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Unnecessary Expansions: The Australian War Memorial

War is not merely a matter of sowing death, much of it needless; it entails preserving a rationale to perpetuate it. The mistake often made about reading, consulting and listening to the harrowing tales of those who have perished in battle or those who survived them is to presume that these should not happen again. Politicians, generals and strategists are all in the game: the dead are merely a reminder that more blood must be shed. Weak, imprecise terms are thrown about by way of justification: they died so that we could be free. Forget the bungling, the bad faith, the expediency.

One ample manifestation of this distasteful indulgence is the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. This particular entity can hardly be said to be short of cash but was promised $498 million that would have gone to other starved national institutions. Half a billion is hardly a pittance, and the war memorial complex has been preparing since the announcement was made last year.

The proposal is meant to address a few points, some structural, others specific to narrative. (Wars are about stories, often distorted ones, especially when massaged by the State.) Spatial issues have become significant; Australia remains busy fighting the wars of others, and so finds itself running out of commemorative room. Officials feel that more should be made for a modern generation of fighters.

There is also push towards trendy digitisation, a pneumatic substitute that does wonders to hide rather than illuminate conflict; every site where Australians have fallen will have a display, termed Places of Pride. A focus on Australia’s more recent involvements will also be a priority. In the words of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, “It means the Australian War Memorial will be able to display more of their collection and proudly tell the stories from recent years in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Solomon Islands and East Timor.”

For Australian War Memorial director, Brendan Nelson, Australian military deployments from the Boer War, the First and Second World Wars, the Korean conflict and Vietnam were “largely told” in crowded confines. “Yet the service of 70,000 young Australians in the Middle East Area of operations of the past two decades currently covers only two percent of available space.”

No opposition was registered by Bill Shorten’s Labour Party to this excessive splurge. Sniffing the prospects of a future government portfolio, Shadow Minister for Veterans’ Affairs Amanda Rishworth stated her party’s unconditional approval of the bloated funding proposal to the defence forces. “Whatever political arguments we have in the chambers on either side of this room, both parties are […] united in our respect for your service.”

To be sure, there have been various Australians irritated and outraged by the measure. Last month, they decided, via The Honest History website, to add their signatures to a letter signed by 83 or so, 24 of which, for what it’s worth, have received the Order of Australia. Thomas Keneally has been traditionally indignant at the proposed folly, as have other authors. But the opposition has not merely come from scribes and wordsmiths who might be accused of progressive tendencies. There is an air of protesting officialdom about many of them. Paul Barrett, former Department of Defence secretary, is a signatory, as is Brendon Kelson and Liam Hanna, former director and assistant directors of the AWM.

Nelson’s sins have been those of zeal wedded to money. He, the signatories accuse, tout “the Memorial as telling ‘our story’” yet show “excessive veneration of the Anzac story”. This denied “the richness of our history.” There was also an element of plain old vandalism about the whole matter. “His and his Council’s ambitions will destroy the Memorial’s character and entail the demolition of Anzac Hall, opened in 2001 and winner of the 2005 Sir Zelman Cowen Award for Public Architecture.”

The voices generally tread the line of fine logic. ANU history academic Frank Bongiorno is unconvinced by the heralded role a ballooning war memorial is meant to have. “The AWM is already a very large institution, and I don’t buy into a lot of the discussion about the AWM having a therapeutic role in relation to healing returned service personnel as a justification for this. The notion you have to spend a half-a-billion to play that role appropriately and functionally just doesn’t seem plausible to me.”

Of the political parties, only the Greens have offered some measure of sense, though these do take aim at the more patriotic sensibilities of the war-crazed. Arms manufacturer sponsorship, for instance, should end; the Frontier Wars and the Tent Embassy should be commemorated and recognised.

While valuing the War Memorial, Senator Richard Di Natale suggested that the expansion “to showcase military hardware is deeply inappropriate, especially when our other National Institutions don’t have the funds to repair their leaky roofs.” Australia’s National Institutions, reminded former Greens Senator and leader Christine Milne, spoke of the corrosion caused by the “efficiency dividends” principle to Australia’s National Institutions. The sacred will have an endless money pot.

