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Stopping sacrilege at the Australian War Memorial

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The writer is in Australia.

I HAVE just launched a petition on change.org protesting against the intention of the Council of the Australian War Memorial, expressed by chairman Dr Brendan Nelson, to ‘have a much broader, a much deeper depiction and presentation of the violence committed against Indigenous people, initially by British, then by pastoralists, then by police, and then by Aboriginal militia’.

I found this an outrageous proposal from a governance point of view because it flies in the face of the charter of the AWM, as detailed in the Australian War Memorial Act of 1980.  I wrote about this here.

I also found it personally repugnant because I am a Vietnam veteran, and the Memorial has special significance to me. Not because I suffered unduly – indeed, I emerged relatively unscathed from the experience. I made the point in my earlier article that the principal, possibly the sole, purpose of the Memorial is to honour the memory of the thousands of Australian men and women who have given their lives in the defence of this nation and its values.

That brings me to the personal dimension. For me, those honoured dead have a face and a name. John Lee and Bernie Garland graduated from the Royal Military College, Duntroon, in 1967. That was in my first year at the College and I greatly admired both men. To me, at the age of 18, they seemed so much older and wiser, and at the age of 74 I still strangely think of them that way, although age shall not weary them. I attended both their funerals at the RMC Chapel, and the memory of the distress of their young widows stays with me today. Bob Pothof, who graduated in 1968, and John Wheeler, who graduated in 1969, also never made it home. I was probably closer to John Wheeler than the others because he was only one year ahead of me. He was killed just before I arrived in South Vietnam. Corporal Wilkinson and Privates Beilken, Pengilly, Duff, Kingston-Powles, Niblett, Sprigg, Harding and Rhodes were my comrades in the Fourth Battalion Royal Australian Regiment who also are honoured by the Memorial.

I have never suffered any pangs of conscience about my role in what I think of as the Battle of Vietnam rather than the Vietnam War. Maybe I’m kidding myself, but I believe, that although it might be thought of as a tactical defeat, it certainly contributed to the ultimate end of the Cold War. The only distress I have ever felt about my involvement is when figures such as Robert McNamara have questioned its legitimacy. That was a kick in the guts to me. This implicitly devalues the sacrifices of all those who died in South Vietnam. I imagine veterans of Afghanistan feel the same way.

That is why I feel such anger that all veterans, but particularly those – most of whom were volunteers – who lost their lives in the two major conflagrations of the twentieth century, should have their sacrifice diminished by anything that might suggest the nation that they cherished was illegitimate in its conception. How ironic it would be if it eventuated that those killed at Gallipoli were more honoured in Turkey than in their own country.

That brings me to the question of these atrocities which the AWM Council are planning on highlighting. There can be no doubt that atrocities were committed against Aborigines. But they were isolated incidents. Many of them were in reprisal for killing settlers or their stock – though no less reprehensible for that. Where atrocities were committed, they were crimes according to British law. How effectively colonial governments dealt with them is a contentious issue. But they had nothing whatsoever to do with the defence of the nation, they do not form part of our military history and therefore have no place in the AWM.

What about the ‘Colonial Wars’? There is a new myth which has emerged in the last decade or so that the Aborigines fought a series of sustained wars of resistance. Rachel Perkins, the daughter of the late Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins, has produced a documentary film, The Australian Wars, in which she claims that up to 100,000 Aborigines were killed. If that were true it might provide a basis for inclusion in the AWM; at least I can understand why some people might think so. But this story is demonstrably not true. The figure of 100,000 killed in some form of military action is totally implausible. 

The most authoritative database of incidents in which Aborigines were killed in clashes with whites is maintained at the University of Newcastle, New South Wales, under the direction of Professor Lyndall Ryan. Scores of historians have, over a number of years, scoured the historical record to dredge up every last Aboriginal death they can find. They have ‘documented’ 416 incidents which reportedly resulted in the death of some 11,000 Aborigines. Keith Windschuttle, Michael Connor, Scott Seymour, George Brown, Roger Karge, Rod Moran and myself (amongst others) have conducted audits of this database and we have all identified serious discrepancies. In most of the incidents reported, the number of Aboriginal deaths has been based on estimates and they almost always err on the high side. 

Regardless of that, even if the figure of 11,000 deaths is correct, how is it possible that this legion of researchers, anxious to plumb the very depths of this well, could have missed 90,000 deaths?

To include in the AWM museum any mention of ‘colonial wars’ involving the deaths of 100,000 Aborigines would not only be an insult to those whom the Memorial is supposed to honour, it would also be a travesty of rational thinking and a gross falsehood.

Back to the petition. At the time of writing, 1,110 people have signed. That may not seem like a huge number, but I think it’s not bad for two days.

I don’t know how many signatures it will take to shift the Memorial Council. The ‘No body, no parole’ petition in relation to murdered mother Lyn Dawson attracted 30,000 signatures – although that was a simple and (almost) unarguable proposition – so I suspect we’ll have to do a lot better than 1,000-odd. That said, I have no doubt we face an uphill battle given that, firstly, conservatives tend to be petition-shy and, secondly, the fact that this proposal emanates from the Council itself and involves yet another sop to the Aboriginal grievance industry, would lend it a certain (spurious) legitimacy in the eyes of many.

If this proposal goes ahead it will add to the growing and tiresome collection of concessions we already make to Aborigines – the flags outside every public building in the land (and in our Parliaments), the grating and contrived ‘welcome to country’ ceremonies at every public event, the renaming of our towns and landmarks (particularly by the ABC), the grandstanding in Parliament by the loathsome and falsely sworn Lidia Thorpe and so on.

Once it’s in, it will be impossible to remove. Let’s nip it in the bud now.

So, if you haven’t signed my petition, can I urge you to please do so.

If you haven’t promulgated the link to at least ten other people, can I ask you to please consider doing so.

And a huge thank you to those who have already signed and given this petition the momentum it needs to go to the next level. I want 10,000-plus.

This article appeared in Quadrant on October 7, 2022, and is republished by kind permission.

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