Sunday 17 March 2013

The Lies of Australian "War" Memorials

This is not a war memorial – it is a museum of Australian military history.

The galleries of Australian military war dead at this military museum are moving, particularly when we consider that overwhelmingly these young soldiers had their lives thrown away for empire: British or American. But missing from these gallery walls are the victims of the wars in which Australia has fought: the Egyptian nationalists gunned down by Australian troops in 1919, the millions who died in Vietnam and the tens of thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan; the thousands of Iraqi’s who died as a result of the post Gulf War naval blockade and sanctions (aided by the internal policies of the Hussein dictatorship). If this were a war memorial it would have something to say about these dead and the folly of the wars in which they died..

An example of the failure of this museum as a war memorial is seen in the exhibit dealing with post-1945 conflicts. While there is some lip-service paid to antiwar sentiment around Vietnam and Iraq, overwhelmingly the exhibit extols the virtues of Australian troops in these dubious conflicts complete with the usual display of war toys: a long-range patrol vehicle used by the SAS in Iraq and Afghanistan, (the military units most prone to situations of human rights abuse and unlawful killing); an armoured personnel carrier from the Vietnam era (of the kind used to drag dead suspected National Liberation Front fighters through a Phuoc Tuy village); a loud and ridiculous boys-own Iroquois helicopter display which ignores the fact that this was an instrument of terror deployed by occupying armies against the Vietnamese people. No mention is made of issues raised by veteran and historian Terry Burstall: the general carelessness and brutality directed against the Vietnamese of Phuoc Tuy province by Australians, water torture of a female National Liberation Front fighter, targeting of civilians with artillery, and forced relocation of villagers.

Set in a décor of battleship grey the post-45 exhibit is oppressive, presenting a dismal celebration of Australia’s war culture, concluding with the “soft-jingoism” that is becoming more typical of ANZAC and other commemorations in the light of more controversial recent wars – a melancholy acceptance of both the futility and inevitability of war:

Despite the efforts of all those who served in conflicts from 1945 to today, peace remains as elusive as ever

And near the aeroplane hall, the footnote to the museum’s exhibits, the extolling of the “Anzac Spirit Today”, the familiar nationalistic mythologising of “courage and endurance and duty, and love of country, and mateship, and good humour and the survival of a sense of self-worth and decency in the face of dreadful odds”

…And this is not a Shrine of Remembrance - it is a Shrine of Forgetfulness.

Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys has the teacher Irwin questioning the motives behind war commemoration. In Britain’s case it was to mask that country’s own responsibility for the First World War in the face of the large number killed.

We don't like to admit the war was even partly our fault 'cause so many of our people died. And all the mourning's veiled the truth. It's not "lest we forget," it's "lest we remember." That's what all this is about — the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes' silence. Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.

Using memorials like this as part of a process of forgetting is seen in the current ”Peace” exhibit at the Shrine. The exhibit presents a mélange of items including Australia’s participation peace-keeping operations, some peace activist paraphernalia, quotes form the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, information on the Quakers and peace movements and activists in Liberia, Northern Ireland, and Afghanistan, to name a few items. But there is virtually nothing on the rich history of antiwar and peace movements in Australia (a photo of the Peace slogan daubed on the Shrine during the Vietnam War era is included). The Women’s Peace Army and WW1 conscription struggles don’t get a look in and nor does the antiwar movement of the Vietnam era in any systematic way. There is no reference to the antiwar opposition to the construction of the Shrine in the 1920s, including by Labor Premier George Prendergast.

Again, with recent wars being more controversial and the shift in ANZAC commemoration from the marches of declining numbers of living veterans to the war dead (commemorated at dawn services) it is necessary for the political, military and remembrance elites to soften the jingoism that has accompanied Anzac day in the past, referring to the futility, yet inevitability of war. As the Shrine’s own description of the Peace exhibit puts it:

Peace cannot be taken for granted, and it seems, demands our eternal vigilance.

Peace ultimately can only be secured by war.

“War is the Health of the State” (Randolph Bourne 1918) – war memorials and the militarisation of the Canberra constitutional Landscape.

The memorial to Australian and US collaboration during WWII (long called “Bugs Bunny” by Canberrans) forms the centre piece of the Russell Hill “Jannisariat” – the cluster of Defence buildings (with ADFA and Duntroon nearby) that holds down one of the points of Canberra’s parliamentary triangle, a physical expression of the construction of Australia’s war machine around the interests of the US. Indeed this is one corner of the Western part of the parliamentary triangle, the “iron triangle” that represents the increasing militarisation of the Canberra constitutional landscape. The War memorial/Anzac Parade and the bunker-like parliament house itself make up the other points with the new ASIO headquarters buttressing the base.

Below, the Eastern axis of the “iron triangle” from the Russell Hill complex and Australia-US memorial, looking towards Capital Hill – the new ASIO headquarters is being constructed along the base to the right.

The Western  axis of Canberra’s “iron triangle” – looking from the “war” memorial to the Capital Hill parliamentary bunker

But does this war memorial also hide truths?

This Canberra memorial is to the seventy Australia men and women who went to Spain between 1936 and 1939 to defend the fledgling republic against Franco and German and Italian fascism. It is a welcome departure from the usual nationalistic and jingoistic remembrance of the involvement of Australians in war. It rightly commemorates those who were prepared to stand up to fascism at a time when Right-wing nationalists in Australia and elsewhere either ignored, or were sympathetic to, the emergence of military nationalism in Italy, Germany and Japan. Yet even here the full truth is avoided. As historian of the involvement of Australians in the civil war, Amirah Inglis, explained it:

The civil war has been argued and the character of the (International Brigades) disputed in Australia by old fashioned anti-communist and catholic journalists like Gerard Henderson and BA Santamaria by revisionist historians like Michael Jackson who following George Orwell and more recently Ken Loach ignore every other aspect of the Civil war but the May days of 1937 and focus only on the nasty facets of the Soviet Union’s role.

There was more to the conflict between Stalinism and the other revolutionary and socialist forces in Spain than a few “nasty facets”. Sweeping this history under the rug doesn’t serve the interests of revealing the truth about war, politics or revolution. For the Left as well it can be the case that “there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it”.

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