Australians do not “remember, interpret and understand the Australian experience of war”. Perhaps such an understanding in the case of the Frontier Wars might raise extremely uncomfortable questions about the implications for modern day Australia and our approach to warfare, or perhaps a focus on the Frontier Wars against the first people of Australia simply presents no scope for attracting lucrative corporate funding. Whatever the reasons, this most fundamental of all omissions in our pre-eminent place of war commemoration acts as a major hindrance in understanding the place of warfare in Australia’s history.
In 2013, AWM Director Dr Brendan Nelson explained his fast-tracking process for the new exhibit on Afghanistan: “We owe it to Australia to explain the narrative.” Do we not owe it to Australia to explain the narrative of the wars that dispossessed our first peoples? Nelson also spoke passionately of a program to link schoolchildren to the names of World War 1 war dead, as a way of “linking our past with our future” and helping our children to understand the sacrifice of “real men who had real lives”. Do we not owe it to Australia’s first inhabitants to recognise the “real men with real lives” who died in the frontier wars? Is the past of the aboriginal people not worth linking with our future?
New galleries in the AWM to examine this hitherto hidden part of our history would be of enormous interest to very many Australians, and would be likely to do more to boost visitor numbers than displaying yet more of the killing machines that do little to further our understanding of warfare.
While the AWM addresses the impact of our wars on civilians back home, there is scant recognition of the fact that modern warfare in increasingly an assault on civilian society wherever the war happens to be fought. The current wars in the Middle East, in which Australia is taking part, are a stark example. Civilians form the majority of war’s victims. Even a strict interpretation of the AWM’s mission “to assist Australians to remember, interpret and understand the Australian experience of war” does not allow for such a stark omission. What of the experiences of those Australians who have lived as civilians in war zones elsewhere? What of the experiences of ADF personnel who suffer severe psychological harm related to the suffering, both civilian and combatant, that they have witnessed or perhaps have taken part in? Any impression that the wars in which Australia takes part are simply a matter of fighter versus fighter is false and misleading; it hinders any attempt to interpret and understand Australia’s experience of war in its proper context.
Any real examination of the Australian experience of war should involve looking at how and why Australia has become involved in wars. It also must reflect on what we could have done to prevent the horrors of war being repeated on our armed forces and their families and communities on many occasions since World War 2.
Cultivating private sector support
The most controversial aspect of the AWM’s cultivation of private sector support is in its choice of such supporters. Among the AWM’s financial donors are several of the biggest names in weapons manufacturing globally, the very companies that profit financially from the horrors that we commemorate. They include Boeing Australia, Raytheon Australia, Lockheed Martin, Thales Australia, the Australian Submarine Corporation, General Dynamic Land Systems and others.
The problem goes further than the mere acceptance of donations from war profiteers, and even extends to the promotion of brand names. BAE Systems, the UK’s biggest weapons maker, has its name proudly displayed as the sponsor of the AWM’s theatre. BAE Systems is a major military supplier to Saudi Arabia, which is one of the world’s most prolific sponsors of international terrorism, including the same forces of terrorism that the ADF is said to be combatting in the Middle East. The irony is stark. BAE warplanes are currently playing a central role in Saudi Arabia’s attacks in Yemen, which are causing a humanitarian catastrophe there. To have BAE’s name glorified alongside our war dead is contemptible.
Cultivation of corporate support – including from the war profiteers – includes also the provision of facilities for corporate functions with all the trappings designed to impress. AWM promotion of the facilities boasts of the “unique dining experience where you can wine and dine among historic items…” and capacity for “gala dinners” and “cocktail functions”. One can only guess what the diggers in their rat-infested trenches might have thought about sharing commemorative space with the industry that profited from their slaughter. For those of us who are still alive, few things could be more offensive.
Developing other income streams
While this submission does not address the issue of income streams for the AWM beyond urging that weapons’ company funding be ceased, one other observation will be made.
Australia has spent far more on World War 1 commemoration than any other nation, including all those which suffered vastly bigger losses than Australia. Therefore, one could reasonably argue for a more modest and affordable style and level of commemoration. The planned expansion costing $1/2 billion is not the marker of an institution struggling to maintain its presence. Reversal of the decision to expand would obviate the need for developing other sources of income, and would be more in keeping with the simple but deeply meaningful forms of commemoration that proliferated in towns throughout the country after World War 1.
Other relevant matters the Committee wishes to examine, including the process for establishing new institutions
Redirection of some funding to the prevention of armed conflicts, and to peace education, would go a long way to building the better world that Australians have died for. The creation of a Peace Museum would be an extraordinarily valuable addition to our list of national institutions, to showcase the steps that help to promote peace and Australia’s history of contributing to these steps. Such education for our young people would help balance the material presented at the AWM.
Sue Wareham is President of the Medical Association for the Prevention of War. Last year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons grew out of MAPW. Sue Wareham is a retired GP
Published by John Menadue – Pearls & Irritations blog 23 May 2018