Specially Forced? Odd outburst from Director of Australian War Memorial

ABC TV News yesterday (2 November 2017) repeatedly ran an interview by Defence reporter, Andrew Greene, with Australian War Memorial Director, Brendan Nelson, in which Dr Nelson questioned the time being taken by the Army’s review into the conduct of Special Forces in Afghanistan. ‘Where is the national interest’, the Director asks, ‘in tearing down these heroes’.

The video of the interview now available online has been truncated somewhat [and is now – November 2020 – no longer available]: it does not include the Director’s reference to the role of the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, in putting the review in place. Nor does the video include the Director’s brief infomercial for the Memorial’s current exhibition on the work of the Special Forces, an exhibition which is advertised as ‘[d]eveloped in partnership with Special Operations Command’. But the first aspect at least is covered in the radio version.

We found it difficult to gauge whether the purpose of Dr Nelson’s interview was to hype the exhibition or spray the Australian Defence Force hierarchy (or perhaps both). Perhaps other observers may be better placed to read the implications.

General Campbell is [2017 – his successor is Lt Gen Rick Burr] an ex officio member of the Council of the War Memorial. Dr Nelson’s current term as Director expires on 16 December 2017. [Dr Nelson eventually retired in December 2019.]

David Stephens

3 November 2017 updated

NB The following links pick up some but not all of the twists and turns in this story over the next three years.

Update 8 June 2018: Defence report suggests Australian war crimes in Afghanistan plus cultural problems within Australian forces.

Update 9 June 2018: more from Director Nelson, particularly on the impact of a drawn-out inquiry on ADF members and former members. Also on the ABC on 10 June.

Update 10 August 2018: long article in Fairfax on allegations against Ben Roberts-Smith VC for actions in Afghanistan.

Update 11 August 2018: follow-up including further Nelson remarks: ‘I have to ask where is the national interest in what’s being done here?’

Update 13 August 2018: more from Dr Nelson.

More still but another relevant comment from Paul Barratt, former secretary of Defence. More from Barratt in Inside Story.

Update 14 August 2018: yet more from Director Nelson.

Update 17 August 2018: pushback against Nelson from historians, including Honest History’s Peter Stanley and Frank Bongiorno. Here is a summary.

Update 28 August 2018: more pushback from military historian Greg Lockhart in Pearls and Irritations.

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.

Update 20 October 2018: Fairfax defence in Roberts-Smith defamation case. Reaction from Brendan Nelson on Sky News.

Update 23 September 2018: Nick McKenzie and Chris Masters in The Age chronicle the recent involvement of Dr Nelson in the case.

Update 1 November 2018: Criticism of Brendan Nelson’s attempts to speed up Brereton inquiry. Notes that Roberts-Smith attended launch of Memorial redevelopment plans, where he and Nelson embraced.

Update 26 January 2019: Brendan Nelson on 7 News.

Update 23 September 2019: 60 Minutes, Nine newspapers joint investigation; Nine newspapers editorial; Nine newspapers story; Nine again.

Update 24 October 2020: Our post linking to Jon Kudelka cartoon and summarising the War Memorial connection.

Update 13 November 2020: Link to various articles by Chris Masters and Nick McKenzie on these issues, from 13 November 2020 back to May 2020 and earlier.

Update 13 November 2020: Paul Daley in Guardian Australia on the Prime Minister’s statement anticipating the release of the redacted Brereton Report. Daley refers to ‘the gaping chasm between the myth of the exceptional, idealised Anzac troop and the dirty realities of war’.

Update 13 November 2020: PM’s press conference yesterday, warning Australians to prepare for some disturbing information.

Update 13 November 2020: Chris Masters, Nick McKenzie and Anthony Galloway in Nine Newspapers. Includes mention of the support by War Memorial chair, Kerry Stokes, for his employee, Ben Roberts-Smith VC.

Update 13 November 2020: Paul Barratt, ex-Secretary, Department of Defence, canvasses the issues. Nine Newspapers and Inside Story. Barratt is now president of Australians for War Powers Reform.

Update 15 November 2020: In the Canberra Times, Sue Wareham of Medical Association for Prevention of War, Australians for War Powers Reform and Heritage Guardians, puts Australia’s parochial view of the Afghanistan conflict in a broader context, focussing particularly on civilian deaths. (Barratt made similar points at the link directly above.)

Update 15 November 2020: Nick McKenzie on Sixty Minutes. With investigator Samantha Crompvoets, soldiers, and a cameo appearance from Dr Brendan Nelson.

Update 15 November 2020: Joe Aston in the Australian Financial Review claims that mogul and War Memorial Council chairman, Kerry Stokes, has paid $1.9m for the legal bills of his employee, Ben Roberts-Smith, for legal actions connected with the war crimes inquiry. Pdf from our subscription.

‘The dissonance of the AWM council on this matter – which goes to the core of the War Memorial’s mission – is surely untenable?’ concludes Aston. A large painting of Roberts-Smith by Michael Zavros hung outside the Memorial’s 2017-18 temporary exhibition From the Shadows, on the work of Australia’s Special Forces. The painting and its subject illustrate the Aston article.

Update 18 November 2020: William De Maria in Pearls and Irritations.

Meanwhile tomorrow (19 November), some morsel of the Brereton Report will be made public. I could sleep all that day and still tell you what is going to happen. Anzac sacredness will kick in, as it always does, and there will be a rush to protect our soldiers. Morrison has said it is going to be a be a particularly difficult time for our serving and veteran community. It won’t be difficult for the Afghan victims because they are all dead.

Update 18 November 2020: James Connor in Crikey takes a historical view, back to Breaker Morant.

Update 19 November 2020: Brereton report and commentary.

Update 29 June 2021: Suggestion that Nelson was leant on by a senior government figure for his support of Roberts-Smith.





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