By Eamon Hale
I visit the Australian War Memorial every few years. It has been a constant pilgrimage since I was a little kid and I first stood in awe of the Avro Lancaster there. I remember being overwhelmed by its scale and symbolism. Not just the Lancaster, but everything around it.
Most of all, I loved the humbleness and lack of ego in the veterans who walked the halls back then and the tales of what they had done; the direct link between the deeds on the walls and the men I would be lucky to speak to and see. The old man who was on the Thai-Burma railway. The man standing near the German motorcycle who had served at Tobruk. And that man in the striped shirt who was a Bomber Command tail gunner (most revered of all for me).
As I have got older, and been fortunate enough to have my own service, my reverence for the Australian War Memorial has only grown stronger.
Integral to that is its uniqueness in the world of military commemoration. I have been to museums all over the world and enjoyed them for their ability to provide a tangible link to the glorious deeds of those who have come before us. The American museums have cash and resources, the British have objects and tradition, while the Asian nations have a lack of formality and a feeling of closeness to the events. But I love the Australian War Memorial most because it is not a museum; it is a memorial. The difference is subtle to some, but in my eyes it is immense.
For me, and my peers, the Australian War Memorial is almost a cathedral and there is a quiet sombreness and seriousness to it that you do not find elsewhere.
As a boy, I walked the halls with my dad and marvelled at the deeds of others. With that background, when I joined the Army myself, I felt honoured to be part of an organisation in which these giants of the past had trod.
On my last visit this year though, I had a different feeling. My fiancé and I were out and about in Canberra and passing by as the sun was setting on a beautiful day. The memorial was closed, but we thought we’d have a look regardless. It was quiet, with only the birds fighting on the lawns.
We walked down from a carpark towards the old German railway gun barrel that I had loved as a kid, and it was there that I saw the Bushmaster PMV and ASLAV parked on plinths behind the Vietnam War era Centurion.
These are the vehicles I served on and know. It was in a Bushmaster that I went to Afghanistan and on the ASLAV that I have spent the majority of my adult life crewing. Vehicles I understand and that are home to me were at the memorial to Australian war service.
For the first time, I had a realisation that the Australian War Memorial was not just a tribute to the past, but to the present as well. That the memorial doesn’t just represent our grandfathers, that it now represents people like me.
The next morning, I met Nick who I had gone to Iraq with more than a decade ago, and we walked the First World War hall, the Aircraft Hall and most emotional of all, the Hall of Valour.
There, we stared into the eyes of men who are our inspirations. To stay with the cathedral theme, this is almost a hall of martyrs, men who have done deeds so great they earn that most sacred of awards, the Victoria Cross. Men like Albert Jacka, who won his VC over and again in the First World War; or Cameron Baird, the super soldier of our generation who gave up a career in football to serve and became the epitome of what the modern Australian soldier should look like; or Hugo Throssell, the haunted legend of the Light Horse whose VC seemed to trap him. Their shadows hang huge over people like us.
We walked from these giants of Australian history to the post-1945 exhibit and specifically to the displays on Iraq and Afghanistan. There on the wall was a huge street sign with Saddam Hussain’s face on it, the same street sign that had lived over Nick’s bunk bed in Baghdad 10 years ago. Here in this most sacred of buildings was one of our trinkets. Ten years ago, it had just been a funny thing to pinch and stick on a wall, but now here it was a looking back at us from behind museum glass.
We identified photos of mates among the displays and laughed at the memories that objects conjured up. This most sacred of places felt different and I realised it was that representation of the present generation again. The amazing realisation that this place was honouring the deeds our mates now, as well as the ANZACs before us.
That the memorial has evolved to represent modern Australian veterans should come as no surprise, but that it has managed to do it respectfully and well should be celebrated.
Most of all, for me, was the thought that perhaps each generation inherits the memorial from the previous. That reverence I felt as a little boy to the men and women who had served in the First and Second World Wars is perhaps the reverence that my children will feel to the Vietnam and contemporary generation.
I had worshipped them in this most holy of Australian temples. And while that reverence continues, it’s now my responsibility to ensure that the deeds and acts of my generation are represented. The memorial has become ours; in the same way I imagine it felt to those young men and women who took their families there in the 1940s and 50s to point out the items representing their service.
Walking out of the modern conflict exhibit, my mate Nick and I found the big T-Wall covered in handwritten names. We scanned it for people we knew. And we saw plenty. Our mates, on the wall of the War Memorial, preserved forever. It was a punch right in the feels. We were offered a marker pen and scrawled our own details in a convenient gap.
One day, our great-grandchildren might visit, perhaps on a school trip, and they will find the name of that funny old man they see at Christmas preserved forever in black permanent marker. It is a humbling thought.
The War Memorial is currently in the news because of a planned $500 million redevelopment and expansion. It is a controversial proposal, with many concerned that this largescale upgrade may push the memorial closer to being a museum and take away from the sacred nature of the place. Therein lies the difference.
The Australian War Memorial is a memorial that lives and breathes with the spirit of those who served and those who still serve, those who paid the ultimate price in service of this nation, and those who may do so in the future.
There’s no need to revisit the pros and cons of the proposed redevelopment here. All I will say is that the Australian War Memorial is our holy cathedral and I hope it will always remain so.
Eamon Hale is the Vice President of the Hawthorn RSL Sub-branch in Victoria, having served in the Australian Army as a cavalryman for 16 years.
Eamon is a regular contributor to Australian Veteran News.
Connect with him on twitter: @eamhale