The commemoration industry and the militarization of Australian history

A speech given the Middle Park Men’s Group November 24 2021

Let me say at the outset that I have profound respect for almost everyone who serves in the military.

But what concerns me is the way Australia has developed a commemoration industry unparalleled anywhere outside the US and Russia.

What also concerns me is that vast amounts are being spent on commemoration at a time when many veterans are not getting the compassion and assistance they should.

So let me start:

How much do you think Germany spent on commemorating the centenary of WWI? (A bit of laughter from the audience)

Ok What about the UK where the war dead was the equivalent of 2.2% of their population?

They spent 50 million pounds (about $93 million in Australian dollars).

How much did Australia, which lost the equivalent of 1.2% of the population spend? (Some pretty accurate estimates)

The answer:  $552 million including $88 million on the Villers-Bretonneux memorial which gets few visitors (even before Covid).

If you have heard about the memorial, the Sir John Monash Centre, you will have gathered that this marked the battle which was the turning point in the war and that  it was the Australians who turned it.

The Canadians think the same thing as do others even though, if anyone won it was the British Navy blockade which drove the Germans to starvation.

A few years ago I was asked to speak at our great commemorative day Anzac Day at the local Port Melbourne ceremony.

To say the least, I was apprehensive as I felt many of my views might be considered too radical for the day. But it was the beginning of me clarifying my thoughts about the way we commemorate things and the respect, and the contrast with the lack of respect and aid, we offer veterans.

This, by the way, was the first Anzac Day service I had participated in although I did go to both the Vietnam Welcome Home marches – of which more later.

I recounted my visit to Gallipoli – not on Anzac Day BTW – which is more properly Gelibolu.

The moving Ataturk message to the mothers of those who died there was still there then and it was some years before Erdogan vandalised it.

I said what struck me while I was there was:

“First, what a fundamentally stupid place it was to land. By the way, the other places sometimes suggested as the spots where the troops were supposed to land were probably worse. Not Winston Churchill’s finest hour.

Second, the cemetery above the beach where you see Ataturk’s moving message to the mothers of those who died at Gallipoli: 86,692 Turks; 21,255 British; 9,978 French; 8,709 Australians; 2,779 New Zealanders; 1,358 Indians; and 49 from Newfoundland.

If you are surprised at the Newfoundland presence it is worth remembering that of all the WWI allied nations – it wasn’t part of Canada then – Newfoundland suffered the highest casualty rate as a percentage of its total population.

The young men who enlisted were also products of a nation which was among the pioneers of universal suffrage, votes for women and trade union rights.

It is this – not military exploits – which define Australia’s coming of age and which make it worth defending.

Alec Campbell, the trade unionist who at 100 was the last Australian alive to have served at Gallipoli, is a great example of that.

As he said near the end of his life: ‘I wonder if the Prime Minister would give me a State Funeral if he knew what I really stood for?'”

I made two other comments which I thought might be controversial. First, that although the Canberra March was being led for the first time by Indigenous veterans there was still no section in the Australian War Memorial devoted to our Frontier Wars – of this also more later.

I also threw in the fact that no other country in the world would have had a democracy robust enough to hold a vote on conscription and abide by it. In the UK conscientious objectors were imprisoned. Although Lytton Strachey when replying to the magistrate’s question about what he might do about an enraged Zulu with an assegai attacking his sister replied: “I would endeavor to interpose myself between him and her.” .

In perhaps what I thought might be most controversial I said that in combat you don’t fight for your country or your flag. You fight for your unit, your mates and to stay alive.

After I finished I thought I would be lynched but was surprised that so many people thanked me.

Then I saw a shaven headed man in a suit striding towards me. Even with my eye sight at a distance I could see he had medals which suggested Afghanistan at least and possibly other places as well.

As he got closer to me he stuck out his hand, grasped mine and said: “I want to thank you. I was down at the Shrine this morning and after all the fucking bullshit I heard. You told it as it was”

It was probably my proudest post-Vietnam moment except for the Welcome Home March where, at the drinks after it, one of the gunners said to me “You national service officers were crap” only for another to say –” well I thought you were OK because you wouldn’t get us killed if you could avoid it.”

So, when we commemorate Australian veterans I ask you – don’t be too serious – what has always characterised Australian troops is a little bit of irreverence.

There are some other aspects of the commemoration industry I would like to talk about tonight.

First honours.

Anyone who goes into combat has to be brave however terrified they are. There are always some who do exceptional, amazing things which show deep sacrifice and bravery.

Many are justifiably honoured but how and where you fought has an influence on that.

I was in the Liverpool Cathedral a few years ago and saw a small plaque and bust honouring Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse, VC & Bar, MC – a medico, an Olympian and one of only three people to be awarded a Victoria Cross twice. There were many other military memorials there.

They and Chavasse are honoured among their own community. In Australia VC winners are now honoured in the Australian War Memorial Hall of Valour although over the years many communities have erected statues or memorials for locals, such as St Kilda’s for Albert Jacka VC.

But back in Australia Chavasse got me thinking about Australian honours.

Our next AWM addition will be Edward ‘Teddy’ Sheean who was recommended for a VC to the Queen by Scott Morrison following a community and media campaign.

There is no doubt Sheean was a very brave and self-sacrificing young man but his case for a VC had been considered before in the 468 page 2013 report.

That report concluded: “the awards process was followed correctly and …therefore the  Tribunal concluded that Sheean’s actions displayed conspicuous gallantry but did not reach the particularly high standard required for recommendation for a VC” and would not recommend he be awarded one.

The finding was not enough for the Morrison Government which intervened to get the VC awarded – an intervention that has set a precedent which can potentially demean the value of gallantry and valour awards and leave them open to the sort of political manipulation which infects our honours system.

