Inside Story

Battle over a war

For three decades the Australian War Memorial has been the focus of a struggle between two ways of knowing the past, writes Dean Ashenden

Dean Ashenden 2 June 2009 4543 words

The Australian War Memorial at night, photographed by Paul Hagon in 2004.

PUBLIC HISTORY tells much less than history knows, particularly when what history knows is unpalatable. The story of “the unacknowledged relations between two races in a single field of life” that W.E.H. Stanner famously demanded in 1968 has now been told in vivid detail. But surprisingly little of that story has found its way into the plaques, statues, roadside information displays, local museums and the like scattered by the thousands across the continent, so little that scholarly surveys of this particular corner of public history often draw on the same exceptions to rule: Reconciliation Place in Canberra, Coniston, Kalkadoon, Myall Creek, Fremantle, the Yagan statue. Opposite this paucity is a profusion of marks and celebrations of our manifold achievements. Hyde Park, for instance, at the heart of our oldest city, has almost as many monuments, memorial gardens and fountains and the like as it has trees, most to do with our loss, sacrifice and valour in war, the struggles of our explorers and pioneers, or the sagacity of our civic leaders. On the 97.8 per cent of human affairs conducted in this place before our arrival, on the 2000 generations who made their lives where Hyde Park now stands, on what happened in our obtaining of it, and on what became of the “dispossessed,” not a word or stone is spent. Aboriginal activists are entitled to the bitter sarcasm: Best We Forget.

Of course this gap between the known and the said owes much to psycho-social factors, as the activists’ sarcasm implies, but it has to do also with the properties of public history. Public history of the kind discussed here takes up space, and often it’s first in best dressed. Hyde Park is an attic of the clutter from the past, a lesson in historiography rather than history. As with cemeteries and headstones, such things can’t be moved or built over, so what is a latecomer to do?

Public history is unusual also in how it comes into being. The exhilarating recovery of the story of “relations between two races in a single field of life” was undertaken by individuals roused by an Aboriginal rebellion and driven by academic competition and contention. Most public history, by contrast, demands agreement by groups. That is easy to frustrate, and therefore hard to get. The blitzkrieg of the historians has been followed by the trench warfare of public history.

The different properties of public history and scholarly history, and the uneasy relations between them, are not normally the stuff of headlines, but they can be. The most important, and significant, case in point is the long-running, sporadic scuffle over what should and should not be seen in the Australian War Memorial.

THE AWM is the behemoth of Australian public history, on a quite different plane from Hyde Park or any number of parks, memorials, local museums and the like. From its initial focus on the sacrifices of Australian forces during the first world war the AWM has expanded to take in the experience of other combatants and of civilians in “wars and war-like operations in which Australians have been on active service,” including peace-keeping. The AWM is big (a staff of 200 plus 260 volunteers), rich (annual budget approaching $50 million), and immensely popular (more than 800,000 visitors a year). It is backed by one of our most powerful cultural interest groups, with a council of thirteen that includes three generals (one of them national president of the RSL), two admirals and two air marshals. It is at once a research institute, a publisher, a museum, a memorial and a place of commemoration. It makes corporeal our loss, sacrifice and valour in war and is therefore central to the central component of our national identity. It is a sacred place. To propose, therefore, as many historians have done, that it should include in its embrace the wars of the frontier is to run risks up to and including the charge of sacrilege.

That proposal was first made in 1979 when a distinguished historian engaged by the AWM as a consultant suggested that it should include “irregular warfare” such as the Eureka Stockade, the Vietnam War (not then included in the AWM) and the frontier wars. Despite the historian’s conservative credentials (it was none other than Geoffrey Blainey) and his appeal to comparability, nothing happened. The idea was raised again from time to time, typically by academic historians, and most notably a decade ago – two decades after Blainey’s initiative – by Professor Ken Inglis in the course of his remarks at the 1998 launch of his Sacred Places, an exhaustive and highly respectful study of our war memorials. Such an authority could hardly go unanswered. The AWM’s director (retired Major General) Steve Gower commissioned a report from his Military History Section, which came up with the congenial conclusion that “only police forces or British military units were involved in the ‘wars,’ whereas the Memorial’s charter calls upon it to commemorate Australia’s military forces.” This view the Council promptly endorsed.

