Stephens, David: Afghanistan under the microscope – but not especially at the War Memorial

David Stephens*

‘Afghanistan under the microscope – but not especially at the War Memorial’, Honest History, 21 September 2020 updated

Update 7 October 2020: Author Ben McKelvey, author of book on Afghanistan war, talks to Phillip Adams on Late Night Live.

There have been a couple of published tours de force recently about Australia’s longest wars, indeed, one of history’s longest wars, the one in Afghanistan. Both of them mention, one in detail, the other in passing, how that war is treated by the Australian War Memorial.

First. there was Queensland academic, William De Maria, writing at length for John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations website (‘A tale of two prosthetic legs: panel beating history at the Australian War Memorial‘). De Maria canvassed the local Afghanistan casualties and (the much, much fewer) Australian combat losses, and (the considerably more than the combat figures) Australian suicides, before moving on to the Memorial and Afghanistan, and Anzac and sacredness:

Every time we think we are advancing our understandings of Australia’ troubled military engagements we trip over this Anzac sacredness. It is always there. Always in the way …

The AWM is the principal warden of the Anzac flame. Its job is to tell the story of war. With world class curation (and lots of dollars) it honours the valour of Australian men and women who have fought for our country. What it does not get right is to explain the nature of war and why we so readily take up arms against “threats” on the other side of the world. There is no critical examination of the pointlessness of so many aggressive engagements Australia has been involved in and how shameful things can be done by Australians soldiers on the battlefield. The Australian War Memorial unapologetically distorts history and insists that its visitors go away with only one version of war. A version bound to enshrine war as a permanent inevitability.

There is much more in De Maria’s article, including a forensic look at the Memorial’s Afghanistan exhibition and at the knick-knacks for sale in the Memorial shop. An earlier piece by De Maria about the Memorial appeared on Pearls and Irritations and on Michael West Media. De Maria is about to bring out a book, Australia’s War of Shame: Afghanistan 2001-2013.

Then, the Canberra Times carried an op ed from former editor and veteran journalist, Jack Waterford (‘We must admit defeat in Afghanistan, and war crimes‘). Pdf from our subscription. Waterford wrote at length about the futility of the Afghanistan war, along with its inevitability, given the Australian obsession with paying out on the insurance policy with the United States. He also mentioned allegations of war crimes by Australians and the seemingly interminable unravelling (and possible concealment) of what actually happened.

Towards the end of his piece, Waterford had something to say also about the Memorial’s future plans to build what he described as ‘a big ugly edifice and theme park full of the military toys made by the arms manufacturers such as those [former Director Nelson] now serves [as local head of Boeing], full rather than [adviser to Thales] part-time’.

Waterford went on to dispute the therapeutic milieu claim made by the then Director, before making an important further point about the Memorial. ‘Purists, indeed, would insist that the AWM really is about mass civilian military service in all-out war, not deployment of professional soldiers’, like those who went to Afghanistan. Yet, a strong theme of the current push for the $498m extensions is to tell the stories of professional soldiers.

Honest History has tracked the recent history of the Afghanistan war, as seen by the Memorial. Use our Search engine, with term ‘Afghanistan’.

* David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website.

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