Australian War Memorial: from keeper of the flame to hider of shame?

by | Sep 16, 2020 | Comment Analysis, Government

The big brand theme park that is the Australian War Memorial, bankrolled by international arms manufacturers, is an object lesson in dishonesty, writes William De Maria.

Conceived during World War I amidst the mustard gas, the dead soldiers, and rotting horses on the wet battlefields of Pozières, France, the Australian War Memorial was to be the keeper of the flame, a reverential, reflective space where we could remember and honour fallen Australians.

But it has now morphed into a war advertisement, a loud celebration of successful belligerence.  How did we get to a situation where we cannot let people make up their own mind about the concept of war but have decided they need help via the big dollar donations from the manufacturers of war machines?

Next time you are at the Australian War Memorial check out BAE Systems Theatre, a swank conferencing facility. Getting a corporate name plate inside the Memorial is a major achievement for the merchants of war machines. But does the Memorial include any explanation of BAE’s bribery scandals? That in February 2010 BAE reached settlements with the US Justice Department and the UK Serious Fraud Office concerning long-standing bribery charges. The company agreed to pay $400 million in the US and £30 million in Britain to resolve the cases.

Weapons of Influence: BAE arms boss turns Premier’s right-hand man

Then there is the permanent exposition that started in August 2013 Afghanistan: The Australian Story. Boeing Defence Australia, a corporate partner of the Memorial since 2011, covered a lot of the costs associated with mounting the display. It provided $500,000 and threw in a ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicle. Boeing told me it “remains a proud supporter of the Australian War Memorial”.

Yet since 2000 Boeing’s parent company has had to pay US$1.3 billion in penalties, the vast majority of which were for government contracting violations.

Boeing is also a major defence contractor to the Australian Government. Its Chinook CH47D twin blade helicopter, for instance, was a work horse in Afghanistan. Did no one on the Memorial Council in 2012-2013 recognise the troubling irony of an armaments’ maker bankrolling a war exhibition?

“Doing it Tough”: Defence spending spin belies deluge of dollars for multinational contractors

Then there is the Memorial’s unapologetic distortion of our military history. There is no critical examination of the pointlessness of so many aggressive engagements Australia has been involved in and of the shameful things done by Australian soldiers on the battlefield.

Consider the historical distortions in the Afghanistan War Exhibition, which go well beyond how museums and memorials in the other Coalition allies portray their presence in that war.

The US Veterans History Museum starts its exhibition with these words: “The United States has been stuck in an unwinnable quagmire in Afghanistan for years.”

Then there’s this contemplation of the British intervention from the National Army Museum in Chelsea:

“The war in Afghanistan spanned the tenures of three prime ministers and cost the lives of 453 British service personnel and thousands of Afghans. What was accomplished after 13 years of conflict, which included eight years of heavy fighting in Helmand, still remains open to debate.” (my emphasis added).

At the peak of the British input to the Afghanistan War, there were 137 UK bases and about 9,500 British troops in Helmand Province alone. At the height of the fighting, more than 600 flights a day used Camp Bastion’s 3.5-kilometre runway.

Similarly, the Danish War Museum’s exhibition A Distant War – A Danish Soldier in Afghanistan, avoids the Rambo script in favour of showing visitors a young Danish soldier’s journey from the safety of his childhood bedroom to distant Afghanistan, through Camp Bastion, the Green Zone and Gereshk then home via Tune Airport. And this one was mounted without jiggling the donation tin in front of arms dealers.

This level of honesty is unimaginable at the Australian War Memorial. A visit to its Afghanistan exhibition is like a trip to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang, North Korea, where the curators leave nothing to chance that a different perspective could emerge.

Morally contaminated relationships

Making all this worse is the Memorial’s morally contaminated relationships with arms dealers. Under the watch of Brendan Nelson as director, in addition to the Boeing and BAE Systems tie-ups, the AWM also began commercial arrangements with Lockheed Martin.

As director, Nelson also took a job advising Thales, the French arms manufacturer, for which he was paid a fee that he said he donated to the AWM. Documents obtained by the Guardian show the Thales job prompted concern within the Memorial. In any other statutory authority the conflict of interest provision in the Public Sector Code of Conduct would block such an appointment.

‘No limits to what Coalition will do to hide embarrassing information’

Upon his retirement as director, Nelson was appointed president of Boeing Australia, New Zealand and South Pacific. Nelson is obviously experienced and talented. Were these the only abilities that proved attractive to Boeing? Nelson was defence minister for two years, leader of the Liberal Party, and had ambassadorial gigs in Belgium, Luxembourg, the European Union and NATO until 2012. Could his appointment have anything to do with his impeccable political connections and defence contracting knowledge?

