Money spent on creating a khaki Disneyland can be better spent on veteran health and welfare
By Leo D’Angelo Fisher
It can at times seem a fine line between commemorating and glorifying the deeds of war. Australian diggers have always been conscious of this delicate distinction.
Through the decades – and particularly during the recent resurgence of Anzac Day as a national day of observance – veterans have insisted that memorialising Australia’s participation in theatres of war, and remembering those who have died in the service of their country, is about sombre reflection not boastful bravado.
As a nation we eschew the overwrought “thank you for your service” nonsense of the United States but Australians embrace Anzac Day and Armistice (Remembrance) Day to pay tribute to the valour and sacrifice of service men and women.
On those occasions, without fail, the old diggers stress one thing: these days are not about glorifying war. They are about recalling fallen mates, anonymous comrades and family members. They are about imploring new generations: Never again.
Which is why most veterans are aghast at the plans of the federal government to spend $498.2 million on the expansion of the world famous Australian War Memorial (AWM).
The AWM is going into theme-park mode despite near universal objections to the plans, unveiled by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in 2018.
The proposed expansion – the centrepiece of Brendan Nelson’s time as AWM director (2012-19) – will transform the AWM from sombre and dignified to loud and proud. And critics be damned.
Nelson is weepy and effusive when it comes to eulogising the valour and heroism of Australian service men and women, he is devoted to Simpson and his donkey and he is fiercely intolerant of allegations of war crimes by Australian Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) soldiers in Afghanistan currently being investigated by the Brereton inquiry, infamously noting that “war is a messy business”.
But as AWM boss the Digger’s Mate was deaf to criticism that the proposed $500 million project was excessive and antithetical to the historical purpose and tenor of the memorial itself (opened in 1941), and to the values and spirit of the Anzac legend the memorial is supposed to represent.
The massive redevelopment would almost double the area open to visitors to 10,000 square metres and would include constructing a new southern entrance, demolishing and rebuilding the historic Anzac Hall and creating a glass area to house large objects such as an F/A18 Hornet, reconnaissance aircraft and armoured vehicles…and of course a café or two.
At what cost – literally and figuratively?
In 2018, Brendan Nelson explained the thinking behind the memorial super-revamp:
“In crowded [AWM] galleries, the stories of Australian military service from the Boer War through to the First and Second World Wars, Korea and Vietnam are all largely told. Yet, the service of 70,000 young Australians in the Middle East Area of operations of the past two decades currently covers only 2% of available space,” he said.
“The opportunity and the responsibility our nation now has is to proudly tell the stories of what has been done in recent years in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Solomon Islands and East Timor and in peacekeeping and humanitarian operations.”
The logic is sound. But at what cost – literally and figuratively? The memorial’s heritage value is incalculable but apparently also expendable. The proposed redevelopment will change the memorial forever. And the estimated cost of the nine-year project must inevitably be taken as a bare minimum.
A commitment of half-a-billion dollars on what was and remains a discretionary expenditure was less than fiscally responsible in 2018, when the Morrison government was in full denial about Australia’s faltering economy; during a budget-busting pandemic any responsible government would have determined that now is not the time for such a grandiose project.
Coalition governments believe themselves to have a natural affinity with and respect for Australia’s military that Labor does not – a contention that has no basis in fact but is an abiding mythology of Australian politics, particularly in times of real, imagined or contrived threats to national security. On 1 July, when Scott Morrison launched his government’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update – presented in the context of the sovereign threat posed by China, a simmering enmity blatantly fanned by Morrison himself – it was the tried and true trope writ large: Australia