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Update 28 May 2015: chink of light at the Memorial
Honest History has been critical of the Australian War Memorial’s relentless and repetitive focus on battles and deaths and it’s relative lack of interest in the home front and the aftermath of our wars. This was a theme of our review of the Anzac Treasures book and of our first and second reviews of the refurbished World War I galleries.
Similar points have been made by James Rose, Alan Stephens and others. The Memorial, while it remains, in Charles Bean’s words, ‘the finest monument raised to any army’, does not do context well. It is full of relics that will stir some of us ‘to the marrow’ but it consistently fails to encourage all of us to ask the hard questions of ‘why did we do it?’, ‘should we do it again?’ and whether it was worth it.
Considering the aftermath of wars should bend us to asking those questions. For example, Marina Larsson has pointed out that two or three times as many families after the Great War had to deal with the trauma of wounded and psychologically damaged men as grieved over the deaths of those who did not come home.
It was encouraging in this context to see these paragraphs in the recent interview of War Memorial Director Nelson, contained in an article by Guardian Australia‘s Paul Daley.
“There was an embitterment of public discourse and policy debate following the war … 80% of the men who did return were between the ages of 18 and 24. A lot of them were gassed, limbless, disfigured, psychologically wounded – all of that. Families were carers, you had fatherless families, you had degrees of domestic violence associated with post traumatic stress, you had the pro-conscriptionists and the anti-conscriptionists still deeply embittered and polarised – the shirkers versus those who served. There was a sense that a man who had served or a woman who had gone off … was somehow a better Australian. The Indigenous men who had volunteered came back and returned to a desperately unequal society and were treated unequally,” he said.
This is a chink of light indeed. But surely the magnitude of the effects described deserves more than ‘some sort of special exhibition’, something that fills some space for a while then moves on. Surely the attention to these things should be as lasting, as permanent, as pervasive as their impact was in real life. Depicting the aftermath should be a permanent and large part of a useful and future-oriented War Memorial, just as depicting the home front should be.
A new direction of this nature would be a lasting legacy of the Nelson era at the Memorial. It is quite within the Memorial’s charter. The Director should be supported (and pushed hard) in what it is hoped will be a fruitful new departure.
Update 23 May 2015: ‘The Next War’ – two speeches on Australia 2015
Two speeches by David Stephens, at Politics in the Pub, Glebe, 9 April, on Anzac and the militarisation of Australian society, and at the Solidarity Forum, UTS, 9 May, on militarism, fascism, Anzacism, an Australian progress report 2015.
Update 21 May 2015: ministerial error to be corrected
The Veterans’ Affairs portfolio has admitted there was an error in the ministerial statement on the centenary of Anzac. The error was noted here. It turns out that instead of annual commemoration spending by the Commonwealth being about $12 million it is about $88 million.
Update 19 May 2015: Australian War Memorial’s rise and rise; constructing emotions (centenary spend); questions for the minister
Paul Daley of Guardian Australia interviews Director Brendan Nelson. We update our take on the Monash interpretive centre (France) for Independent Australia and we have questions for the minister about money. We note Minister Ronaldson’s third statement on the Anzac centenary and we ask him some pointed questions. We assume that even a junior minister’s rhetoric needs to be examined closely – and questioned. For example, if it is true that ‘Anzac means service and sacrifice’ and the next generation of Australians are carrying the torch of remembrance, then what is the nature of the sacrifice expected of that next generation and when does the minister expect it to be required?
Update 17 May 2015: Third Front of centenary items
We have put together our third miscellany (round-up) of Anzac 100-related items. The first. The second. The three packages together contain about 150 links with commentary; we hope readers find them useful.
Update 13 May 2015: two Anzac zingers; Budget 2015
We note Anzac commemoration wrap-up speeches by prime minister and opposition leader and we tot up the impact of the Budget on the total commemoration spend, which is now around $551.8 million.
Update 12 May 2015: an emotional look at the construction industry in Northern France
During this commemoration season words frequently heard are ‘emotion’ and ‘emotional’. Ordinary people, contemplating a tombstone at Anzac Cove or returning from a Dawn Service, asked how they feel, almost invariably use the E-word, as in ‘very emotional’ or ‘I feel a lot of emotion’. We do not often get the ‘emotional rollercoaster’ rumbled out but, if the grave of a relative, even a distant one, is in the vicinity, we sometimes hear that awful word, ‘closure’.
Currently, the National Museum of Australia has an exhibition, The Home Front, which groups 21 stories of the Great War under five types of emotion (pride, sorrow, passion, wonder and joy) and gives visitors the chance to nominate the emotional impact on them of other stories, drawing upon a list of no less than 20 emotions. As our reviewer, Michael Piggott, notes elsewhere, museums have had a new lease of life (in the face of assaults from the virtual world) by evoking emotional responses from their patrons, particularly emotional responses to objects. The Australian War Memorial is a prime example.
Over at the ABC, readers of some stories on The Drum have been asked, how does this story make you feel. For example, after a piece on Gallipoli commemoration readers were given the choice of feeling proud, sad, inspired, angry, grateful, hopeful, annoyed, or indifferent. Nothing about whether the story made you think, just about your feelings. We even looked for an option ‘thoughtful’ – the story made me feel thoughtful – to try to sneak thinking into the picture that way, but no luck.
