

In the midst of wafting mustard gas, damned mud, dead soldiers, and rotting horses on the wet battlefields of Pozières, France, during World War I, Charles Bean conceived the idea of collecting in one place the records of Australians at war. His dream came true when the Australian War Memorial opened in Canberra on 11 November 1941. How it would grow into a big brand theme park bankrolled partly by international arms manufacturers was something the humble and shy Bean would never had contemplated nor approved.

The 20th anniversary of the Howard government’s decision to commit our special forces to a faraway invasion of Afghanistan is almost upon us. Bad stuff happened over there in 20 rotations over 12 years. Vicious abuses of human rights and callous and premeditated killing of unarmed Afghani civilians. That became the new “kills up” routine of our elite soldiers, particularly in the latter stages from 2010-2012. We know these ugly details through the efforts of military whistleblowers, intrepid Australian journalists, investigations by the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission and the cluster bomb of evidence of war crimes that Mr Justice Brereton will detonate soon at the end of his four-year investigation. So much of this battlefield behaviour was outside the rules of engagement that the question “were these carnages the work of human beings”? is well put.

It is expected that the Australian Army is going to take a reputational hit when more of the facts dribble out. How big a hit will depend on how tightly the information is contained. Currently the Brereton Report is held tightly in Army command and the highest levels of government. Army media have been war-gaming public messaging options since October 2019. The only way we are going to find out what is in the report is if a Chelsea Manning comes forward.

Into this highly improper information blackout, the Australian War Memorial will be there to tell us how to think about the Afghanistan War. The AWM is the principal warden of the Anzac flame. Its job is to tell the story of war. This is a job it does half well. With world-class curation (and lots of dollars) it honours the valour of Australian men and women who have fought for our country. What it does not get right is to explain the nature of war and why we so readily take up arms against “threats” on the other side of the world.

There is no critical examination of the pointlessness of so many aggressive engagements Australia has been involved in and how shameful things can be done by Australians soldiers on the battlefield. The Australian War Memorial unapologetically distorts history. It is both the keeper of the flame and the hider of the shame. Making all this worse is the Memorial’s morally contaminated relationships with arms dealers.

Take Afghanistan: The Australian Story, the permanent exposition started at the Australian War Memorial in August 2013. Here the curators took the truth, a white sheet of paper, and folded, creased, and distorted it into an ugly origami piece with extraordinary propaganda value. Boeing Defence Australia, controversially a corporate partner since 2011, was there to cover a lot of the costs associated with mounting the display. It provided $500,000 and threw in a ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicle. Boeing told me it “remains a proud supporter of the Australian War Memorial”.

Is it just me, or is there a massive moral problem here? Boeing is a major defence contractor to the Australian Government. Its Chinook CH47D twin blade helicopter, for instance, was a work horse in Afghanistan. What is Boeing doing in the Australian War Memorial? And what are the AWM managers doing hosting them?

Did no one on the Memorial Council in 2012-2013 recognise the troubling irony of an armaments maker bankrolling a war exhibition? There has been a stealth-like drift away from first purposes at the AWM. The wish now is to refashion the AWM site as a loud celebration of successful belligerence, outdoing and putting in the shade the reverential reflective space we have learned to love and respect.

We do not need to hear that the conflicts of interest that swirl in the Museum’s secret relationships with arms makers are being “managed” or are in accordance with some policy. We need to hear that these secret arrangements have been stopped and the merchants routed from the temple.

Take the case of Brendan Nelson, the former Director of the Australian War Memorial. He took a job advising Thales, the French arms manufacturer a quarter owned by the French Government, while still the memorial director. What is more, he took a fee for it, which he said he said he donated to the AWM. That is not the point, is it? The point is that Nelson moonlighted with an arms manufacturer whose ethos was the very opposite of the other place where Nelson worked.

In any other statutory authority this would be blocked by the conflict of interest provision in the Australian Public Sector Code of Conduct. But then, the Australian War Memorial is no ordinary statutory authority and Brendan Nelson was no ordinary director.

Internal documents obtained by the Guardian’s Paul Daley show that the Thales job prompted  internal concern at the AWM. The laws governing the AWM generally prohibit directors from taking payments for outside work unless ministerial approval is first obtained. When Nelson obtained the approval, then veteran affairs minister Michael Ronaldson warned him to ensure the two roles did not come into conflict. “Where the two roles could potentially be in conflict, I ask that you take the necessary steps to avoid these circumstances,” Ronaldson told him.

While I am sure Nelson operated within official parameters, it is a terrible look. Are we entitled to know what services Nelson gave Thales? Probably not. But I suspect they talked more about the weekend’s football results.

