Stephens, David: Getting beyond ‘our heroes’: a War Memorial angle on possible war crimes

Update 24 November 2020: commentary continues

RAAF historian Dr Alan Stephens OAM writes in Pearls & Irritations:

Rather than embodying Charles Bean’s vision of a solemn temple of reflection honouring service and sacrifice – ‘Here is their spirit’- over time, the Australian War Memorial has morphed into a theme park of war souvenirs, half-truths and omissions …

The corruption of the AWM’s vision can be seen as a contributing factor to the toxic culture that ultimately infected our combat forces in Afghanistan. Any path to redemption must, therefore, include reforming the Memorial. Three relatively straightforward changes would have an immediate, positive and far-reaching effect. Cancel the $500 million extension; replace the current Council with a representative selection of Australians; and tell the true story of our war experiences.

Paul Daley in Guardian Australia:

Australia has prostrated itself for too long at the altar of Anzac mythology at the expense of other national foundation truths …

Canvasses many reasons for this Anzac hero-worship and concludes:

Is it any wonder, given all this, that a small group of mostly young vainglorious specialist soldiers could come to believe their own shit to such an extent it mutated into such unforgivable (alleged) violence? To see themselves as beyond the laws of warfare, beyond answerability to their comrades, beyond any obligation to humanity when they ventured beyond the wire?

So, as everyone asks, “who is responsible?”, let us just pause and use this moment to reconsider how the nation has come to shroud our military and all its actions, now and since colonisation, in some all-mitigating exceptionalism.

What has just happened is a potential watershed. A crossroads. A chance to alter direction.

[Dr Brendan] Nelson said some time ago of alleged special forces war crimes, “We want to believe in our heroes.”

If that’s so, it’s high time we were much more careful about who we venerate in the first place.

Update 23 November 2020: still more commentary (some pay-walls)

Nick McKenzie on Sixty Minutes interviews Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Burr, on aspects of the Brereton report and the fallout. General Burr is also an ex officio member of the Australian War Memorial Council and says he will continue there. (He said he is an ‘invited’ member but the Memorial’s Annual Report 2019-20 shows he attended all four meetings of the Council during that year, as did the Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Noonan, and the Chief of Air Force, Air Marshal Hupfeld, also ex officio members.) He made no comment on potential Stokes conflict of interest: being Chair and being seen to back those who are potentially undermining what the Memorial commemorates.

McKenzie, Masters and Galloway in Nine Newspapers on how the silence was cracked by Brereton’s work.

The war in Afghanistan was one that many Australians had lost track of. It had dragged on for 15 years after the September 11 attacks first led to a Western coalition invading the battle-weary nation. As the war’s progress stagnated, the bravery of individual elite special forces soldiers on capture and kill missions informed the public narrative pushed by defence and successive governments. Much of it was true.

But while Brereton’s inquiry would concentrate on the actions of a relatively small number of soldiers who allegedly went rogue – 25 soldiers are allegedly responsible for 39 murders – it would inevitably risk tainting Australia’s entire Afghan contribution.

Michael McKinley in Pearls and Irritations:

Our political leadership will never be the subjects of the Office of the Special Investigator or the Australian Federal Police, nor, therefore, will they ever be charged. Indeed, in their exaggerated innocence they will display only the inevitable hypocrisy of the failed war-maker: a passion for condemning others and a total unwillingness to accept responsibility for their role in their crimes.

Mungo McCallum in Pearls and Irritations:

It will take more than the odd press conference to renew the once honourable reputation of our diggers – who, Campbell rightly says, are just as horrified as the rest of us at what has been revealed and the tarnishing of their prized names.

So it is to the credit of the ADF and the SAS, and to the media, the whistleblowers and all the investigators, and yes, to the politicians, that the disasters have been confronted openly and firmly, and there is a determination to deal with it. The swamp has not yet been drained, but a genuine start has been made. And for this, at least, Australians can be justly proud.