Behind the scenes, however, disagreement simmered, with the AWM’s director on one side, its principal historian, Dr Peter Stanley, on the other. Eventually the disagreement turned into a public spat, unimportant in its detail but revealing in its tone.

In this Inglis and his Sacred Places were once again the detonators. In 2008 Inglis published the third edition of the by-now celebrated volume and reiterated his view that the events of the frontier should be represented in the Memorial. For whatever reason, Gower decided that he would not let this pass. Using his regular director’s column in the AWM’s magazine Wartime Gower declared that the new material in Inglis’s book was more opinion than research and that the book as a whole was “disappointing.” Gower reminded his readers of the report he’d commissioned a decade before from the Military History section “then headed by Peter Stanley,” repeated the report’s recommendation and the council’s endorsement, and there, Gower concluded testily, “the matter rests.”

But it didn’t. In Wartime’s next edition Stanley (who had previously left the AWM’s employ) corrected Gower. “I had nothing to do with the report,” he wrote, “and though having researched the frontier wars was not consulted.” Gower snapped back at Stanley, arguing the toss about the report’s conclusions and Stanley’s role before concluding tartly that “if he (Stanley) has any evidence-based material to contribute, it would be welcome.” Stanley offered a piece to Wartime. It was rejected. So he put it in the Canberra Times.

Stanley's piece joined a small media flurry that included a segment on the ABC’s national 7.30 Report. The 7.30 Report’s story presented a tableau of the larger struggle. On one side was AWM council member and RSL president (retired Major General) Bill Crews, backed, in Gower’s absence (he declined to appear) by archival contributions from former Prime Minister John Howard. On the other side appeared no less than five distinguished historians: soldier-turned-scholar John Coates, prominent Aboriginal academic Gordon Briscoe, and Geoffrey Blainey, Ken Inglis and Peter Stanley.

The historians argued that the fact of a “brutal, bloody and sustained confrontation that took place on every significant piece of land across the continent” had now been established beyond doubt by military historians and scholars at the Australian Defence Force Academy among many others; that the AWM already covers warfare of kinds similar to the frontier wars; and that inclusion of the frontier wars would be consistent with the AWM’s charter. In short, the historians said, the precedents and permissions are there. It fits. And in short, the spokesman for public history said, no, they aren’t and it doesn’t. Crews, speaking for the AWM and, presumably, the RSL, confronted the historians thus: “It would be our view that it is not appropriate to commemorate [the frontier wars] nationally and certainly not in the Australian War Memorial, despite the fact you may call it a war.”

Crews seems to have smelled a rat in the historians’ articulate reasonableness. He wasn’t going to get into a debate about it with people who’d spent their lives winning debates, but he was going to say that you can call it a war all you like but my gut tells me that the frontier wars were different from all the other wars, and so is commemoration of them. And he might not be altogether wrong.

THAT AUSTRALIA’S HISTORY is peculiar and peculiarly elusive is something I am qualified by recent and unsettling experience to pronounce upon. Five or six years ago I became interested in things I saw as a boy in the early 1950s in the Northern Territory mining town of Tennant Creek, a small part of the “unacknowledged story of relations between two races in a single field of life.” What began as an interest soon became a preoccupation and I read anything I could lay my hands on, first about the Aboriginal people of the region (the Warumungu, as I discovered), then about what had happened to them since that signal day in 1860 when they clashed with John McDouall Stuart near “Attack” Creek, and then about where all that fitted in the history of the frontier. There were many difficulties of comprehension but the one of relevance here is that I couldn’t make a terminology inherited from European history work. At first, shocked by what I thought I knew but didn’t, I was attracted to terms such as “invasion,” “conquest,” “genocide,” and “war.” Gradually it became apparent that these terms didn’t really get it right but nor did the weasel-words so often used instead, words like “settlement,” “pioneer,” “explorer,” “encounter,” and “dispossession.”

