War, remembering and forgetting

For one brief minute on the morning of November 11 the Australian War Memorial will come close to becoming what its director Brendan Nelson says it is every day of the year: the soul of our nation.

Set in a beautiful location at the base of Mount Ainslie on a site originally earmarked by Walter and Marion Griffin for leisure gardens and a national celebration centre, it is certainly solemn.

Much of it is dedicated to the proposition that Australia was forged in the Great War. But was it?

European Australia began as a series of penal colonies that waged wars against the local inhabitants, in the so-called Frontier Wars. It later welcomed people from many lands and crafted one of the world's first written constitutions. There was more than enough blood, machine and mettle to forge a nation – if that's what it takes to come of age – before World War I.

We're told that Australia was eager to participate. But it twice rejected conscription in referendums. They too were markers of an independent nation in which people asserted the right to make their own decisions rather than to do what the state or Empire told them.

These days we are increasingly keen to revere our military history while being increasingly uninterested in critiquing it. As historian Peter Cochrane puts it: "Never has the Anzac tradition been more popular, and yet never have its defenders been more chauvinistic, bellicose and intolerant of other viewpoints".

It is right to ponder courage under pressure, bonds of mateship and ingenuity in adversity shown in war. But as eminent historian Henry Reynolds argues we are forever being told that "soldiers, not statesman are the nation's founders; men of blood more are more worthy of note than negotiators and conciliators".

The Memorial doesn't tell us much about the stories of opposition to war. It has a few lines on the anti-conscription campaigns, and little on the strengths of the Women's Peace Army, trade union strikes and other resistance movements, all important parts of our war story.

It does tell us more than it used to, exploring the role of peacekeepers and touching on the trauma and suffering of returning servicemen and women and their families, mainly through the work of contemporary artists. The author of The Cost of War, Stephen Garton says there have been three times as many suicides of Australian veterans of Afghanistan as combat deaths. Visiting the War Memorial, patrons wouldn't easily know that or anything else that undermines a narrative about strategic necessity.

The Memorial does tell us more about Aboriginal troops. But it doesn't tell us about the wars in which Indigenous people were on the other side.

An organisation called Sovereign Union has for some time been seeking to meet with Brendan Nelson to put its case. It's written to Dr Nelson and not got a reply. Convenor Michael Anderson wants to know why the Memorial excludes battles that were central to Australia's story. It can't be a lack of funds. The Memorial just spent $32 million redeveloping the its World War I galleries, with "the story of who we are" little changed.

Three decades ago Peter Stanley, the memorial's principal historian, gave internal advice that it should recognise and commemorate Australia's Frontier Wars. Its Act requires it to remember Australians who died "as a result of any war or warlike operations in which Australians have been on active service". Nelson has publicly said that the National Museum of Australia is better suited to the role.

Writing in the Griffith Review, historian Clare Wright thinks that what's really interesting about Remembrance Day is what we choose to forget.

Like the art movement Cubism – which shows the many facets of a subject – there are ways to show the many different facets of wars. While this writer understands it is a war memorial and not a peace museum, it should be possible for the institution to show high noble purpose (where it exits) as well as ghastly futility (where it exists) as well as everything in between.

In this year of all years, in the centenary of what we are told was our seminal war, it's surely time to remember more. Our memorial risks demeaning us if it papers over the very real divisions we have had over wars and by failing to acknowledge some of our earliest.

Memorials should tell the unvarnished truth. They are meant to shed light on our past in order to better prepare us for the future.

Last month, at the 30th anniversary of the hand-back of 'The Big Rock' to its local Indigenous owners, parliamentarians from all major parties spoke about another heart of the nation. It was Uluru, where the soul of Australia (if we assume there is only one) really resides.

First published in The Canberra Times, November 6, 2015.

After publication readers pointed out two other things that suggest Australia's coming of age:
The 1915 Commonwealth income tax system made a big contribution to forging Australia, as it set up unique social protections (among them pensions, maternity allowance, child endowment and unemployment benefits). In 1902, Australia was the first country in the world to give women the right to vote in federal elections and stand for federal parliament.

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