Canberra Times editorial suggests the Brereton report may have consequences for the planned expansion of the War Memorial

A balanced coverage but an interesting concluding paragraph or so:

How to adequately acknowledge this stain on Australia’s military history at a place that mostly lauds it? Apart from the wide-reaching ramifications for the ADF and for Australia’s narrative surrounding the country’s role in overseas conflicts, the report and its findings have made the chief justification for the memorial’s expansion a far darker and more complex proposition.

It could well end up undermining it altogether.

Canberra Times, Nic Stuart:

What the Brereton report reveals, however, is that the government’s strategy in Afghanistan was bankrupt. It relied, critically, on special forces teams taking out enemy commanders. They weren’t. Instead a corrosive, separate and deadly culture was allowed to develop in the white compound that was wired off and forbidden to journalists in the base at Tarin Kot. We knew something was happening there but no idea what …

Will prime ministers John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott be cross-examined and questioned? How it was that our forces were committed to an impossible war? Who accepted that executions would be embedded into policy? Look in the mirror. Can you really absolve yourself from any blame for what happened?

Flashback to historic pieces on the difficulty of finding out what was going in Afghanistan: Michael Brissenden (2013); Tom Hyland (2014).

Update 22 November 2020: catching up with further commentary (some pay-walls)

John-Paul Moloney, editor-in-chief of Canberra Times:

Certainly over the past four years, while the Brereton report has been compiled, and stories have been published detailing some of the alleged actions of Australians in Afghanistan, there have been strident defenders of the special forces and critics of those who have raised concerns about their conduct.

Criticising reporting about allegations against decorated former soldier Ben Roberts-Smith, who has denied those allegations and is suing media organisations for defamation, then head of the war memorial and former defence minister Brendan Nelson said in 2018: “War is a messy business … but as far as I’m concerned, unless there have been the most egregious breaches of laws of armed conflict, we should leave it all alone”.

Dr Nelson wouldn’t offer comment on Thursday, though there is no suggestion he too wouldn’t be appalled by what he had read.

It’s the “leaving it all alone” aspect – and to be fair, even after today there will be those who retain the view that what happens in combat should stay in combat – that warrants discussion here.

Jack Waterford, ex-editor Canberra Times in an op ed:

Our shame must embrace an Australian War Memorial – which not so innocently – turned some of the players into cult heroes, and accused anyone asking questions of undermining men and women simply doing their duty. It must do more than “deal fairly” with the accusations. It must fundamentally reorder its display.

Politicians and ministers are specifically exonerated. The failure was in the ADF, operational not political. But Brereton is again too kind. The culture was nurtured by political failures: ill-defined war aims, not telling what was actually wanted beyond puff pieces fed to a generally tame Defence media. The soldiers knew that no one – least of all in Canberra, cared. It’s not easy to continually put your life on the line in such a cause.

Brendan Nelson, who as minister for defence was party to sending them there, as war memorial director chief cheerleader for the SAS warrior culture, and now representative of the foreign arms industry that kills people on all sides, should be the first to show his shame. He, and his enabling board should disappear from public life.

Paul Malone, retired journalist, Pearls and Irritations:

Those who will not be put on trial as a result of investigations into Australian operations in Afghanistan will be those most responsible – the ministers who committed Australian troops to a protracted war where our forces could not readily distinguish friend from foe.

Noel Turnbull, Vietnam veteran, Pearls and Irritations:

Equally disturbing is the attitude of the Australian War Memorial Chair, Kerry Stokes, vowing to help any soldiers accused of war crimes. He has already extended a $1.9 million loan to Ben Roberts-Smith to cover his legal costs in possible legal actions.

The Australia War Memorial’s role is to commemorate sacrifice and service and to help us remember. It is not to glorify war and war toys as with its planned expansion. Nor is it the role of the Chair, any Council member or former Director, such as Brendan Nelson, to effectively insert themselves into the chain of command by attempting to influence the outcome – and make no mistake money supporting legal costs can be a significant influence – of legal actions against soldiers …

The legal processes should be allowed to continue without interference in any way. If Kerry Stokes wants to get involved he is entitled to – but, if he does, he should also step aside from his role at the Australian War Memorial.

