The Australian War Memorial is not a political football
10 October 2022
I couldn’t agree more with the need to provide a place to acknowledge the conflicts between the original inhabitants of this continent and those who settled here from elsewhere in the late 18th Century. But the Australian War Memorial is not that place, and it is wrong to make it a political football.
When I was a child, I wanted to wear my great-great uncle’s slouch hat to a fancy dress ball at school. My grandfather was livid – how dare I disrespect the uniform! I have that same slouch hat today. It, and my own slouch hat, are succumbing to the inevitable forces of time.
Yet the sanctity of military service was not lost on four generations of my family who wore the uniform. While in recent times, that very sanctity appears to be an anachronism; a remnant of a time gone by, a lesson well-learnt through death and destruction, supported by the faith that such an atrocity, like the Great War, will never happen again.
Challenges to the idea of what it is to be Australian have somewhat turned against the work of Dr Bean, that eminent historian who is largely responsible for creating the ANZAC legend and manifesting it as that sacred place we call the Australian War Memorial.
Why sacred? Stand under the dome next to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Look at the stained glass and mosaics. Read the values inscribed therein. This space touches all those who enter in the way an old soldier explained to me:
‘All soldiers believe in God. When caught in an ambush, they all pray.’
While the ideal society eludes humanity, Australia has it pretty good. This is in no small part due to the sacrifices of our soldiers.
Last week, I was in Seoul at a seminar about the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea. A Korean general said to me that he was most grateful for the sacrifice of 340 Australians who lost their lives while contributing to Korea’s freedom. He gestured to the skyline of Seoul’s magnificent development, humbly hoping that Korea’s peaceful democratic society was a worthy tribute to our digger’s sacrifice. It made me think deeply about those same sacrifices.
If you knew my paternal great-grandmother who worked in the munitions factory at St Marys (she was so happy when the Rising Sun badge was returned to the brim of the slouch hat) or sat a moment with Mrs Stewart (a second world war widow who lived nearby and once gave me a ‘shilling’ after she told me the story of her long-lost husband through her tears), you would know that war is blind.
It strikes all – regardless of social constructions – the devastation wreaks havoc on participants, victims, witnesses, and conscientious objectors alike. But you cannot always appease an aggressor. We can hope for a better world, but appeasement has never proven adequate. Sometimes you have to fight.
And fighting has its costs. The photographs of Mrs Stewart’s uniformed dead husband and brothers that adorned her mantel still haunt me to this day. I felt like Pip stumbling upon the wedding feast that never was. Mrs Stewart lost her life, back then, too.
But they were post-federation Australian soldiers. Not settlers. Not troopers. Not colonists. Australians. They were united in purpose.
When I met my maternal great-grandmother, we asked her where we’d come from. She said we were Cherokee Indian. Twenty years later, we learned that our maternal heritage is Kamilaroi. She had lived that lie to avoid being sent to the mission and carried it to her deathbed.
George, one of my grandfather’s mates who lived next door at the RSL veterans’ village in Cairns, was an Aboriginal digger and a veteran of New Guinea. He liked to paint. But he was an Australian digger through and through. (I daresay the antics he and my grandfather got up to provide sufficient empirical evidence to support that fact.)
And if you ever heard the glorious harmonies rise up when Charlie Company of 51FNQR let off steam, you’ll feel the generations of pride of the many Torres Strait Islanders like Sarpeye Josie who served to protect their home and continue to do so.
These are not stories about colonisers or the victims of colonisation. These are stories of Australians who served and continue to serve to protect their homeland. This spirit is what the Australian War Memorial commemorates.
Australians have experienced war and peace, prosperity and depression, recessions we had to have and circumstances we did not want. We have lived lies; we have faced up to truths. Or not – and there is plenty of scope for more truth-telling. But we should never forget that the Brisbane Line was a last-ditch attempt to protect these very privileges. That time is still in living memory for many among us.
We can criticise the government, we can criticise politicians, we can criticise our institutions. But such freedoms imply responsibilities to support that very liberty.
The problem stems from the habitual use of our individual freedoms to say whatever we like about politics as a safety valve, to let off steam. While doing so got us through the pandemic, in light of the changing nature of geopolitics, it has become a bad habit that we now take for granted and potentially to our own detriment.
The Australian War Memorial is a symbol of the social cohesion we so desperately need, rather than a battleground for the polarised community we appear to have become.
Our island home can only be breached if we open the gates from within.
The Australian War Memorial does not sanctify war. The lives of all Australians who served Australia make it holy. Not necessarily in a religious sense, but holy in that it honours the sacrifice given by those who believed in something more. Australians who believed in something more.
It is a mistake to allow one of the central symbols of Australia’s national identity to become embroiled in politics. I urge caution on all sides of politics should we neglect our duty by opening the gates and cutting off our nose to spite our face.
Let us learn from the past, let us embrace the good and the bad. Let us acknowledge colonial times and conflict appropriately, but somewhere else.
Let the sacrifice of the many First Nations diggers have their place in the history of this great federation where it rightfully belongs. Let the Australian War Memorial tell its stories. Let it tell the stories of my great-grandmothers, of Mrs Stewart, of George, of my old comrade-in-arms Sarpeye Josie, and all those who give up their freedoms so we may have ours.
And let all Australians hear them.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.
Comment by Nelle- nothing is sacred in our country even our war dead are exploited- I don’t agree with what was stated about conflicts in the 18th century and people need urgently to research our history with has been airbrushed from the annals of time- Keith Windshuttle editor of Quadrant has excellent articles on it though- as many are ignorant of history because it was banned from school need to make the effort and address their ignorance because you are being conned