Defending Country Memorial Project Inc.: Time to be honest about the Australian Frontier Wars: No. 4 in a series

Defending Country Memorial Project Inc.[1]

‘Time to be honest about the Australian Frontier Wars: No. 4 in a series’, Honest History, 20 August 2023 updated

The Australian War Memorial must properly recognise and commemorate the Australian Frontier Wars as an essential part of Truth-telling and as a first step to reframing Australian national commemoration.

The Memorial’s recent history on the Frontier Wars: dithering, dissembling and mixed messages.

This post is No. 4 in the series and it follows the list of FAQs and answers found in No.1 and No.2 and the first part of ‘Why the Australian Frontier Wars are important’ (No. 3). This post has more on that latter topic. No. 5 in the series: ‘What has the Australian War Memorial got to do with the Australian Frontier Wars?’


Why the Australian Frontier Wars are important (continued)

Intergenerational trauma cannot be left in the silence (continued)

For generations, many Australians have tried to ignore the Frontier Wars, just as we have tried not to look at other causes of trauma existing in Australia today. In his famous Boyer Lectures of 1968, anthropologist WEH Stanner spoke of ‘the great Australian silence’.

It is a structural matter, a view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape. What may well have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned under habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale.

Perhaps that is not as true as it was in 1968. Perhaps. What happens at the War Memorial on Frontier Wars will be one indicator of how much we have changed.

One of the prerequisites for conflict is to define the people being overtaken as less than human, and this is exactly what happened to Aboriginal people. And when you define people as having no humanity it really opens your scope for doing anything you like to them. (Dr Raymond Evans, The Australian Wars, episode 3, 2022)


What we commemorate shows what we regard as important

The Frontier Wars are important because, when we properly acknowledge and commemorate them, we build on symbolism – Welcomes to and Acknowledgement of Country, renaming of places and geographical features (Naarm, Uluru, Wiradjuri Country), AFL Dreamtime Round – with a crucial change at one of our most important cultural institutions (some would say, ‘our most sacred place’), the Australian War Memorial.

Beyond that, there are the potential implications of that act of acknowledgement and commemoration for our other commemorative places and practices, from local memorials and ceremonies to Anzac Day and Remembrance Day. This is not about doing away with Anzac Day but about broadening its focus to recognise the complete spread of our history as we have come to know it.

What a nation commemorates shows what it regards as important. A nation which embraces the concept of Defending Country, a nation which does not distinguish, by skin colour or descent or the identity of the enemy, the worth of ‘service and sacrifice’ to defend Country, is a different nation from what went before. That is the kind of Australia which could grow from real change at the War Memorial.

Some of us use the term ‘service and sacrifice’ to apply to what has traditionally been the focus of the Australian War Memorial. What is the difference between the sacrifice made by a First Australians warrior – and often his family and children – defending Country and that made by a uniformed soldier, sailor or flyer defending Australia?

Australians have placed a high value on ‘service and sacrifice’ by Australians in wars fought overseas. Extending this to service and sacrifice by Australians in wars fought on Country should be an easy and obvious step.

The burden of proving that there is a difference between these two forms of service and sacrifice lies on the opponents of the proper recognition and commemoration of the Frontier Wars at the Memorial. The fact that Indigenous families – as well as warriors – were killed or wounded in the Frontier Wars makes those wars more like wars in the rest of the world – World War I, World War II, Vietnam, Ukraine, Yemen – not less.

Millions of civilians died in those overseas wars. The wars that have been until now the main concern of the War Memorial have directly killed or wounded very few Australians not in uniform.

An American study estimated that during the 20th century around 231 million people died in wars and conflict. This figure covered, of course, huge numbers of civilian as well as military deaths.

By contrast, Australian deaths in war during the twentieth century amounted to approximately 102 000, or about 0.04 per cent of the total world-wide deaths – and the Australian dead were almost entirely military, men and women wearing the King’s or Queen’s uniform. The lack of civilian deaths in what Australians have traditionally regarded as wars should not prevent us reframing our attitudes to treat as wars the Australian Frontier Wars, where the deaths of women, children and other non-combatants were very much part of the story.

[Governor] Macquarie says, avoid women and children wherever possible, but the reality is Aboriginal people didn’t travel around in military units composed only of warriors. They travelled around in family groups, so if you are killing the male members of the family, you also end up killing the children and the women. (Professor Peter Stanley, The Australian Wars, episode 1, 2022)


We need to close the Commemoration Gap

Having the Australian War Memorial properly ‘own’ the Frontier Wars would go a long way towards closing the Commemoration Gap, which is as wide as any other gap affecting First Australians. Again, what we commemorate as a nation shows what we regard as important. What we commemorate becomes important. Failing to properly commemorate the Frontier Wars shows we do not regard them as important.

In the words of the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, ‘a failure to see [Frontier Wars] reflected in this key institution [the Memorial] would be jarringly out of step with this new phase of national reckoning’. Frontier Wars Truth-telling at the Memorial is an idea whose time has come.

The Australian War Memorial must include an honest, evidence-based, non-sanitised presentation and commemoration of the Australian Frontier Wars, and that presentation and commemoration must occupy floor space at the Memorial commensurate with the importance of the Frontier Wars in our history.

The Aboriginal people carry this burden of knowing it happened in our past, knowing that there has never been justice, and that there hasn’t been acknowledgement … We can’t know how many bodies were hidden, such as in the Dawson Valley, where my people were from, with all of the piles of bodies that were burnt. We can’t know. (Professor Marcia Langton, Yiman and Bidjara, The Australian Wars, episode 1, episode 3, 2022)


This post is No. 4 in a series. See No.1, No.2, No. 3, No. 5.

[1] Defending Country Memorial Project Inc. is a limited liability association incorporated in Victoria. Its members are Noel Turnbull (Secretary), Professor Peter Stanley, Dr David Stephens, Dr Carolyn Holbrook and Pamela Burton.

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