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Beware the cult of the Digger as War Memorial takes pride of place

By Ian Bushnell 6 November 2018 14

The field poppies at the Australian War Memorial for Remembrance Day. Photo: George Tsotsos.

When the new expanded Australian War Memorial opens in about a decade’s time, Director Brendan Nelson will be able to declare Mission Accomplished.

His achievement at securing nearly half a billion dollars over nine years to redevelop the AWM with bipartisan support is astounding, especially in a climate of budget uncertainty and ongoing cuts to other national cultural institutions in Canberra.

He mounted a persuasive emotional argument – that the stories of more recent and current defence operations needed to be told sooner rather than later, so Australians would know about them in order to promote healing within the veteran community.

“If the War Memorial had perhaps told the story of the Vietnam War broadly and deeply earlier then maybe some of those men may not have suffered as much as they have,” he told ABC radio.

But emotion aside, this is an overreach. $498 million, following $175 million spent on the Centenary and over $100 million for the Sir John Monash Centre at Villers-Bretonneux in France, is a phenomenal amount of money.

Meanwhile, museums and galleries across the nation wish they were so lucky. And here in Canberra, the National Archives, National Gallery, National Library, National Museum, National Portrait Gallery and the Museum for Australian Democracy all suffer at the hands of the pernicious efficiency dividend.

Their work and the stories they tell encompass the breadth of the Australian experience and should be no less important than an institution that focuses on one, admittedly not insignificant, part of the nation’s story.

Dr Nelson is a passionate, authentic advocate for the AWM and veterans, and with deep political links and an unabashed will to reach out to corporate supporters, including major defence contractors, he has lifted the institution to an almost unassailable position in the nation’s consciousness.

And that is part of the problem.

Many years ago before Dr Nelson’s time, there was a public outcry when local gas provider ActewAGL’s branding became a visible part of the closing ceremony and the eternal flame at the AWM.

That condemnation of any commercialisation on the sacred ground of the Memorial now seems a fairly quaint time of innocence. From the BAE Systems Theatre to News Corp-sponsored coins, Anzac is seen more and more as a commodity.

But in the post 9/11 era of the never-ending war on terror, heightened national security and keeping Australia safe, you take aim at the AWM at your peril.

Hence Labor’s unqualified support, only months out from an election that is Bill Shorten’s to lose.

For a Government that has made national security its own and without any qualms about appropriating the military for its own political purposes, finding $498 million for Dr Nelson’s plans fits perfectly into its narrative, especially in the lead-up to the Anzac Centenary climax on Remembrance Day.

There is no question we should remember, reflect and honour the sacrifice and service of those who have played a role in the defence of the nation.

But the quiet dignity of how we remember seems to have morphed into something quite different, that elevates the military to a position that rests uneasily with our understated yet firm values of democracy and fairness.

The offers this week from Virgin Australia of priority service and salutes is but a natural consequence of what is becoming unnervingly close to a cult of the Digger. Fortunately, the veteran community found the proposals unnecessary and a little cringeworthy. Many immediately thought of police, ambulance and fire services and how they are in the firing line every day.

On Friday, before a field of 60,000 poppies symbolising the catastrophic loss of the Great War, we should gather if we can and remember. At memorials across the country, or in our workplaces and homes, we should indeed remember.

And not forget that there is more to this country’s history and culture than war.

The Australian War Memorial plans to spend $498 million on extensions and will demolish their 17-year-old ANZAC Hall. How would you honour our veterans?

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14 Responses to
Beware the cult of the Digger as War Memorial takes pride of place
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Nylex 10:10 am 09 Nov 18

The War Memorial is one of the world’s finest museums, it really doesn’t need bloat – perhaps instead it could open branches all across the country and rotate its collection through all of them?

Consolidator 9:17 pm 08 Nov 18

Tens of thousands of gallant men and women have served and sacrificed their lives and their health so that their children and future generations can experience the freedoms we have today. They didn’t quibble about cost, location or memorial Vs Museum they gave the ultimate price. How much is enough?, we have already forgotten those that were injured and psychologically damaged in conflicts and bean counters make it difficult for them to have a natural and happy life after serving, try being a front line soldier, law enforcement officer, paramedic, firefighter or rescuer and see how you are treated afterwards. I thank them all for their service.

Mick Mason 8:13 am 07 Nov 18

It is a MEMORIAL, not a museum. Every effort to turn it into an attraction detracts from it's function as a memorial.

    Jackson Bond 5:10 pm 07 Nov 18

    Not quite correct. CEW Bean envisioned that it should be a memorial, an archive, a repository, a museum, a library and most importantly to him...a place where people who had not been to war could understand, interpret and empathise with those who had. His vision was giving a place to centralise national memories and he was all about showing people what their family and friends had been through. At the time the best options he could come up with were dioramas and static displays, but I'm sure he would approve of any other more modern methods such as interactive displays.

    Helen McIntosh Carpenter 5:58 pm 08 Nov 18

    Jackson Bond, you have explained that beautifully. I was at the Memorial today, and my visit confirmed to me that we need to remember every single person who represented and fought for freedom on behalf of Australia. It does not glorify war, it confirms that we should remember them with pride.....this includes my grandfather, my father my uncles, my brother.

Jen Levy 6:40 am 07 Nov 18

Most overfunded institution in the country!

Margaret Freemantle 11:41 pm 06 Nov 18

Out of proportion really. It is already a world class museum. The article explains it well

Jay Annabel 11:37 pm 06 Nov 18

"There is no question we should remember, reflect and honour the sacrifice and service of those who have played a role in the defence of the nation" There's only one conflict we've ever been in which came close to attacking the continent, which was WW2. Everything else we've ever been involved in has been in defence of the territory or ambitions of other countries. This is not to suggest that those who died in those campaigns died in vain - of course they did not. But let's distinguish between the lives given by our countrymen and women, and the stupid decisions of our governments. Both considerations can coexist. And this is where I take issue with the quote above. Every campaign we've been involved in, bar WW2, has NOT been in "defence of the nation", and we delude ourselves to think they were.

Simon Mead 7:42 pm 06 Nov 18

Let’s not call it the cult of the digger. Let’s recognize the forging in the fires of war of this nations youth, their sons who beat the hordes a generation later those that fought in Korea Malaysia and Vietnam. Let’s also not forget the toll of war and the cost on those who choose to serve this generation

Rachel Hill 7:32 pm 06 Nov 18

I applaud what Brendan has done. Agreed there are a lot of deserving museums but the AWM is a world class museum it is special it is sacred. I think that those who do not agree should think again. It's place and purpose only become more important. The stories the AWM tells and shows us should be burnt on our hearts and live in our consciousness on a daily basis to honor and learn from ...lest we forget anything less would be shameful in the extreme.

    Bek Clark 6:04 am 08 Nov 18

    Veterans are waiting years for their claims to be processed after they’ve been medically discharged from service.

    Think about that.

    Some of them are under severe financial stress.

    Half a billion could have fixed process at the DVA.

    Half a billion could enhance resilience training.

    Half a billion could help families cope with living with the effects of combat trauma.

    But no.

    Let’s make OURSELVES feel better.

    Rachel Hill 6:13 am 08 Nov 18

    Bek Clark I deal with DVA patients on a daily basis I agree they need support but the AWM also highlights what these people have endured.

Kerry Jackson 6:09 pm 06 Nov 18

Totally agree.

Tod Davis 6:06 pm 06 Nov 18

Interesting point of view,

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