The capacities and incapacities of the term “war” have been the focus of the AWM struggle ever since Blainey’s 1979 suggestion that the frontier, along with the Eureka Stockade and the Vietnam war, saw “irregular warfare.” This restricted focus was entrenched by the AWM’s black-letter response to Inglis’s initial and subsequent proposal, and was accepted by the historians represented on the 7.30 Report. “You have military officers who’d served in other parts of the British Empire saying this was a war, that war had broken out on the frontier,” argued one of the historians. “You had the British Amy being sent to the Hawkesbury. You had a garrison of British soldiers being kept there.” When Crews wanted to call these events “skirmishes” another of the historians angrily retorted: “We are absolutely talking war here.” His colleagues agreed. And why wouldn’t they? The case is strong; it provides a common platform for historians of widely varying perspectives; and it makes the minimum possible demand on the AWM and is, therefore, the most likely to succeed.

But, thirty years on, it still hasn’t succeeded. Moreover, there is another case – also supported by extensive historical evidence and argument – that while the events of the Australian frontier were like those elsewhere, they also weren’t. In important respects the Australian events are unusual, unique even. Often the two “sides” of the “war” were unclear, even to each other. At least some Aboriginal groups found themselves in a “war” without realising it. What was going on was so unlike their kind of fighting that they sometimes fled toward on-coming forces. Some Europeans took the part of the Aborigines; and some Aborigines, notably trackers and Native Policemen, crossed “enemy” lines. There was no “surrender” at the end of any of these war-like episodes, no “peace” and of course no “treaty” or other explicit agreement to end the fighting. The term “victory” was rarely, if ever used, perhaps because it felt so little like one. None of this means that the events in question can’t be called “warfare”; it is to say that if it was warfare, it was of a peculiar and difficult-to-grasp kind.

A less direct but more important difficulty (also well-traversed by historians) is that war-like actions belonged to a much larger and more complicated conflict. That conflict included the exercise of non-warlike violence, at untold numbers of times and places, including whipping and bashing, chaining and jailing, the taking of children, malnutrition and starvation, the rape and abduction of women, as well as poisoning, hunting parties and “dispersals” conducted under the radar. Then there was conduct precipitated by fear or threat of violence. “[I]t is not harshness that controls the outer barbarian,” wrote one of the more humane of the frontier’s policeman, “so much as thoughts of what the white man really can perform, should he decide to be severe, that makes the ignorant native much more amenable to discipline and common sense.” (Emphasis in the original.) Larger still was death and suffering that came not from direct violence or its threat but from the compounding effects of disease, dislocation, and sheer misery, all consequences of the European “presence,” some unintended, others (such as the grog, or “dispossession”) requiring European action or complicity. Tangled up in all these was a bundle of behaviours often characterised as “accommodation.” As Stanner observed, the Aboriginal people, far from being frozen in some unchanging culture, as has so often been alleged, have been changing themselves ever since Governor Phillip ran up the flag as fast as they can possibly go to accommodate themselves to the circumstances imposed upon them by our presence and actions. In sum, one peculiarity of the “wars” on the Australian frontier is their relatively subordinated role in determining the nature and consequences of a much larger conflict. War-like actions were part and precondition of the larger conflict, a percussion whose shockwaves spread in a slow, inexorable motion that continues still.

The limitations of our inherited language as a way of grasping this peculiar history appear in the course of single remark by one of the 7.30 Report’s participants, the soldier-turned-scholar, (retired Lieutenant-General) John Coates. Coates argued that one aspect of the frontier’s peculiar train of events is illuminated by the term “civil war.” “Really, you’ve got two groups of Australians who, in a sense, were involved in a low-scale civil war,” Coates said. And of course it is true that the “wars” were between two parties, the descendants of whom wish to be and are now regarded as Australians. But they weren’t, of course, when the events took place, a difficulty which Coates immediately tries to address: “I mean, we’d arrived in their country, and tried to brush them aside, and they didn’t want to be brushed.” In other words, no, it wasn’t a civil war, it was an invasion.

