australian war memorial morrison veterans ptsd
(Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

How successful will the government’s $500 million veterans’ PTSD initiative be? It is intended to address “one of the key contributors to post-traumatic stress”.

Except, the money isn’t going into mental health programs for veterans, or services to reduce the suicide rate of young ex-servicemen, which is over twice as high as that for other Australian men. It’s the vast expansion of the Australian War Memorial, intended to exhibit military hardware such as fighter jets and commemorate recent conflicts. It will require the demolition of Anzac Hall, a major addition to the AWM that is less than 20 years old.

In the words of Steve Gower, the immediate past director of the AWM, the plan of his successor, Brendan Nelson, is “a prize example of philistine vandalism masquerading as progress. It is an egregious waste of money.”

It was Nelson who has defended the project this week as a way to address “one of the key contributors to post-traumatic stress”, which is “the sense that your country doesn’t know and doesn’t care about what you did”. “No young serviceman or woman or their family,” Nelson argued, should “feel that what they have done doesn’t count”.

Will the new building actually address a “key contributor” to PTSD among veterans? The academic literature on PTSD strongly emphasises proximity to, and the trauma of, combat, length of deployment, rank, socio-economic status and, unsurprisingly, pre-existing mental health problems as key contributors to veteran PTSD.

In fact, the bulk of factors that have been linked in academic research to veteran PTSD are pre- or peri-trauma, rather than post-trauma (even genetics plays a role). Of post-trauma factors, according to one study “a positive recovery environment after trauma exposure may serve as a protective factor”, but the evidence was less consistent than for other factors.

Support from friends and family and avoiding unemployment in civilian life do seem to be consistent post-trauma protective factors. But there’s little evidence that some concrete form of institutional recognition, like a building, is a “key contributor”. Professor Ross Young, executive dean of health at Queensland University of Technology and one of Australia’s leading experts on veteran mental health, points out that there’s some basis for Nelson’s argument in relation to Vietnam veterans.

“However,” he points out, “it was more than ‘not caring’ — the reception for returning veterans was often hostile.”

Curious, too, that, in talking about the project, Nelson mentioned Afghanistan but not Iraq, where Australia has been involved, on and off, since 2003. How will Australia’s participation in the illegal attack on Iraq (which Nelson himself admitted was about oil) based on a lie by politicians, be commemorated in the new building? Will the sloppy, politically-determined nature of the deployment of ADF personnel to Iraq be accurately portrayed?

The question is acute because, like the Iraq War was, the Australian War Memorial is increasingly a Liberal Party enterprise. Nelson was appointed — under Labor — in 2012. Liberal supporter Kerry Stokes is chairman. Tony Abbott was recently appointed to the board, which also includes lawyer Josephine Stone, spouse of veteran Country Liberal figure Shane Stone.

The $500 million funding has been enthusiastically spruiked by Scott Morrison as “the largest re-investment in the War Memorial since it was opened in 1941”, while Nelson has been lauded by the prime minister as “a truly great director”, one worthy of Charles Bean.

The transformation, at colossal expense, of the War Memorial from sombre place of reflection to an exhibition of military hardware (supported by the defence companies that make up the “corporate partners” of the AWM) is in keeping with the relentless fetishisation of the Australian military by the conservative side of politics, which has now reached cult-like levels.

In speeches, Morrison government ministers now routinely acknowledge both the traditional owners of the land they’re on, and “any current or former service personnel”, who get the US cliché “thank you for your service”.

When Morrison first began doing this, the acknowledgement of servicemen and women was a separate, secondary acknowledgement. Now the two are elided, if anything with greater emphasis on ADF personnel and veterans.

That is, the acknowledgement of traditional owners, which is meant — however pro forma — to recognise the dispossession of Australia’s first peoples, is equated with the — in recent decades — voluntary service of defence personnel. (And what about other professions who risk their lives, like police and firefighters?)

The insult is redoubled by the fact that the War Memorial refuses to acknowledge white Australia’s first and bloodiest war — the war of dispossession of Indigenous Australians — with Nelson saying it should not be recognised at the AWM but relegated to the National Museum (as if conflict and dispossession are a mere historical matter, not the lived experience of Indigenous Australians).

This deification of the military hasn’t been driven by conservative politicians — they have only exploited and enabled what has been a broader social shift to celebrate, rather than commemorate, Australia’s military history.

Anzac Day has become a celebration of aggressive nationalism, not of solemn remembrance of sacrifice, the reality of our military efforts as a vassal state of the great powers, participating in the imperial conflicts of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, replaced with myths about heroic Anzacs taking on an ever-changing array of Others — Johnny Turk, the Viet Cong, Saddam Hussein’s WMDs, Muslim terrorists.

Morrison’s $500 million thus builds a new portico for the temple of the Aussie Mars, the local deity in a religion imported from our imperial overlords.

The Romans gave land to their veterans; ours, it seems, get a military theme park.

Peter Fray

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