Prime Minister Morrison:

Mr Morrison also said he was “puzzled” by criticisms levelled against Australian War Memorial chairman Kerry Stokes who has vowed to support members of the Special Air Service Regiment accused of war crimes by using a special fund set up two decades ago to bankroll legal costs.

Update 21 November 2020: further commentary (some pay-walls)

Former Chief of the Defence Force, Admiral Chris Barrie, tells Nine Newspapers the War Memorial Council should be cleaned out and displays of SAS exploits pulled.

Mr Barrie said the council should be “fundamentally changed” because of the connection between their push for a controversial $500 million expansion of the institution and Mr Stokes’ support for the SAS.

“They all need to go. That’s something the government can do tomorrow,” Mr Barrie said. “Kerry Stokes is paying the money to defend Ben Roberts-Smith, and is a chair of the War Memorial council.”

Laura Tingle on the ABC (also behind Australian Financial Review paywall):

The Government has committed half a billion dollars to expanding the Australian War Memorial at the cost of our cultural institutions like the National Gallery and National Museum which face funding cuts.

The expansion plans, overseen by former Memorial head Brendan Nelson, sound a little sick now, as they were justified as being necessary to better tell the story of modern conflict. There’s just a tad of Disneyland about it all, with the plans to house “planes, helicopters and armoured vehicles” inside galleries.

Lots of links to other ABC articles, including by Mark Willacy (who has won a Walkley for his coverage):

The men of the SAS and commandos have been held up as heroes and role models by our political leaders, and some have been showered with awards and decorations. Yet, here were some of them — a small minority, it has to be said — being accused of the most heinous of crimes, including the murder of innocents.

Tweet this morning by David Stephens of Heritage Guardians:

#honesthistory Anzackery, built around simple stories of ‘heroes’ & ‘service & sacrifice’, lies beneath billionaire Stokes @AWMemorial  hobby, his & former Dir. Nelson’s support for SAS, & desire to build $498m Brendanbunker to do same stuff bigger & better. Time to pull the plug.

Chris Knaus in Guardian Australia reports that SAS men in the ranks reckon blame should lie further up the command chain.

Guy Rundle, in one of a number of pieces in Crikey, concludes thus:

What matters is our complicity in these killings — not the suddenness of battlefield deaths, or accidents, or even heat-of-the-moment stuff, but the terror of death and the pain of torture meted out to teenagers, slow and grinding, under cover of a pointless war the Coalition had no moral concern over (by the Coalition’s very nature) but that Labor could have got us out of at any point between 2007 and 2013.

Now rendered as accusation, as confession, for us to consider at our leisure, or bury beneath a half-billion-dollar war memorial, and the shouting and the trumpets of our annual “mateship” celebrations.

Update 20 November 2020: some commentary on the release of the Brereton report (some pay-walls)

Paul Daley in Guardian Australia: ‘[T]he Brereton report highlights the folly of the [Australian War] memorial exhibiting on contemporary and current combat operations while the dust of battle is lingering. Only time, consideration of the full record and diligent history can bring real perspective. Let the researchers and the curators do their work properly. The hot take – as the memorial has demonstrated – is worthless for its glaring omissions when held up to the unflinching eye amid full exposure.’

Phil Coorey in Australian Financial Review (paywall): ‘Today, the Australian War Memorial is in line for a controversial $500 million upgrade so it can tell the stories of modern conflicts such as Afghanistan – which, due to the secrecy of the Australian Defence Force, we’ve never really known much about.’

Katie Burgess and Sarah Basford Canales in Canberra Times (paywall): ‘Dr Brendan Nelson, former defence minister and war memorial head, declined to comment.’