The problem revealed is that what happened was like many of the things named in language developed in other times and other places – an invasion, a war, a conquest, a settlement, a dispossession, an accommodation – but also unlike, and therefore something different from all of these. Bafflingly, it somehow contains all of them

“War” is an increasingly elastic term, but however used it tends to distract attention from the fact that “war-like” events were a relatively small, albeit crucial part of a long-running, widespread, violent conflict between peoples. In other words, what gets through the AWM’s narrow gate of precedent perhaps shouldn’t; and what gets left behind is much the larger part of the whole.

That larger whole includes (and here again we are in the historians’ debt) the sheer scale of events as well as their distinctiveness. The conflict that comprised the frontier and its aftermath dwarfs others in which we have been involved, certainly by comparison with any one of them, perhaps even taken in sum. It is true that conflict on other shores has caused 102,000 Australian deaths, probably three or four times the numbers killed in frontier “warfare.” But conflict within Australia resulted destruction of a kind widely experienced elsewhere (including in countries where we have fought), conflicts in which death, maiming and pain were often greater among civilians than among combatants, and which it has long pleased us to say that “we” have been “spared.” In our case a population of around 750,000 was reduced to something like one tenth of that number. Although much of this destruction of life was not intended or even recognised for what it was, it did flow from an unrelenting 180-year determination to have the entire continent. The consequences for those who survived were both appalling and enduring; even if all goes as well as we dare hope, they still have many generations to run.

From these peculiarities of our history, problems of commemoration arise, the first of which is the problem of “sides.” The Memorial’s founding spirit Charles Bean, to his credit, wanted the memorial to avoid nationalist triumphalism and the glorification of war. But for almost all concerned, including those who visit in their hundreds of thousands, the emotional core of the AWM is not in the big abstractions of loss, sacrifice, valour, or in reminders of the grim realities of war, but in our loss, sacrifice and valour. It is, in other words, about “us” and, therefore, not “them.” As the AWM itself puts it, “The Memorial forms the core of the nation’s tribute to the sacrifice and achievement of 102,000 Australian men and women who died serving their country...” That does not include the sacrifice and achievement of the millions who died fighting with us, still less of those who fought against us. Nor is there any ambiguity, at least not in the two great defining conflicts represented in the AWM, about who is “us” and who is “them,” or where lay “defeat” and “victory,” “right” and “wrong,” and, therefore, where entitlement to pride is to be found.

A defining characteristic of the frontier, however, is ambiguity in all of these respects. Leaving aside complexities arising from the fact that the conflict began before there was any such thing as an “Australian” or an “Aborigine,” the problem now is that in the course of the conflict “they” increasingly became both “Aboriginal” and “Australian” through reacting to and absorbing much of “us,” both biologically and culturally, and, to a vastly lesser extent, we became “Australian” in and through our relationship with “them.” But for most of that long, conflictual relationship we did not want “them” to be “us,” not until the 1950s in fact, and even then only on terms of total cultural capitulation. Moreover, per medium of the Howard two-step, “we” are now anxious to separate ourselves from those who, for other purposes, we like to regard as our exemplars and progenitors.

How to get the head around all that? And what to do with it? No wonder Bill Crews smelled a rat. His truculence, on this reading of things, stems from a sense that it’s not as cut and dried as the historians make out coupled with an inability to say why not. It is easy to underestimate sheer confusion as a source of unease and therefore unwillingness to try to find a way through intellectual and emotional thickets. These difficulties are compounded, of course, by the unpleasant fact that “our” conduct was so unbecoming. It was often, in fact, cowardly. Which is why an argument based on precedent, in both history and commemoration, cuts so little emotional ice.

That does not mean that Crews and those many for whom he speaks are right in wanting to keep the frontier “wars” or “skirmishes” out of the AWM. Nor does it mean that the historians are wrong to want them in. Both sides have appropriately strong feelings on the matter. The historians are better placed to turn their feelings into words, but by agreeing to argue on the narrow ground of precedent they come close to bowdlerising the rich and complex account of Australia’s story constructed over the past forty years, and, in doing that, have left problems of commemoration un-addressed. Crews and other defenders of the AWM’s status quo, on the other hand, seem to feel that they don’t need to bother with words at all. A disingenuous legalism is all that covers an abuse of power. If there is a way out of this stalemate it may include shifting the debate to different ground.

