Reflecting on Deep Denial

A Letter to Dr Brendan Nelson AO,
Director of the Australian War Memorial

dear Brendan,

On 18 April, Sarah Stitt and I met with Sarah Hitchcock, your admirable head of Commemoration and Visitor Engagement, to talk and walk through the 2019 Anzac Eve Peace Vigil production.

Sarah met us outside of Admin and she was fair glowing with smile and goodwill. The first thing she did was give me a copy of your dedication speech for the opening of the For Our Country memorial on 28 March.

"The Director wants you to read this. He said he was thinking of you as he gave the speech. Says he missed having his annual Vigil meeting with you."

Thus we were honoured. It pleased this old man to know you had had him in mind and that you were missing him!

Hear my gratitude, dear friend. How amazing our friendship and how productive and creative has been its fruit. One cannot imagine the likes of an Anzac Peace Vigil being negotiated for the Sydney Cenotaph or the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance. Even less so a peace vigil at the London War Memorial or at Arlington USA.

Forthwith Sarah H led us to view the new memorial. Let me describe it for others.

Designed by Daniel Boyd, a proud Kudjala/Gangalu/Kuku Yalanji/Waka Waka/Gubbi Gubbi/Wangerriburra/Bandjalung man from North Queensland, it comprises a fire pit in a circle of broken rock backed by a black glass wall about 3 m high by 8 m. The wall is covered with small circular mirrors.

At first glance it suggests a star filled sky and then one sees ones own reflection with the trees behind as if a living dot painting. It has an interactive quality too which I like. One can go behind the wall and spy outward through the one way glass. Altogether it's a beautiful and impressive thing.

But for me there was also an alienating coldness about it. All hard edge and clever technique like so much modern architecture, the installation would, i thought, sit well among the high rises of Docklands in Melbourne.

I walked away with my mind troubled by something there unsaid and wanting to be named.

Eager to read what you had said in your speech, we soon had our business done with Sarah H and Sarah S. and i adjourned to Poppies Cafe for coffee and a read.

Since we have had an extended conversations about the recognition of the Frontier Wars by the AWM, I guessed you had me in mind when you read this paragraph:

"Inevitably and tragically, over more than a century, in a process of dispossession, violence and brutality was perpetuated against first people, by pastoralists, police and at times mounted Aboriginal militia."

Hooray! All that banging on your door has paid off, i thought. Here was recognition, a glint of light in the darkness of denial.

But then reading on, the speech made no mention of the Frontier Wars as such. No recognition at all.

Instead it made a most dodgy claim - that Aboriginal people won freedom and inclusion in "the young nation" by enlisting and going off to war.

Now I do not want to deny recognition of Aboriginal servicemen past and present. To the contrary I want to affirm the AWM policy of recognising, including and celebrating Aboriginal service people as admirable. As policy it has been a great success and you as director deserve credit.

But I do want to say that your claim that, by their service, Aboriginal servicemen won equality and inclusion is fantasy. Dishonest history!

The military, Australian or other, has never been about equality. In the tradition which the British invasion foisted upon this country, the military has always had an officer cast, an aristocracy based on wealth, land ownership, family and privilege.

The other ranks are made up of the lower classes, the poor, the desperate and the duped. That's where Aboriginals have their place. Very few have ever had or will receive commissions. None got WW2 soldier settler blocks and some who served in the Boer War were prohibited from returning to Australia by the White Australia Policy.

And have they since truly been unified in death by the Australian War Memorial as a unifying institution?

How can this be known? The dead don't speak. O dear Brendan, this is sentimental blither.

Please ask yourself how it is that you need to go to such excesses? Why the drive for grandiosity?

May I suggest it is because you, your Board and your benefactors, are stretching the fabric of story to hide an inconvenient truth and a big core denial.

To me it seems as if the AMW aims to deflect and subvert the call for Frontier Wars recognition with the manufacture of exhibitions, memorials and promotions which ooze with sentimentality and mendacity.

For 9 years now, along with others better informed, I have been vocal and active calling for the Australian War Memorial to recognise and commemorate the Frontier Wars as the most vicious, bloody and transformational (in terms of culture and landscape) wars the country has known in 100,000 years or more.

You have been kind, tolerant and generous with your friendship. So it disappoints me to realise you have not been listening, to me or the other voices which question the sentimentality, false history and war propaganda in your speeches.

To my ear too often they come across as calculated propaganda of the kind which recruiters use to lure youthful idealism to destruction. Valorising death and destruction, you are surely marching present and future generations of Australians to trauma and violent death. Karma, karma, karma, infallible and sure.

What is at the core of this terrible, dark and deep denial?

May I suggest that in the story of the Frontier Wars is to be found the creation story of the Australian military. And it is a wretched one.

The Australian Light Horse did not spring fully formed onto the beaches of Gallipoli and into the imagination of CW Bean as a new world wonder of valour.

Rather it evolved out of settler militias and police actions, including the infamous Queensland Native Police, aimed at "dispersing" (read: "exterminating") Aboriginal people from lands seized from them by the British crown and its colonists.

Speaking cynically we may say that the Australian Defence Force began as killers of brown skinned people in their native lands on behalf of Empire and that it has been doing it ever since. The Empire may have changed but not the inherent murderous racism.

Reflecting on this I came to realise what it was which I had found so cold and none the less engaging about the For Our Country memorial.

The black between the dots of mirrored light is what I see now. That cleverly made wall speaks of a shimmering lie and what was intended to be repressed has come forth.

The wall speaks of the darkness and denial of the slaughter of first peoples by Native Police in the employ of murderous, land thieving British settlers.

Native Police and Black Trackers in general and the Queensland Native Police in particular for they were the grossest of killers with the blood of an estimated 65,000 dead on their hands.

I wonder what use For Our Country will find as a sacred place.

If any silence is to be evoked there by that grim remembrance, it is the Conspiracy of Silence.

Embracing the truth of the Frontier Wars is a huge challenge for you, your Chairman and your Board for it requires a huge decolonising of collective minds. With this dialogue we can know the work has already begun.

Do not fear that Frontier Wars truth telling will be the end of patriotism. Far from it, if patriotism truly means love of country.

Rather it will take us deeper into country, deeper into the layered stories of the land we love and grieve for, into the sediment, as they say, into the rocks and eons.

In this regard let me recommend Paul Daley's essay, On Patriotism. (Here is Paul Daley speaking on ABC Radio 1 November 2018.)

Let it be a gift from me to you. Expect it in the mail!

Let it be a calling we both can treasure.

May you be well and happy.

Graeme Dunstan


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