‘Last posts’, Inside Story, 11 November 2022
This article is mostly about the difficulties the National Archives of Australia (NAA) has experienced in funding the digitisation of military service records from World War II. Baker notes the inevitable decline and disappearance of the soldiers, sailors, airforce personnel, and nurses of that war, the floundering of DVA and the RSL, and the stories of a few of those who served and of their families.
Perhaps the most tangible legacy we have of those who have gone [Baker goes on] and those who remain is the priceless archive of service records and enlistment photographs … More than seventy-seven years after the war ended, though, hundreds of thousands of those records are still locked away in crumbling paper folders in a Canberra warehouse largely inaccessible to the general public.
Less than two-thirds of the World War II files have been digitised; seeing a file that has not yet been digitised is not easy. The NAA says the $10 million earmarked in 2019 is not enough to finish the digitising job. Yet, the NAA, the holder of service records, is just as crucial to learning about and remembering our war dead and those who returned as is the Australian War Memorial.
Where could the money come from to complete the digitisation task? The sting comes in the tail of Baker’s piece:
While the NAA appeals for private donations to help meet the cost shortfall, $500 million [actually $550 million] is being lavished on the Disneyfication of the Australian War Memorial (after the scandalously wasteful decision to bulldoze the fabulous Anzac Hall — home of Lancaster bomber “G” for George — to make way for the structure) …
What [Charles] Bean [leading light in the Memorial’s genesis and early days] would make of the architectural extravaganza transforming the imposing yet modest shrine he helped build is anyone’s guess. But there can be little doubt what the man who was also foundation chairman of the 1940s war archives committee that would become the National Archives of Australia would think of the failure to complete the proper preservation of records of the men and women who fought in the second world war.
There is always an opportunity cost (a dollar spent somewhere cannot be spent elsewhere) of grandiose bricks and mortar memorials or monuments (or extensions or refurbishments of them), no matter how the defenders of a project will try to defend it by saying ‘you can’t shuffle money between different Budget votes’, ‘you have to compare the spend on that (the grandiose project) with the overall government spend on veterans’ (or on defence, or on everything), ‘this is a project to recognise service in the last 50 years’ (or anticipated service in the next 50 years – ‘future proofing’).
Honest History and Heritage Guardians have heard (and countered – Search the site) all of these arguments about the War Memorial big build over the last few years. The arguments don’t improve with repetition.
Mark Baker is a senior journalist, now publisher of Inside Story. Kristen Alexander reviewed Baker’s books The Emperor’s Grace and Phillip Schuler.
21 November 2022
Extremely pertinent points.