Selling war and its merits has been the crass way states have done so for centuries and Australia’s inflated expenditure in the name of remembering the dead exceeds that of other states by some margin. Memorials should be a reminder of loss and warning; they have become, instead, the means by which the apologetics for conflicts past, present and future can be promoted. The redirection of funds to the AWM says much about the priorities of the Morrison government, supported, as it were, by the Labor opposition: the war complex needs feeding, even as the roof of the National Gallery of Australia leaks.

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  1. New England Cocky

    A thoughtful piece Binoy, thank you. My family had no connection with The Great War for various reasons. Yet for the generations that were affected by the lack of male partners, lack of fathers and lack of opportunity to see family grow up the AWM probably has a personal role.

    The great amount of spending ($495 MILION) on the dead is diabolical waste when health, education and transport services in regional centres are chronically under-funded and causing the loss of too many more young lives.

    Certainly it is indicative that by glorifying the incompetence of British military leaders that caused much of the carnage in WWI, this present LIarbral Notional$ misgovernment has tacitly admitted that they have no future plans for improving Australia for the benefit of Australian voters, only fond memories of the successes in war brought about by ALP politicians.

  2. whatever

    Apart from the Christchurch shooter, how may other young people think Gallipoli was about fighting the ‘Islamic Menace’?
    In fact, it is probable that they believe our entire military outlook is some kind of ‘Domino Theory’ defence against the ‘Islamic Menace’.

  3. Alcibiades

    Until Abbott appointed Brendon Nelson Director of the AWM in Dec 2012, as a yet another job for the boys gig, after Malcom knifed him in 2009, it served the role Australians intended. A national Shrine for solemn remembrance for our fallen. Nelson promptly gutted it’s staff and quite literally embarked on a crusade for a Nationalist, offensive jingoistic farking War Theme Park.

    Nelson is an open public apologist for War Crimes committed by our own troops. He is scum, yet, he’s the Coalitions scum and was put there for that purpose. He also utterly gutted objective historical research, instead promoting soft ‘war porn’ as entertainment.

    Actual combat veterans as opposed to wannabes, REMFs & former politicised top brass, are predominantly Anti-War, and for damned good reason. RSL presidents, most often the former rear admirals, major generals and wing commanders so closely aligned with the coalition there’s no daylight bewteen ’em, all go ra-ra! With the exclusion of the current NSW RSL president, who publicly stated there is no point in even considering discussing re-allocating the AWM $500Milion to veterans welfare with the government … they wouldn’t even get a hearing.

    This $500Million for the AWM is opposed by Veterans Welfare Associations members, as was the $100Million for the bullshit audio-visual theme park ‘memorial’ in France, same for the $100’s of millions spent on the three(?) year long jingoistic ANZAC Centenary celebrations.

    The recent younger veterans of our latest unjust adventures in service of Empire, deserve proper support, properly funded medical & mental health programs. Instead they are tossed back onto the streets homeless, and out of necessity seek out alcohol & drugs to manage their trauma. As a result a number end up before the courts, with criminal convictions, further spiraling downward, marking them for life. They have been dying by their own hand in alarming numbers for years.

    The Coalition & DVA couldn’t care less. Whilst the AWM Theme park receives & promotes private sponsorships from arms manufacturers !

    The always chickenhawk Coalition leaders use ANZAC Day & Remembrance Day to exploit veterans for empty glad-handing, photo ops & selfies. And the now close to a $Billion they’ve spent on all the above bullshit hasn’t saved one veterans life. Yet, there is a lapel pin & a re-issued Gold/White Card comin’ in the mail. Morrison’s Employer Partnership for veterans thought bubble last year ? Not a single business has signed up. Not even one. Farkin’ a-holes.

    Former Director of the AWM Kelson :

    “It amounts to an institutional loss of moral compass,” he said in his own submission to the federal inquiry into Canberra’s national institutions. Mr Kelson holds serious reservations about the prospect of the $500 million expansion proposed for the memorial.

    “That gets right to the heart of the matter as far as I’m concerned when it comes to commemoration. When we brought back the unknown soldier that changed and enhanced the whole remembrance aspect of that national institution, there’s no question about it,” … The expansion, which would hold military helicopters and jet fighters, would “throw it into the realm of of being more a museum of military technology,” which is not what the institution is about.

    As for why Labor doth not protest … imagine the tsunami launched by the Murdoch press in defence of rabid national jingoism, supported by an ignorant public after ‘entertainment’, wrapped in the flag.

  4. DrakeN

    When the ALP get into government this year one of the first objectives should be to creating honesty and balance into the mainstream media.

