Opinion //

Australia’s worst museum

Examining the Australian War Memorial’s political influence.

There was once a time when politicians cared little for war commemoration. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, for example, reflected that “In my time as prime minister if I’d gone to Anzac Cove for Anzac Day, people would have said ‘What on earth is Fraser doing?’”

Nowadays of course, it is a completely different story. Politicians on both sides routinely get emotional about our military history, subscribe wholeheartedly to the Anzac legend and pour millions of taxpayer dollars into the Australian War Memorial (AWM). 

This perhaps explains why the AWM has so much cultural capital. Indeed, the museum’s director, Matt Anderson, describes the building as the “soul of the nation.” Prime Minister Scott Morrison also has the audacity to say “Australians will always be Australian so long as they remember this place.”

Unfortunately, the AWM is not using its political influence for good. Instead of educating us on our military history like it is supposed to, its primary objectives seem to be to glorify recent conflicts and minimise the fallout from the Brereton report.

Under the current board, the AWM’s role has changed from museum, shrine and archive to public relations firm for disgraced soldiers.

The AWM is about to construct a new exhibition centre dedicated entirely to Australia’s recent conflicts. The institution is set to receive $500 million dollars of government funding to do so, at a time when other museums are having their funding cut. According to billionaire AWM Chairman Kerry Stokes, this project is in the “national interest.”

Stokes has also taken the liberty to cover the legal costs of all nineteen soldiers implicated in the Brereton report. With prosecutors already facing the difficult task of proving that the soldiers knew the Afghans were non-combatants before deciding to kill them anyway, Stokes’ intervention will likely help the defendants escape conviction.

Stokes is also financing alleged war criminal Ben Roberts-Smith’s defamation lawsuit against Nine newspapers. Roberts-Smith was reported as being one of the worst offending soldiers implicated in the Brereton Report, with an investigation by Nine newspapers alleging he killed seven non-combatants.

Less Roberts-Smith is found innocent, which a litany of evidence suggests otherwise, this lawsuit is a brazen act of intimidation against a free press. Roberts-Smith wrongly claimed a media tip-off led to his criminal investigation, when he was actually referred to the police by the Australian Defence Force. 

The Brereton Report was a four-year inquiry led by Army Reserve Major-General and NSW Court of Appeal judge Paul Brereton. It investigated alleged war crimes committed by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan and interviewed over 400 people. The report concluded that members of the Australian Special Air Service Regiment committed 39 potential murders from 2005-2016.

Now, why the AWM board thinks it’s appropriate to make a museum exhibit on an ongoing conflict, especially in light of such a controversy, is beyond me.

Even if the redevelopment is driven by the noble intention of commemorating the service of living veterans, the current AWM board cannot be the ones entrusted to educate us on our military history. They have clear agendas.

For example, board member and former prime-minister Tony Abbot, was a staunch enthusiast for Australia’s involvement in the Middle East. He also saw the war in Afghanistan entirely as a matter of good versus evil. Additionally, AWM director Matt Anderson was the former Australian ambassador to Afghanistan.

Both these men featured prominently in the conflict and are inclined to twist the narrative. The rest of the AWM board, which consists mainly of former defence personnel, will likely do the same.

I say this because already, the board has shown a complete lack of taste and a blatantly partisan agenda. One example is the proposed redevelopment including a display on Operation Sovereign Borders, hardly a military campaign and one of Tony Abbot’s own policies.

Matt Anderson has also indicated he wants the Brereton report to be thought of as a minor blimp in an otherwise honourable campaign.

Finally there is Kerry Stokes, who seems to be doing everything in his power to ensure none of the Brereton report’s findings are ever proven true. It’s like he wants future generations to think it never happened.

Commemorating Afghanistan in its rightful historical context is a mammoth task. It should not be entrusted to a group of ardent right wingers and former armed-force personnel with no historical background.

The sacrifice of the Australians who served needs to be told in the context of the American-led coalition failing to defeat the Taliban after twenty years of fighting. It needs to be told in light of the fact that for much of the war, elements of the unit at the forefront of the Australian campaign, the SASR, exhibited a toxic warrior culture fixated on demonstrating power and bending the rules. It needs to be told in light of the fact that we struggled to win hearts and minds.

When contacted for comment, the AWM said it “always has been, and will remain, an apolitical institution.” This legacy is in jeopardy. If the current board gets its way, we will end up with an overfunded propaganda centre disguised as a museum.