The Australian War Memorial (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

For years now, the Australian War Memorial (AWM) has been a key component in the Coalition’s attempt to own Australia’s military history and traditions. The AWM is chaired by Liberal supporter Kerry Stokes; Tony Abbott is also a board member, along with Josephine Stone, wife of former Country Liberal leader Shane Stone. Another board member, former SAS commander James McMahon, is an executive for Stokes.

As close AWM watchers also point out, the government has stacked the board with military and ex-military figures.

That period has coincided with the war memorial becoming something more akin to a giant military theme park than a solemn place of commemoration, with major defence and surveillance companies queueing up to be “corporate partners”. That has culminated in the absurdly over-the-top half-billion dollar “philistine vandalism” of the memorial — to use the words of another former director — initiated by former Liberal leader Brendan Nelson when AWM director.

The AWM now faces the problem of how it will adjust its Afghanistan exhibition to reflect the grim reality that many Australian SAS personnel committed war crimes in that country during Australia’s lengthy and pointless presence there. “Afghanistan: the Australian story” will now be incomplete without a record of the murders and other atrocities casually committed by SAS soldiers.

As Paul Daley pointed out, the AWM has also hosted an exhibition fetishising Australia’s special operations forces in 2017, when the Brereton inquiry was underway. “Australia’s Special Operations Forces are highly trained, motivated and experienced. With little notice they can insert themselves undetected by land, sea, or air into any environment to conduct sensitive operations. They won honours in Afghanistan, fought in Iraq, helped establish security in East Timor…” ran the blurb for the exhibition.

The war memorial already has form in refusing to address military traditions that don’t fit a celebratory account of Australian soldiering. Nelson for years refused to countenance the idea that white Australia’s originating war, the European invasion and occupation of the continent and the subsequent genocide of first peoples, should have any place at the AWM, suggesting instead it be consigned to museums.

As Guy Rundle pointed out in Crikey last week, there is a direct through-line from white Australia’s war on this country’s first peoples to the atrocities committed by SAS personnel in Afghanistan

But it is the actions of Stokes that have placed the AWM very firmly at the centre of the debate about the response to the war crimes revealed in horrific detail even in the redacted version of the Brereton report. His continued support for one of the alleged perpetrators, and his commitment to fund the legal costs of others if and when they are prosecuted, is inseparable from his role as chair of an institution that should not only be above partisanship but above culture wars and controversy.

Scott Morrison — who now offensively has elevated acknowledgement of ADF personnel to the same status as acknowledgement of Indigenous communities — insists otherwise. “It’s a free country,” he said of Stokes’ commitment to not merely provide support for all SAS members but, potentially, fund the legal costs of accused war criminals.

That’s the same thing he said about right-wing protesters violating lockdown laws — a generosity he declined to extend to Black Lives Matters protesters weeks later.

Given the seriousness of the charges, and the fact that the offences were committed while personnel were serving abroad, the taxpayer should be funding their legal costs, not the billionaire who chairs the war memorial. If Stokes wants to support those charged, he should do so without dragging the war memorial into it, and resign as chair.

What should be a sacred place uniting all Australians has already become a military theme park. Further involving the institution in the most sordid moments in Australian military history will only degrade it further.

Are you concerned about the politicisation of the military and the AWM? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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