    Imposing strict conditions, similar to those on the ABC by its charter, onto the “news” media by force of licensing should be a priority.

  5. New England Cocky

    @ Alcibiades: When the Vietnam Veterans returned home there was no welcome home celebrations because the community feeling was that the imperialist USA (United States of Apartheid) war had been lost. The RSL was very unsympathetic to Viet Vets. There was no celebration …. until 28 years after the event.

    @whatever: “The Islamic menace” is a creation of Desertstorm I by Bush Senior acting to take control of the Iraqi oil reserves. Well, you cannot have Muslims controlling all the world oil reserves when the US reserves have been depleted. After all, the Saudis may one day want the proper price for oil and that would cruel the US economy.

  6. helvityni

    ‘farking war theme Park’…’War porn’….

    Do I dare to agree with Alcibiades , or will I be stoned…

    Should the second quote read : Holy War Porn….

  7. Alcibiades


    I remember. Lost & immoral. Hence why the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia (VVAA) had to be created. The then RSL was indeed an unwelcoming place. And it was the VVAA that successfully lobbied for the Vietnam Veterans Counseling Service (VVCS) to be created to attempt to address the utterly inadequate to non-existent counseling & psychologist services necessary to at least try to stem the self-harm & suicide rate. Subsequently renamed the Veterans & Veterans Families Counseling Service. Under Scummo the happy clapper adman renamed to ‘Open Arms’.

    Celebration ? Respectfully, no, not then, not ever.

    Todays younger veterans, predominantly with very young families, are repulsed by the nature & environment of RSL venues, focused on booze & pokies. They are determined to enact change, hence organisations like ‘Soldier On’. Then there is the Australian Peacekeeper and Peacemaker Veteran’s Association, veterans had to form again because the fossilised RSL was exclusionary.

    Younger veterans are determined to make a cultural change, good on ’em & all power to ’em.

    If the Saudis ever start selling their oil in other than greenbacks, a Multi-brigade ready reaction force will invade and seize critical assets & power so quickly it’ll make the Clown Princes eyes spin. A continuously updated Warplan since the end of WWII.

  8. Alcibiades

    My apologies. Sometimes salty language is necessary to express a very passionately held view, especially when the bloods up. No offence intended.
    Stoned ? But pixels on a display. My father taught me at a young age that if the nasty words come from someone you do not respect, trust or hold in esteem, why take them to heart. Whereas, conversely …
    Even so, difficult to live by.

    Australian War Memorial has clean sweep of top posts – Sovereign Hill deputy chief executive appointed Canberra Times 2013

  9. Phil

    ” When the Vietnam Veterans returned home there was no welcome home celebrations because the community feeling was that the imperialist USA (United States of Apartheid) war had been lost. The RSL was very unsympathetic to Viet Vets. There was no celebration …. until 28 years after the event.:

    This period in our history was not the lefts finest hour.

    The treatment of returning troops from Vietnam was although exaggerated, was appalling. The redeeming feature was without the demonstrations, sit ins etc. the war would have gone on for longer.

    My old dad was a war veteran, the RSL was the last place you would find him. His tolerance for drunken war stories especially from non combatants would not amuse him. He didn’t suffer fools gladly.

    In his later years he went under some sufferance with my brother a Vietnam veteran to the RSL but it was more about late bonding with his son rather than any comradeship in the RSL.

    I go because I can get pissed up with my son now a war vet on the cheap. Not that much cheaper though.

    I must write to the Minister of defence about cheaper piss.. Who is it this week?

  10. helvityni


    No apologies needed for salty language…(use it lately more and more myself )

    I was referring to the holy cow, the war memorial…see what happened to Yassmin Abdel–Magied…… just for wanting all victims of all wars to be remembered on ANZAC day….

  11. David Bruce

    “All the way with LBJ” was the catch cry espoused by one Harold E Holt, as I remember.

    I ended up doing “stuff” in Vietnam, Borneo and Mindanao! We should never have been there.

    Since then Australia HAS lost it’s Moral Compass! No wonder Harold decided to swim to Tasmania…

  12. Phil

    Since then Australia HAS lost it’s Moral Compass! No wonder Harold decided to swim to Tasmania…

    The rumour was he swam out to a Chinese submarine. Holt was dân Úc châu “beaucoup dien cai dau”
    Great years shame they had to F#@! it up with a war.

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