On his retirement as AWM director, Brendan Nelson was appointed president of Boeing Australia, New Zealand and South Pacific. Nelson is obviously an experienced and talented man. Is it only these abilities that proved attractive to Boeing? Could it have anything to do with his impeccable political connections, defence contracting knowledge and unique defence perspectives?

Nelson was for two years defence minister, leader of Australia’s Liberal Party, and had ambassadorial gigs in Belgium, Luxembourg, the European Union and NATO until 2012. Were these posts exchangeable currency for Boeing? Boeing now has a man who can open doors for them like never before. Not every day do corporations hire a man who metaphorically has the Prime Minister’s personal number in their speed dial.

Nelson’s cosy associations with Thales and Boeing has prompted Brendon Kelson, a former AWM director to comment, “… it was about as appropriate as a tobacco company offering money to the Peter MacCallum Institute for Cancer”.

Could Nelson also be the man of the moment in case Boeing runs into trouble with regulators? Boeing is not exactly a Snow-White corporation. Since 2000 its parent company has had to pay US$1.3 billion in penalties, the vast majority of which were for government contracting violations.

In addition to Boeing, under Nelson’s watch the Memorial also began commercial arrangements with Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems. One of these was so influential in lobbying that it was allowed to attach its corporate nameplate inside the Museum. Next time you are at the War Memorial check out BAE Systems Theatre, a rather swank conferencing facility. Getting corporate name plates inside the Australian War Memorial is a major achievement for the merchants of war machines. It is also evidence of a falling away of its original mission.

Is there any information inside the Memorial that explains BAE’s bribery scandals? In February 2010 BAE reached settlements with the US Justice Department and the UK Serious Fraud Office concerning longstanding bribery charges. The company agreed to pay $400 million in the US and £30 million in Britain to resolve the cases.

The worry is that this lockstep partnership helps consolidate a particular view of war, contrary to the Memorial’s charter, which is: “To assist Australians to remember, interpret and understand the Australian experience of war and its enduring impact on Australian society.”

The strong inference here is that people cannot make up their own mind about the concept of war. They need help. The combined curatorial power of the Memorial and the big dollar donations from the war machine manufacturers are there to assist.

The historical distortions in the Afghanistan War Exhibition at the AWM go well beyond how museums and memorials in the other Coalition countries portray their presence in that War. The British input to the Afghanistan War was considerably scaled up from the Australian effort. At its peak, there were 137 UK bases and about 9,500 British troops in Helmand Province alone. Camp Bastion grew to the size of Lichtenstein. Its perimeter wall was more than 32 kilometres long. Its 3.5-kilometre runway was used to ferry troops and supplies in and out – along with casualties. At the height of the fighting, there were more than 600 flights a day.

Yet the National Army Museum in Chelsea offers a less belligerent contemplation of the British intervention:

The war in Afghanistan spanned the tenures of three prime ministers and cost the lives of 453 British service personnel and thousands of Afghans. What was accomplished after 13 years of conflict, which included eight years of heavy fighting in Helmand, still remains open to debate. (emphasis added).

Similarly, the Danish War Museum’s exhibition A Distant War – A Danish Soldier in Afghanistan, avoids the Rambo meta script in favour of showing visitors a young Danish soldier’s journey from the safety of his childhood bedroom in Denmark to distant Afghanistan, through Camp Bastion, the Green Zone and Gereshk, then home via Tune Airport. Unlike the Australian exhibition, this one was mounted without the necessity of jiggling the donation tin in front of international arms dealers.

The US Veterans History Museum starts its exhibition with these words; “The United States has been stuck in an unwinnable quagmire in Afghanistan for years.”

This level of honesty is unimaginable at the Australian War Memorial. A visit to its Afghanistan Exhibition is like a trip to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang, North Korea, where the curators leave nothing to chance that a different perspective could emerge.

How will the Australian War Memorial respond to the Brereton cluster bomb? If the government chooses to follow Germany’s lead and disband the Special Air Services, will the curators adjust their displays accordingly?  If top Sydney barrister David McLure SC, recently appointed by the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, makes adverse findings against one of Australia’s most decorated soldiers, will the Australian War Memorial make the necessary curatorial changes to reflect the new truth?

Charles Bean had a grand vision for the AWM. Now the arms sellers, the new money changers, with their inglorious financial and moral histories, are in the Temple and the old war glorification agenda is resurgent. The Australian War Memorial is mutating from the keeper of the flame to the hider of the shame.

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William De Maria’s next book, Australia’s War of Shame. Afghanistan 2001-2013, is due out in 2021, the 20th anniversary of the occupation of Afghanistan year.

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