The Australian War Memorial goes AWOL

Sep 1, 2022
Australian War Memorial, Canberra
Image: iStock / VM_Studio

The little world of Australian military historians is talking about Daniel Lane’s The Digger of Kokoda and the resurgence of the debate over whether the Australian War Memorial should recognise Frontier Conflict. The two are connected by the Memorial’s reprehensible silence.

These issues are being discussed by professionals, but the open nation-wide debate we need is being stymied because essential players have, like surly tennis players, decided to sit out the match. The main player who is refusing to play in this case is the Australian War Memorial, the one place you might have expected to lead the discussion of our military past. Why? How?

The Digger of Kokoda purports to be the ‘official biography’ of a young Militiaman who served on the Kokoda Trail, witnessed a shocking but previously unreported massacre of 25 European women and returned, understandably traumatised by his ordeal. The book, written by sporting journalist Daniel Lane, is told as if in the words of Reg Chard, the 98-year-old veteran of the Papuan campaign, a man whose life truly has been marked by war.

Lane’s book has been plugged by a galaxy of celebrities, mostly sporting stars (who would not know good history if they tripped over it) and by the faithful acolytes of the Anzac legend, Sir Peter Cosgrove, a senior soldier but no historian, and Dr Brendan Nelson, of Boeing and now Chairman of Council of the Australian War Memorial. The Memorial has promoted the book in its shop, on its website and on its Facebook page.

The problem is, though, that the story Daniel Lane tells is at key points unsupported by evidence. Half-a-dozen Kokoda specialists have denounced the book. They include Prof. David Horner, the nation’s most senior military historian, Dr Peter Brune and Dr David Cameron, both authors of expert books on Kokoda, and me, and other experts of various kinds (such as people who know Papua and war crimes) are doubtful to damning about the claims it makes. Those experts have had their say, in reviews, in news stories published in other newspapers, and on the website Honest History. They have offered dozens of instances where the story Lane tells cannot possibly be justified.

(To be clear, Reg Chard was indeed a Militiaman in Papua and did serve on a track – but the Sanananda Track, not the Kokoda Track. The experience did scar him for life, but the sensational story that Lane has him telling – especially the previously unknown massacre – are impossible.)

What has the Memorial offered to justify its decision to promote the book? Nothing. It has gone AWOL; it has declined to comment. A place that extols bravery on the battlefield, confronted with expert criticism of a book it has unwisely puffed, turns out to be craven in even responding to public criticism.

The Memorial as an institution has also recently faced criticism of its intransigence over the recent re-emergence of the vital question of whether it should acknowledge Frontier Conflict in its exhibition galleries and in commemorated its dead.

Again, expert historians, most recently Prof. John Maynard of the University of Newcastle, said at the Garma Festival that he thought that it was time for the place where Australia remembers its wars to remember Australia’s first and longest war, and perhaps its most costly. The Memorial has for many years reiterated that it cannot even if it wanted to because of a definition in its 1980 Act. In the Canberra Times on 30 July I called for the Act to be amended to allow the Memorial to recognise the truth of Australia’s past.

What has been the Memorial’s reaction? Again, inaction; it has stonewalled, evaded the issue; gone silent. Perhaps it hopes that the issue will go away. It won’t: the recognition of Frontier Conflict and a full and just response to it is a vital part of the fulfilment of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a cause Anthony Albanese embraced within minutes of his election victory becoming clear.

The Memorial is an Australian government agency. Even its present flawed legislation enjoins it to ‘disseminate’ knowledge and understanding of Australia’s military history. Not only is that an expression of the importance of Anzac to our national identity, it is a reflection of the importance we attach to getting our history right. Remember, we as a nation invest millions in the production of official histories which we expect to record accurately what happened in our wars: Australians care about the truth.

The Memorial is presently failing in its duty to the people it serves. It continues to promote a book it knows is only partly accurate, and it continues to reject the understanding of Australian history that expert historians and Indigenous communities know happened.

But worse than that, it is failing to live up to its duty to provide Australians with a forum to debate their history. Perhaps I’m wrong about Daniel Lane’s book. If I am, tell me: debate it, don’t run away from a fight! On Frontier Conflict, the Memorial should be leading the discussion that will lead us to a full understanding of the place of war in our past, not hiding from questions.

I am ashamed, embarrassed by the institution I once loved.

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