From the Honest History vault: Ben Roberts-Smith is not just a litigant

Tomorrow, Guardian Australia launches a podcast Ben Roberts-Smith vs The Media, five episodes reporting the long-running defamation case by Ben Roberts-Smith VC against media outlets. Honest History has followed the case, though not in exhaustive detail. (Another link, with some overlapping material.)

We have, however, been very interested in the broader context. Roberts-Smith, one of Australia’s most decorated soldiers, was for some years an Anzac hero, almost a mascot of the Australian War Memorial, brought out to greet and speak to Anzac Day crowds and football teams alike, looked up to by the then War Memorial Director, financially supported by the then Chair of the War Memorial Council (also his employer).


Roberts-Smith and then Memorial Director, Brendan Nelson, c. 2018 (AAP/SMH)

Roberts-Smith became a phenomenon as much as he was a soldier. We tried to summarise the themes in a post dated 19 November 2020:

  • The War Memorial in recent years has to a large extent come to run its own show.
  • The Memorial has been protected by the ‘Anzac cloak’ (which makes critics – and media – careful for fear of being seen to be anti-Anzac or anti-veteran or anti-soldier), by lax accountability mechanisms (especially in Senate Estimates, but also to government), and by the close connections between Memorial (narrowly-based) management and government.
  • A sharp focus of the Memorial ‘show’ has been simplistic stories about ‘heroes’. (Former Director Nelson complained more than once that the Afghanistan probes were ‘tearing down our heroes’.)
  • Consequently, Brereton’s revelations that there is much more to our war stories than heroes is particularly problematic for the Memorial. (The Memorial has traditionally focussed on how we have fought our wars, and not on more complex issues, like why, was it worth it, and the consequences.)
  • If the Memorial’s $498m redevelopment is to be no more than a bigger, glitzier telling of heroes’ stories (complete with lots of retired military kit, made by the Memorial’s donors), that makes the project even more egregious.

David Stephens

16 October 2022

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