In the course of little more than a week leading up to the centenary of the Armistice of 1918, we have seen and heard announcements about discount cards and lapel pins for veterans, a massive capital funding boost for the Australian War Memorial, and an initiative by Virgin Australia to give priority boarding and a round of applause to veterans travelling by plane. (See our earlier posts, here and here.)
The Prime Minister has picked up the rhetoric about the War Memorial being ‘the soul of the nation’ and the Daily Telegraph‘s report (hidden behind a pay-wall) commenced by noting there was not a dry eye in the house when the $500 million Memorial excavation was announced. (As if the presence of ’emotion’ was the main point but, then again, ’emotional’ is the adjective of choice for the Memorial’s administration when describing new exhibitions and it is a possible description of the Memorial’s Director when in full flight – though ‘lachrymose’ would be more accurate.)
While some mainstream media outlets made an effort to unpick these initiatives (one question by Barrie Cassidy on Insiders, easily batted away by Veterans’ Affairs Minister Chester, a flood of anti- comments by readers of Guardian Australia and the Canberra Times, a piece in Fairfax by Neil James of the Australia Defence Association, polite opposition on The Project from the RSL’s James Brown) for the most part they quickly retreated into the wallpaper of the continuous media cycle. The Virgin Australia ‘thank you for your service’ looked like having a short life, though; perhaps it was always intended as something easily discarded while the much bigger project at the War Memorial sailed through.
American precedent (Me)
In the midst of this flurry, John Passant offered a wide-ranging reflection on Independent Australia.
I would have thought the best way to recognise and support servicemen and women might be to spend that $500 million [for the Memorial] on returned soldiers suffering from the impacts of the wars to which our politicians have sent them. A wider lesson might be to not send Australians in support of U.S. invasions.
Passant quoted the Tweeted opinion of veteran journalist, Richard Farmer: ‘Time to pull the curtain on memorial industry – the marking of the end, 100 years ago, of World War I ought to be a sign that we should tone down the liturgy, the bullshit, and the politicisation of personal, community and national trauma’.
Then, historian Douglas Newton on Pearls and Irritations got back to important matters by asking what are the real lessons of the Great War. While the best way of honouring the dead would be to focus on reducing the risk of future conflicts, this has not happened.
The focus has been unremittingly on military experience and achievement. All the hardest issues have been evaded. For what precisely did Australians fight and die? Why was the war so prolonged? Did our government cautiously husband Australian life and treasure, and ensure our lives were not lost in order to realise dreams of imperial expansion and economic aggression?
Finally, Michael Pascoe in The New Daily saw the political implications of the rush of Anzackery.
“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”, said someone 243 years ago. And on cue sundry blowhards chime in at every opportunity to wrap themselves in the flag. If the News Corp/Scott Morrison/Virgin Australia stunt using returned servicemen and women was merely a marketing ploy for the airline coming second, it wouldn’t matter. But it’s not. It’s part of a calculated plan to exploit Australians’ respect for people who have taken risks and worse in our armed services. Patriotism, jingoism, militarism, national security threats, war memorials, flag waving, border security, medals, warships, policing, $200 billion military equipment budgets, military ceremonies, Captain Cook statues – they all skew right. The more an embattled reactionary government can associate itself with things military, vicariously tap into the sacrificial ethos of Anzac, the better it hopes it will be.
6 November 2018