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The Australian War Memorial must deal properly with the frontier wars


The recent media rounds of the new chair of the Australian War Memorial Council, Kim Beazley, seem to herald a major shift in the institution’s attitude to the border wars. Beazley explained that it “hugely importantthat the current $550 million war memorial renovation provides significant coverage of violent conflict between settlers and Indigenous Australians. He worked out:

We must give the Aboriginal people the dignity of resistance.

Beazley’s stance, which complements that of Veterans Affairs Minister Matt Keogh, indicates that the Australian War Memorial is not insensitive to the changing political landscape. Yet there remains resistance to Beazley’s vision of a war memorial council composed of coalition government-appointed and ex officio military officers, and under conservatives more generally.

A constantly evolving memorial

Some of those who oppose coverage of the border wars to claim the war memorial is crippled by its legislation, which limits its jurisdiction to overseas wars or wars by uniformed personnel. In reality, the Australian War Memorial Act 1980 contains a very broad definition of the institution’s role as

a national memorial to Australians killed as a result of war and warlike operations.

In any case, the monument has adapted to changing political imperatives and social mores throughout its history.

Charles Bean invented the Australian War Memorial during the First World War. After serving as Australia’s official correspondent, he devoted his life to sanctifying the Anzacs. Through his editorship of the 12-volume Official History of Australians in the War of 1914-1918 and his advocacy of a sanctuary that would also serve as a museum and archive, he did more than anyone else to promote the belief that the Anzacs were the nation.

Charles Bean is working on the official history of Australians in the 1914-1918 war.
Wikimedia Commons

At the opening of the war memorial in 1941 it was already clear that a new world war had to be recognized. In 1952, during the Korean War, the memorial’s charter was changed to cover all wars in which Australia was or would be involved.

The war memorial has changed so much since Bean first conceived it that former director Brendan Nelson included a space for “emotional release” in the blueprint for the current expansion. Bean may have been surprised by Nelson’s claim that the memorial should provide “a therapeutic environmentfor veterans.

A wealth of historical research to draw from

Aside from the claim that border violence falls outside of the monument’s governing law, detractors are routine mock the issue as an “awakened” preoccupation.

They may be surprised to learn that it was conservative historian Geoffrey Blainey who suggested more than 40 years since what he called “irregular warfare” between Indigenous and colonizing Australians was depicted in the memorial.

As the Australian War Memorial disintegrated, historical research consolidated the claim that there had indeed been a violent and sustained conflict on the border to be understood as warfare.

Jeffrey Grays A Military History of Australia, first published in 1990, left readers in no doubt on this point. A chapter titled “The Military and the Frontier, 1788-1901” examined matters of doctrine, technology, tactics and morale to understand how the war was “fought and why its outcome was so decisive”.

Gray’s argument received strong confirmation in the more detailed research of historians John Connor And Stephen Gapps for the period before 1838.

A large number of articles on border violence across Australia, including Ray Kerkhove’s recently published How they foughthas revealed the use of military-style troops and tactics to suppress indigenous resistance.

Significant research, such as the mapping of massacres from the University of Newcastle, Colonial Frontier Massacres, Australia, 1788 to 1930and the recent television series The Australian Warsprobably contributed to an environment in which the war memorial felt it had to make a gesture towards the demand for recognition.

Trailer for the three-part documentary series The Australian Wars.

Read more: In The Australian Wars, Rachel Perkins dispels the myth that the Aborigines didn’t fight back

How do you properly capture the seriousness of the tragedy?

The plans for the war memorial seem rather modest at the moment. Like David Stephens, Peter Stanley and Noel Turnbull of the Fair History group have noted, the current plan is for the addition of a small amount of space to the Colonial Conflicts (Soldiers of the Queen) gallery, from 385 to 408 square feet. They rightly argue that such an approach is unsatisfactory given the importance of the border wars in Australia’s history.

According to the director, this will be renamed the Pre-1914 Galleries – a choice that ignores the killing of First Nations people in Northern Australia well into the 1920s. The war memorial is apparently still committed to the idea that the frontier wars, if they are to be recognized as wars at all, were a kind of distant and unrelated prehistory to Anzac.

There is a need for serious research, reflection and discussion on how to create a gallery worthy of the gravity and tragedy of the border wars.

For example, how will native mounted police – Indigenous men recruited to use violence to overcome resistance from other Indigenous peoples – be represented?

How will settler deaths be framed? How does the war memorial deal with those old settler surnames that appear in the context of frontier warfare—names that will sometimes also appear in the current honor roll?

Read more: Friday Essay: It’s Time for a New Museum Dedicated to the Fighters of the Border Wars

The Australian War Memorial is a morally charged national space that promotes a powerful story of national origins. The national character finds its purest expression in Anzac, we are told.

The story of frontier warfare is another powerful – and arguably alternative – basic story. It tells us that Australia was built on invasion, dispossession and violence, and that the nation can only approach authenticity and wholeness if it properly recognizes this reality.

As we prepare for a referendum later this year to vote on the proposal for an indigenous vote in parliament, it is worth remembering that the vote is the proposed first stage in a three-step process: vote, treaty , truth.

If the Australian War Memorial contained meaningful exhibits about the wars fought on this country, it would be a powerful act of truth-telling in the service of the nation.

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