Of course, death in war evokes emotion. The point is to work through the emotion and move on to ask questions: Why? Was it worth it? Did they die in vain? We are still not good at this next step. There is recent evidence. A couple of weeks ago, we heard the prime minister announce that the government planned to spend $100 million on a Western Front ‘interpretive centre’, named for Sir John Monash, next to the Villers-Bretonneux memorial. The centre is to be reached via imitation trenches and will offer a ‘leading edge, multimedia experience’ which is ‘immersive, interactive and informative’ (rather like, one imagines, the original Western Front experience). There will be ‘dramatic and emotive narratives’ and the visitor will leave ‘filled with a sense of quiet pride and sorrow’. (No mention of passion, wonder or joy.)
No indication either of asking the big questions, or even some lesser ones. No clue yet to which subjects are on, and which off the interpretive centre’s agenda. Is venereal disease to be covered? What about the ‘mutinies’ (CEW Bean’s word, though the modern euphemism ‘combat refusal’ may have been in use then) in France in 1918 in perhaps ten battalions? What about shootings of German prisoners?
Taking in the Villers-Bretonneux announcement, some observers wrote letters to the editor. For example, one Canberra reader said this:
Outside of Anzac Day it is hard to see who will visit such a centre in the middle of nowhere unless hordes of tourist buses are expected to bring Aussies from Paris each day. There are a lot better things to spend $100 million on than extravagant seldom-visited memorials.
Another letter writer imagined the ghost of Monash entreating the prime minister to spend the money on something more useful.
Other people, though, seemed not to care. Perhaps the effort of kicking Woolworths or Scott McIntyre into touch had sapped their energy. We reckon Monsieur le President, Francois Hollande, thinks John Monash has saved France again, though. Unemployment in France is at around 11 per cent, a record level, and the Villers-Bretonneux area has been particularly hard hit. Even if a lot of the technical work on the interpretive centre is done in Australia, there should be plenty of digging, lifting and banging jobs for the locals.
Following the lead of the National Museum and the ABC, we thought of asking our Honest History readers how they felt about the museum – sorry, ‘interpretive centre’. Here are six options (use the comments field below to express an opinion).
How do you feel about the proposal to build the $100 million Sir John Monash Interpretive Centre at Villers-Bretonneux?
Appalled. What on earth are they doing now?
Exasperated. Surely it’s enough for Monash to have his face on the $100 note and have the world’s 70th ranked university named after him.
Puzzled. I thought the nation was born in the Dardanelles in 1915.
Reassured. It’s nice to know that, after all, there is no Budget crisis.
Relieved. It will mean Australia’s commemorative focus will shift away from Turkey to France. Gallipoli is so hard to get to and Villers-Bretonneux is really close to Paris.
Resigned. No matter what we think, it makes no bloody difference.
Regardless of what Monsieur Hollande will get out of this project, going for broke in the north of France is part of Prime Minister Abbott’s strategy to turn our attention away from the ‘glorious defeat’ at Gallipoli to the ‘terrible victories’ in France. Like Lincoln during the American Civil War, wrapped in his shawl, haunting the telegraph office next to the White House, waiting for a triumphant message from General McClellan, the prime minister yearns for something to celebrate. Even a century on, the Battle of Hamel, ‘the textbook victory’, according to the Australian War Memorial, fits the bill. Major Tim Fischer AC (ret’d) is in there, pitching for the reputation of Monash; the prime minister seems to be a willing disciple.
We realised the prime minister and his office were probably too busy with the Budget to answer questions but we thought of getting a comment instead from the Minister for the Centenary of Anzac, Ballarat boy, Senator Michael Ronaldson, but it turned out he was in Paris at a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe. Seventieth. In many families, reaching 70 years of age might be an occasion for a mild celebration but not much more of a shindig than would be put on for a sixtieth or a fiftieth. An international commemoration of a 70th anything seems a bit excessive. It’s such a mundane number. But the minister was definitely there.
But then we remembered. We are in the midst of commemorating not just the centenary of the Great War (or the centenary of Anzac, as we prefer to call it in Australia) but also a century of (military) service, so pretty much any anniversary with a military flavour potentially has a profile. We will, for example, be invited to commemorate in 2016 the 50th anniversary of the end of Confrontation with Indonesia, in 2017 the 75th anniversary of the formation of the Women’s Land Army, and in 2018, the tenth anniversary of the dedication of the Park of the Australian Soldier in Be’er Sheba, Israel.
If anyone in the commemoration industry, looking back in 2019, is a touch disappointed with how things have turned out over the previous half decade – Gallipoli fatigue and all that – they have only a year to wait before 2020, the 75th anniversary of the end of the second big war. Seventy-five! Now that really is a number. There’s probably a task force in the Department of Veterans’ Affairs working on that one already.
STOP PRESS: Australian War Memorial historian, Dr Karl James, said on 8 May: ‘From next year we [the Memorial] start to look at the 75th anniversary of major World War II events (such as the outbreak of war)’.
PS Some readers may find the above note a trifle scurrilous, perhaps sarcastic, even disrespectful. We apologise (a little) for that. Our only excuse is that sometimes, if you don’t laugh, you cry.
Update 8 May 2015 (updated): local spinoff in latest spend? Scott McIntyre pursued
Update 5 May 2015: Anzac-ed out 2015
Willy Bach’s poem reinterprets Binyon’s Ode.
Update 3 May 2015: snuck out on Sunday – more commemoration dollars
Minister Ronaldson has announced an additional $35.5 million of federal spending on commemoration. This pushes total federal, state and corporate spending well over $500 million with more to come.
Update 1 May 2015: MAPW statement on WWI commemoration