I have been to the Australian War Memorial numerous times over the years and I always walk through the cloisters, past the name of one of my relatives who was presumed killed when his 10 Squadron Sunderland flying boat, while hunting for German submarines over the Bay of Biscay, was shot down by a group of Junkers 88s. Of course I never met him, but I have the letters which were sent to him by his cousin (my mother), and which were returned to her, some time after his plane was lost. He was 23. She kept her letters in a little bundle tied up with ribbon in a small box. Seeing his name up there makes me think of the generation of which he was part; my parents’ generation. I think of my father and uncles and their friends who fought in Europe, North Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. All survived the war, but have all now died, having lived full and mostly happy lives, lives denied those whose names appear in the cloister. It was a privilege to know them, and be a part of their lives.
When I wander through the various galleries in the Memorial, I can’t help thinking about what those men all went through, being bombed and shot at by the Germans and Italians or bombed and shot at by the Japanese. I always have a feeling of amazement and awe at what they had to cope with, and a great feeling of overwhelming sadness at all those lives, whose names are listed on in the cloisters, which were cut short, often in the most horrendous, bloody way. And still those names proliferate.
Now the government has said that it is going to demolish the Anzac Hall, double its size, and add an underground atrium beneath the front of the building, and a “new precinct” at the back of the current building. This is supposedly to bring the memorial ‘up-to-date’ by adding exhibitions to the “Invictus generation”, an unfortunate reference to wars that conservative governments have gotten us into, as well as modern peace-keeping efforts in East Timor and the Solomon Islands1.
Many people, me included, are deeply concerned that the government will turn the memorial into a theme park rather than a memorial to the many tens of thousands who gave their lives or their youth so that we could still live in a democracy. Some veterans have concerns that it will just become an exhibition of military hardware, or ‘toys for the boys’ as a previous director termed them. It hasn’t started well. Current director, Brendan Nelson believes that arms manufacturers have a patriotic duty to fund the memorial, to ‘complete the loop’ as he said. One of these companies, BAE System, sells guns, bombs, submarines, jet fighters and components for nuclear weapons to numerous countries, and maintains Australia’s Jindalee over-the-horizon radar. Other arms manufacturers make Nelson angry because they will not be involved in funding the memorial2.
A petition called ‘Commemorate, not commercialise’ is being launched by the Medical Association for Prevention of War to protest against the commercialisation of such an important institution2. The service charter of the memorial states that it is “committed to commemorating in a fitting and dignified fashion the sacrifice of Australians who have died in war”3, and one of the guiding forces behind the establishment of the memorial, Charles Bean, suggested that the exhibitions should “avoid glorification of war and boasting of victory and perpetuating enmity … for both moral and national reasons because those who have fought in wars are generally strongest in their desire to prevent war”4.
The memorial was originally designed to commemorate Australian sacrifice in the First World War, but in 1941 the government decided that it should do the same for the Second World War, when it was realised that this war would be at least as bloody as the first. The same thing has happened with the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency, the Vietnam War, the Afghanistan War, the Iraq War, and numerous peacekeeping efforts across the world.
Given our interminable involvement in wars, it stands to reason that either the size of the memorial must be increased or the size of the exhibitions from older wars must decrease. While the latter option would no doubt cause ructions (not least from me), I don’t think anyone can trust this government to do the right thing. Indeed, I suspect this is just another effort by the current government to ‘save the furniture’ as they slump to their 40+ (I’ve lost count) trailing poll on their way to what looks like a humiliating defeat at the next election.
Throwing money at the War Memorial will resonate with the gullible, much more so than giving money to the several other underfunded national institutions in Canberra5, because waving the banner of Anzac is always popular among the right-wing nut jobs. However, one thing that should never happen, there should never be any sponsorship of anything in the memorial. Why? Because, there will always be a push by someone in government or business to just go a little further, and then a little more. If that happens, eventually the whole institution will be debased by advertising. After just over five years of disgraceful behaviour, and fiasco after shambles after cock-up, I am very suspicious of the motives of this corrupt government. Is this advertising simply a way to ingratiate themselves with arms dealers to obtain a little ‘donation’? Given this government’s pathological aversion to anything associated with the public good or public service, how long before the running of the memorial, if not its building and the collection, is handed over to their mates in private industry? You may laugh at the preposterous nature of this suggestion, but the reality of the creeping privatisation of Centrelink and Medicare and the constant calls for the selling of the ABC and SBS should give you pause.