Kerry Stokes offers to help SAS men, including Ben Roberts-Smith (Aaron Patrick in AFR – paywall). Related from Samantha Maiden in

The Brereton report and associated material.


David Stephens*

‘Getting beyond “our heroes”: a War Memorial angle on possible war crimes’, Honest History, 19 November 2020 updated

It will be for others to parse at length, and closely, the Brereton report, and follow what happens next, probably over a long time (see links above for the first burst). Honest History does not claim to have tracked every phase of the story, but we have kept an eye on the approach taken by the Australian War Memorial to the Afghanistan War and possible war crimes there. (Long-term followers will know that the Memorial and how it does things has been a sharp focus of the Honest History and Heritage Guardians enterprises.)

Our incomplete collection is here, under the title, ‘Specially Forced? Odd outburst from Director of Australian War Memorial’, reflecting that our interest was first piqued in November 2017 by the strong support by the then Memorial Director, Dr Brendan Nelson, for his close friend, Ben Roberts-Smith VC. (Dr Nelson was critical of the time being taken by the inquiry instituted by then Chief of Army, now Chief of the Defence Force, General Angus Campbell.) Mr Roberts-Smith has been since 2015 an employee of Kerry Stokes, chairman of SevenWest Media and of the War Memorial Council.

Dr Nelson’s activity to 2018 was summarised in this Age piece by Nick McKenzie and Chris Masters. Dr Nelson asked rhetorically more than once where lay the national interest in ‘tearing down our heroes’. Meanwhile, Mr Stokes has paid $1.9m worth of legal bills for Mr Roberts-Smith’s defamation actions (pdf from our subscription).

In 2017-18 the Memorial ran a temporary exhibition, ‘From the Shadows: Australia’s Special Forces’ (‘Their activities are secret. Their missions are classified. Their identities are protected.’) A large portrait of Mr Roberts-Smith, ‘Pistol Grip’, by Michael Zavros, originally unveiled in 2014, hung at the entrance to the exhibition area.

Zavros observed [on the Memorial’s page about the painting] that when he asked Roberts-Smith to pose in a fighting stance, “He went to this whole other mode. He was suddenly this other creature and I immediately saw all these other things. It showed me what he is capable of … it was just there in this flash.”

The ‘heroes’ that Dr Nelson admired are the epitome of the Memorial’s sharp focus – pretty much unchanged for nearly 80 years – on how Australians fight, not on why they do or with what effects. The heroes are the best and the bravest at fighting.

Jon Kudelka, Saturday Paper 24 October 2020 (png from our subscription) 

One of the best summaries of what is not properly addressed by the ‘heroes’ approach is by historian of the Vietnam War and former soldier, Greg Lockhart:

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.

This complex set of issues – ‘why’ and ‘how’ and ‘what for’, as well as ‘how well’ – is something that the cheer-leading of the former Director only occasionally addressed. The new Director, Mr Matt Anderson, has promised a different approach, having the Memorial looking at the ‘why?’ and ‘what difference?’ questions (pdf from our subscription). We shall see. (Update 20 November 2020: Memorial is to look at Brereton and see how to work it in.) (Hansard of Mr Anderson’s Senate committee appearance should appear shortly here.)

The broader question of whether we should go to war as often as we do and for such dubious pretexts should be addressed also. If governments did not make unwise decisions about starting and persisting with overseas deployments, soldiers would not be put in positions where some of them commit war crimes.

Meanwhile, the recent Jon Kudelka cartoon above reminds us from the War Memorial angle that everything is connected to everything else. Nelson and Stokes over the same time period spruiked for the Memorial project and defended Roberts-Smith against war crimes allegations.

For other material on Afghanistan, use our Search engine with the search term ‘Afghanistan’. This review of a Chris Masters video set may be of particular interest.

* David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and convener of the Heritage Guardians campaign against the proposed $498m redevelopment of the War Memorial. None of the above suggests or implies that any individual is guilty of a war crime or war crimes.


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