Time to pull the curtain on memorial industry
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Time to pull the curtain on memorial industry

We should honour veterans by caring for them, and by telling them, and us, the truth.

A fairly safe rule of public life is that the more flag lapels one wears, and the more one speaks of love of country or national greatness, the less likely the person has served in the nation's armed forces and put himself in harm's way, least of all in a time of national need.

Two bellicose recent United States presidents, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, come to mind. In Australia, it's hard to go past John Howard, Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison and Brendan Nelson, a former defence minister who has perpetually thrust himself to the forefront during the World War I remembrance extravaganza – due, we hope, to conclude over the next few weeks.

But my hope may be in vain. No sooner shall we note the silence of the guns on November 11 than the Australian War Memorial will set out to establish another entirely inappropriate but politically potent memorial to national political follies. It will be for soldiers who have died in recent wars, such as in Iraq, Afghanistan, against Aborigines in the Northern Territory and against refugees in leaky boats at sea. The government has pledged about $500 million (no doubt with extra private sector help from the merchants of death) to some fresh galleries, as well as a faintly ludicrous memorial to all of the war memorials already erected around Australia over the past 100 years or so.

It's only fair to our recently serving men and women, I suppose. One does not slice, dice and weigh different types and times of sacrifice in the service of one's country, even if or when it was more or less in vain, so far as the nation's defence interests were concerned.

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But not all things are equal. Our War Memorial records the names of about 102,000 men and women who died in action serving their their country. More than 60,000 of these died in World War I, from a population of about 4 million – almost all civilians who volunteered to fight for the duration of the war when our national leaders declared civilisation to be in peril from German militarism. About three times that number returned from Europe sick and wounded, including by gas burns to the lungs and traumatic stress, for shortened and more miserable lives. It was a national catastrophe, as traumatic for the population left behind, as one might imagine from contemplating that equivalent losses today, from our 25 million population, would be about 400,000 dead and 800,000 as invalids, and a total of about 2.5 million Australians sent to fight at Gallipoli, Palestine, France and Belgium. The memorials in every town recorded the fact that there was scarcely a local family untouched.

And only about 20 years later, people lined up again. By then, Australia had a population of about 7 million, in part because of interwar immigration. Before the war was over, more than 1 million Australians were wearing a military uniform, and several million more had been conscripted into manpower programs providing food, military supplies and services for the war effort. Nearly 40,000 died, in Africa, Syria, Greece, Malaysia, Thailand and New Guinea, as well as in the air war against Germany. They were men and women off the farm or off the street, in many cases already handicapped by years of the Great Depression, but the overwhelming proportion were volunteers, who came when they were called. It was not, generally, so gruesome a war in terms of loss of life, but a modern-day equivalent would be about 3.5 million men and women in uniform, and about 140,000 dead.

War Memorial director Brendan Nelson addresses media ahead of the 100th Remembrance Day.

War Memorial director Brendan Nelson addresses media ahead of the 100th Remembrance Day.Credit:Karleen Minney

About 17,000 Australian soldiers – professionals more or less – fought in Korea in the early 1950s; about 340 were killed. More than 60,000 soldiers, mostly professional soldiers but also 15,000 conscripts, fought in Vietnam, of whom about 500 were killed. Vietnam was a politically divisive issue in Australia but it failed to involve and affect Australians in anything like the proportions of the two great wars. (I was a draft dodger at the time.)

Most casualties over the past 30 years were in Afghanistan. About 26,000 Australians fought from 2001 to 2014; we lost 41 soldiers, sailors and air force personnel. All were professional soldiers.

While we honour all Australians who served their country, and we certainly make no distinction of the dead, it should be clear that there are significant differences between the wars. Of those named at the War Memorial, 99 per cent were killed before 1950. In the past 70 years, fewer than 1000 have died in action. The World Wars involved civilians responding to the call, by the hundreds of thousands; the latter involved a highly trained and increasingly professional military elite – men and women whose vocational choices had contemplated fighting for their country. None of the struggles in which they became engaged involved the whole resources of the nation, and a significant proportion of its population and treasure.

More is involved than a mere difference in scale. In World War I, Australians fought in divisional strength, sometimes at army corp (in Australia's case, of five divisions) strength. While they played only a relatively minor (and, in any event, both strategically and tactically unsuccessful) role at Gallipoli, Australian troops made a significant contribution to Allied victory in the Middle East and on the Western Front.

Australian troops captured by Germans near Fromelles on the Western Front. In both World Wars, there were many single days in which more Australian died than in all conflicts in the past 70 years.

Australian troops captured by Germans near Fromelles on the Western Front. In both World Wars, there were many single days in which more Australian died than in all conflicts in the past 70 years.Credit:Australian War Memorial

Likewise, in World War II, Australian divisions played significant roles in North Africa and Syria, and, if unsuccessful other than in obtaining delay, in Greece, as well as in repelling the Japanese in New Guinea. Their efforts, again at divisional level, were less successful in Malaya, Indonesia, Bougainville and Borneo, and, generally, they were fighting alongside allies, but their efforts were rarely submerged inside a general Allied push.