Although, if you look at the record, you realise VC awards have always been a bit anomalous.

During the Boer War there were around 16,000 Australian troops involved and six VCs were awarded – a ratio of one to every 2,666 involved.

There were 64 awarded in WWI with many of them at Gallipoli. All told about 334,000 Australians served overseas during the war giving a ratio of one VC for every 5218 troops.

In 1919 somewhere between 250 and 350 Australian troops left the AIF to join the British contingent fighting for the White Russians in the 1919 Russian Civil War. Two of the Australians were awarded VCs giving a ratio of one to every 125 Australian participants.

WWII saw 20 VCs awarded out of the approximately 400,000 soldiers who served overseas – a ratio of one to 20,000. Korea involved some 17,000 soldiers but no VCs.

In Vietnam there were 60,000 troops (counting multiple tours and Air Force and Naval personnel) and four VCs were awarded – a ratio of one to every 15,000 troops.

There were 14,000 troops in Iraq, but no VCs, and 26,000 in Afghanistan for four VCs – a ratio of one to 6,500.

There is also some general decoration inflation going on. For instance, as a National Servicemen who went to Vietnam I got two medals. Years after I got back and became a civilian again I was awarded two more.

Second, The Australian War  Memorial. The first Official Australian war historian Charles Bean envisaged a grand memorial and said: “any a man lying out there at Pozières or in the low scrub at Gallipoli, with his poor tired senses barely working through the fever of his brain, has thought in his last moments: ‘Well – well – it’s over; but in Australia they will be proud of this.’”

And thus we got a sacred place.

Today much of that sacred place has been destroyed to create a theme park for arms manufacturers to display boys toys.

I have only been there once to look at the roll of honour. While at the artillery school at North Head I sometimes travelled back to Melbourne with another young officer who also came from there.

We went to different postings and I went to Vietnam before him. We saw each other at Tan So Nhut airport when I was flying back to Australia at the end of my time and he was arriving.

I remember saying to him – be careful out there.

On his last operation he stepped on a mine and my visit to the Memorial was a way of renewing an old bond by looking at the name on the Honour Roll.

But Brendan Nelson, Kerry Stokes and the Government have trashed those sorts of memories in spending $500 million on destroying much of the original building to create something which has been bitterly opposed by many – historians, veterans and even former AWM Directors.

In case you have forgotten, Brendan Nelson, when he was still a Cabinet Minister  was responsible for sending every school in Australia an inspirational  poster about Simpson and his donkey omitting to mention that Simpson wasn’t called Simpson, had only joined up in the expectation he could desert when he got back to England and thought the donkey might be a cushy spot.

Nelson also claimed once that all Australians had fought under our Australian flag throughout history. I chided him at a Melbourne Town Hall meeting for not knowing that this was false and that Australian troops had fought under many flags.

He didn’t think this was a problem sufficient to alter his rhetoric – but it does make you wonder a bit about his qualifications for thinking about the future of the Memorial.

But despite all this there have been many great and significant moments in recent Australian military history which exemplify what military standards – rather than commemoration  – are all about.

When the children overboard issue arose friends were arguing about what the Navy would say to the Parliamentary committee investigating it. Most of them automatically thought the Admiral would support the Howard version. In fact, as I argued, they told the truth.

When Army had problems with sexual harassment the Chief of Army, David Morrison, took a strong stand – a stand which ought to be replicated in Parliament House.

I also know that I have a lot to thank the Army for. If nothing else being a DVA Gold Card holder makes a big difference when you are sick or our age.

But there are also other things which are important.

My father was in an engineer unit in New Guinea and after the war in CMF. He had left school at 12 after long periods of truancy but was exposed to a group of people who had graduate and technical education and realised that any children of his would need the same.

Like my father my mother was one of 12 and her father had ruled that all of the children would leave school at 14. My grandfather was a stern man although he used to take me to the local pub and sit me on a stool outside with what he told me was ‘black beer’ but which was really sarsaparilla. My mother fought hard for the younger children to get more education – the family’s situation had improved somewhat by then. Her father refused but she stubbornly clung to the belief that children should get the best possible education.

They instilled in me a desire to learn and achieve.

Those lessons provided me with the foundation to reap other benefits from military service.

Serving in the Army and in Vietnam you learn much about leadership and that you are capable of much more than you imagine.

But my strongest memory is of my former CO, now sadly no longer with us.

The first Vietnam Welcome Home March was in Sydney. The Battery assembled in the park prior to marching down George Street where the Prime Minister, then Bob Hawke, would take the salute.

It was typical Army stuff – hurry up and wait – and the gunners were getting bolshie particularly about giving eyes right to Hawke who they associated with the ACTU and the strikes affecting mail deliveries to the troops in Vietnam.

Our BC Mick Crawford heard the grumbles and threats but said nothing until just before we were to move out. He then quietly said: “We are heading off shortly and will march in ranks past the Town Hall where, on my command, you will perform eyes right.”

Nobody said a word. We moved off marching in step and in order,  however long we had been out of the Army, and when we got to the Town Hall every gunner made a well-executed eyes right.

Nothing could exemplify better the leadership lessons I got from the Army. Quiet authority and example are more powerful than ranting and raving.

Finally, in Alan Bennet’s play The History Boys says: “one of the best ways to forget something is to commemorate it.”

That is what we are in danger of doing if we continue in our commemoration approach – forgetting what’s really important about our military history and where it fits in the national narrative.

Another friend and fellow veteran from Vietnam days recently emailed me about the latest atrocities the Government had perpetrated on TPI veterans. He described the current situation as:

Commemoration over Compassion.

Welfare replacing Entitlements.

Museums instead of Motivation.

Costing in lieu of Caring.

Shedding over Science.

Veterans reduced to Victims.

When we say Lest we forget this is what we should remember.