PART OF THE CASE for taking the “frontier wars” into the Memorial is that it has unrivalled and un-rivallable symbolic and emotional power. It was first in and is by far best dressed, and will remain so in any foreseeable future. To propose to include the events of the frontier in that place and all that it represents is of course to propose something for “us” and our feelings about “our” history. But to see it as only that, or even mainly that, is remarkably self-centred. The story is far more the story of Aboriginal Australians than it is of the rest of us. Most Australian lives are explicable without reference to the fact of Aboriginal Australians. The lives and circumstances of Aboriginal Australians, however, are incomprehensible without reference to the rest of us and our forebears.

To say that that experience has no place in our most sacred place of commemoration of loss, sacrifice and valour, that it belongs in some other and lesser place, while still wanting to count the Aboriginal people as “us,” as Australians, is, to use the palest possible language, putting things at a heavy discount. It would be better described as an hypocrisy arising from a refusal to acknowledge the reality of relations between two races in a single field of life, a denial of our history. But, far worse, it is a denial and an exclusion of an entire people, and of the experience that did so much to make them, and which we did so much to make. It is, in fact, to continue a history that we all like to say is behind us, including its quantum of cowardice. Is the case for the historians to put not that the “frontier wars” do fit but that they, and much else besides, should? That it is the AWM that needs to change to accommodate Australian realities, not the other way about? It is not the fault of Aboriginal Australians that these big realities come so late in knocking on the Memorial’s door. The most compelling appeal is not to the ways in which our history is like others but, precisely, the ways in which it is distinctive, and distinctively hard to understand and absorb. The appeal should be grounded not in precedent and existing conventions, but in uniqueness, moral courage and grace.

And the case for the custodians of the Memorial to accept is that it must take another step in its evolution, perhaps the largest and certainly the most difficult of the several embraced since the days when it was simply a memorial to the first world war, to recognise that the greatest of the violent conflicts between peoples in which we have been involved occurred here and not, as we have been accustomed to believe, overseas, in forms which, for reasons of complexity, self-interest and self-absorption, we have found difficult to see and to accept.

Of course there is much that the AWM cannot do. There can and should be many other places in our public history for the recognition and commemoration of that experience. But there is some work to be done that cannot be done elsewhere. One way of putting the case for including the events and consequences of the frontier in the AWM is that, whatever the difficulties, by virtue of the Memorial’s unique place in our national life, it is not possible to do otherwise.

THE STRUGGLE over the scope and meaning of the Australian War Memorial is significant as well as important, a gauge of our progress in acknowledging “the relations between two races in a single field of life.” Thus far that story has been fully comprehended only in the gut of Aboriginal people and in the elaborated discourse of historians and other scholars. The scholars’ blitzkrieg, driven by the rebellion of the Aboriginal people, by shock at the contents of the recovered story and by the Darwinian conditions of academic work, stormed to the astonishing victory of Mabo in only three decades. The great weakness of the scholarly apprehension of the story, however, is its inaccessibility and its excessively cerebral character, and its consequent inability to do much of the necessary emotional work. The historians, rightly, want public history to “catch up,” but public history necessarily moves only by agreement and, therefore, slowly. But that is also its great strength. Public history demands, and provides a way of doing, the hard work of hearts as well as heads.

How will this struggle between the two forms of knowing the past, and two groups of history’s guardians, play out? Whatever happens or doesn’t happen at the AWM will be both important and significant. One possibility is that, inch by inch, public history is getting there, doing the grunt work of changing our sense of ourselves. The other is that it’s not and won’t, that such incremental progress as has been made owes much to a generation of historians still fired by the experience of discovering the actual contents of the story, that we are, in other words, living off emotional capital accumulated in an era now drawing to a close. •

POSTSCRIPT: A week or so ago the Australian War Memorial unveiled a new statue to honour “the myriad and vital roles” played by animals in Australia’s armed forces. An AWM curator is quoted as saying that the “complex nature and history of the new memorial gives it greater meaning.”