Australians have been involved in sharp, and lethal, firefights in the 70 years since. But they have never fought since at even brigade level, and most engagements have been at less than company level. Brave and tactically successful as our soldiers may have been, nothing they have achieved on a battlefield in the past 70 years has made a difference to the immediate or ultimate outcome of any conflict. No enemy history will mention a single battle.

Our air force and navy have been involved in or off Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, but never against military equipment capable of meeting them on equal terms.

We owe those involved, and the families of those who died, the truth about the essential pointlessness of our recent military campaigns.

Australia's involvement in conflict over the past 70 years has mostly been as an ally of the US, and with a focus of being seen to be its ally and friend, rather than for any specifically Australian interest in the theatre itself. We owe those involved, and the families of those who died, the truth about its essential pointlessness. It was not worth the treasure, the deaths or the outcomes. Many Australian military leaders are frank in criticising the political decisions to get involved, the cases made in efforts to secure public support, and the want of good intelligence and clear objectives behind the missions.

Nelson was defence minister when critical decisions were made. He no doubt has an obvious interest in seeing our involvement as a triumph of Australian endeavour, rather than an occasion for searching and critical inquiry. His new circus will delay the latter.

He has certainly been enthusiastic in promoting the idea that our modern conflicts deserve the attention, and honour, of our previous ones. But will they be proportional to the degree of national sacrifice or impact on the national ethos? There were many single days during both World Wars when more Australians died than have died in combat collectively since 1970.

Nelson has proven a showman at the War Memorial. He has brought some innovations, not least the nightly Last Post that has proven popular with tourists. He has, perhaps, been helpful in showing that the carnage of the war spread far and wide.

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But, like the accompanying spit and polish, provided for no military purpose whatever at vast public expense, it sometimes seems to be part of a project to turn the memorial into a Shinto temple, consecrated to some notion of flag, and ceremonial glorification of sacrifice at complete odds with what the memorial ought to be about.

All the more so when the frontman is a still active politician, who has manifested a genius for turning every story about the memorial and the World War I celebrations into a story about himself. He has assumed a role – particularly outrageous for one who did not serve – that seems to be a spokesman for soldiers, for soldiers being criticised, or for the very notion of military service. It is invariably tendentious. Like all recent Liberal leaders, he has a cack ear for the public mood. He has no right to appropriate the sacrifices of civilians to his own ends, or to pretend to channel the thoughts of men and women in the services.

Australians should never forget World War I. Or World War II. Each had profound effects on the nation – the first war practically flattened and bankrupted us. It destroyed for generations the optimism and confidence of a nation that had entered the century with perhaps the highest standard of living on earth. Australians ended the war broke and almost broken – perhaps not sorry that we went but certainly, except for a certain officer class, in no mood to think that battle had baptised or ennobled us.

This is not to suggest that the War Memorial should become a mere temple to the futility of war – or the cupidity of politicians. We show our respect for those who suffered, and we honour and remember them, if, any longer, we can. We should renew our cynicism about leaders who seek to politicise national security, or wrap themselves in the flag. We resolve to remember our history so we do not forget it.

After the forlorn memorials of World War I, survivors of World War II thought it enough to add another plaque for the extra dead of the next war. If there was to be a second memorial, many resolved, it should be in the form of some practical civic project, which served the community's need. In the town I was born (in my family, four boys and a girl served overseas), this took the form of an ambulance station and a public swimming pool – if one off limits to Aborigines, even those who were returning soldiers, thanks to the local RSL's insistence. It was to be 15 years after the war when the local community concluded that the freedoms people had fought for, and some had died for, included the right of Aboriginal Australians to live in the town, or to walk around it after dark.

Perhaps Nelson has an appropriate anecdote, told to him only yesterday, that explains and rationalises this, proving that we can honour the Aussie spirit only by turning the museum into a mausoleum. For me, I would rather honour service and suffering with some practical help and with some acknowledgement that many bear continuing psychic and physical scars from doing their duty – even when the duty has been so secret, or so shameful, that it must remain an on-water matter. Alternatively, $500 million to help with the continuing suffering of boat people fleeing from the conflicts in which we engaged might be an even more fitting monument.

Meanwhile, the marking of the end, 100 years ago, of World War I ought to be a sign that we should tone down the liturgy, the bullshit, and the politicisation of personal, community and national trauma – at least until we are again in some cataclysmic conflict.

We must never forget. But after 100 years, it's not a matter for emotion but calm study and contemplation. That task might benefit from excusing the RSL, the professional military classes and politicians with mixed motives their tight control over the message.

Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times. jwaterfordcanberra@gmail.com