Specially Forced? Odd outburst from Director of Australian War Memorial

ABC TV News yesterday (2 November 2017) repeatedly ran an interview by Defence reporter, Andrew Greene, with Australian War Memorial Director, Brendan Nelson, in which Dr Nelson questioned the time being taken by the Army’s review into the conduct of Special Forces in Afghanistan. ‘Where is the national interest’, the Director asks, ‘in tearing down these heroes’.

The video of the interview now available online has been truncated somewhat: it does not include the Director’s reference to the role of the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, in putting the review in place. Nor does the video include the Director’s brief infomercial for the Memorial’s current exhibition on the work of the Special Forces, an exhibition which is advertised as ‘[d]eveloped in partnership with Special Operations Command’. But the first aspect at least is covered in the radio version.

We found it difficult to gauge whether the purpose of Dr Nelson’s interview was to hype the exhibition or spray the Australian Defence Force hierarchy (or perhaps both). Perhaps other observers may be better placed to read the implications.

General Campbell is an ex officio member of the Council of the War Memorial. Dr Nelson’s current term as Director expires on 16 December 2017. (New term ends 30 May 2019.) The appointment as Director of the Memorial is a matter for the Governor-General on the advice of the government (Act sec. 20).

David Stephens

3 November 2017 updated

Update 23 September 2019: 60 Minutes, Nine newspapers joint investigation; Nine newspapers editorial; Nine newspapers story; Nine again.

Update 8 June 2018: Defence report suggests Australian war crimes in Afghanistan plus cultural problems within Australian forces.

Update 9 June 2018: more from Director Nelson, particularly on the impact of a drawn-out inquiry on ADF members and former members. Also on the ABC on 10 June.

Update 10 August 2018: long article in Fairfax on allegations against Ben Roberts-Smith VC for actions in Afghanistan.

Update 11 August 2018: follow-up including further Nelson remarks: ‘I have to ask where is the national interest in what’s being done here?’

Update 13 August 2018: more from Dr Nelson.

More still but another relevant comment from Paul Barratt, former secretary of Defence. More from Barratt in Inside Story.

Update 14 August 2018: yet more from Director Nelson.

Update 17 August 2018: pushback against Nelson from historians, including Honest History’s Peter Stanley and Frank Bongiorno. Here is a summary.

Update 28 August 2018: more pushback from military historian Greg Lockhart in Pearls and Irritations.

In brief, the shining Roberts-Smith VC brand helps the state to normalise and glamorise for public consumption the bloody strategy that has driven the endless string of unwinnable wars in support of the US alliance anywhere in the world in the hope that the alliance will provide us with eternal security in our region …

In misusing his official position to berate the media for ‘tearing down our heroes’, Dr Nelson has probably empathised with Roberts-Smith and can be seen to have incorporated the relaxed AWM approach to Australian breaches of the law of war. As the head of that public institution, which plays a crucial role in nurturing the dependent culture of our alliance strategy, he has also had a political interest in making Roberts-Smith a contemporary Anzac star. The implications of his outburst are not then limited to its support for hobbling media freedom and weakening legal constraints on improper violence in military culture. They include a defence of hero worship that distracts us from discussing burning questions about how and why we go to war.

Update 20 October 2018: Fairfax defence in Roberts-Smith defamation case. Reaction from Brendan Nelson on Sky News.



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