The 20th anniversary of the Howard government’s decision to commit our special forces to the invasion of Afghanistan is almost upon us. Vicious abuses of human rights and callous and premeditated killing of unarmed Afghani civilians happened in the 12 years our forces were there.

We know this because of military whistleblowers, intrepid journalists, investigations by the Afghanistan Human Rights Commission and the cluster bomb evidence that Mr Justice Brereton will soon detonate to end his four-year investigation. While the Army is expected to take a reputational hit when more facts dribble out, Army media have been war-gaming public messaging options since last October.

The Brereton Report is tightly held by Army command and the highest levels of government. Into this highly improper information blackout, the Australian War Memorial will be there to tell us how to think about the Afghanistan War.

Charles Bean’s dream of collecting in one place the records of Australians at war came true when the Australian War Memorial opened in Canberra on 11 November 1941. With world-class curation (and lots of dollars) the memorial honours the valour of Australian men and women who have fought for our country.

Now the arms sellers, the new money changers, are in the Temple and the old war glorification agenda is resurgent. The Australian War Memorial is mutating from the keeper of the flame to the hider of the shame.


William De Maria

William De Maria

William De Maria’s latest book "Trouble in the Land of Giving. Australian Charities, Fraud & the State" was published by Palaver Books in January 2020. It is in contention for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for non-fiction.


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    Scarcely the “truth and democracy” diggers fought and died for. Go to Berlin, you see the Holocaust Memorial. At AWM, the Frontier Wars never happened, black troopers were never mobilised against their own people.

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    Great article, William. More on these issues at campaign vs the current plan to spend $498m to expand the Memorial with lots of space for weapons of war; use our Search Engine with headings like ‘gunrunners’, ‘arms’ and ‘donors’. David Stephens, Editor, Honest History

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    BAE, Boeing, Lockhead Martin, Thales. They’re as Aussie as Speedos, Arnotts, and Ugg Boots and keeping the Aussie ethos alive of “everybody help yourself”! When those ANZACs came back from Gallipoli, they got slaughtered on returns for investments…
    NB: some lyrics taken from The Phillip Ruddick Blues by TISM.

  4. Avatar

    The AWM must sooner than later recognise the Frontier Wars. Here’s a (one hour) primer on how it can be done.

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    Yeah, don’t worry, we can buy all the arms we need off China, to defend ourselves against the new aggressor in the South Pacific, in fact Bunnings will probably chuck in a free hand grenade (pun there) with every Cheapo Chinese BBQ they sell.
    We need not buy our arms from the decadent Western Democracies.

    • Avatar

      How many countries has China bombed into oblivion over the past 100 years. How many foreign forces have occupied US or Australia over the same period.

  6. Avatar

    Was it ex-POTUS GWBush’s grandfather who was doing illegal deals with Nazi companies during WWII – and then lo and behold didn’t he and his paw enjoy rolling into Baghdad in Desert Storm 1 & 2 – shock and awe – to US taxpayers DoD spending thanks to Haliburton and Cheney …

    where there’s big money there’s big corruption – military equipment contracts are some of the biggest around so yeah – anyone need a slightly effective submarine ? – you can’t hear it – unless you listen …

  7. Avatar

    That is a great piece William.
    Just in case any readers aren’t aware, the AWM is about to get a $500M makeover – Brendan Nelson’s great legacy (to himself). Anzac Hall, the winner of the 2005 Sir Zelman Cowen Award for Public Architecture, will be destroyed. And a mega-display area will be built for all those war-toys, with sponsorship from the arms manufacturers excoriated by William.

    The plan has been condemned by the Medical Association for Prevention of War; the Australian Institute of Architects; returned service personnel and partners of some who did not return; former AWM directors and official historians; former military leaders; and a bevy of former senior public servants. All it seems to no avail.

  8. Avatar

    Its funny, there’s no “Down vote” option. Every other option leaves a rather ambiguous reply to what I would like to impart. To me this rings of another far left leaning university lecturer, trying to drum up book sales whilst casting dispersion on an institute that pays tribute to those who gave us the freedoms we enjoy today. ie: Free speech. Funny that, oh the irony.

    • Avatar

      One casts aspersions, not dispersion

      • Avatar

        Thank you for the correction.

  9. Avatar

    it is a while since I visited the Museum, which holds a very special place in the hearts of most Australians. This article has been very disturbing and thought provoking.

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    The rich ALLWAYS make money from war, before, during and after. Industrialized murder is a big money winner and even after the last shots are fired people make money glorifying mans greatest obscenity in museums that get lots of handouts from the government (recruiting) and from the industrialists. Yes there is a place for all historical items but the utter woe from people who had to go through a war can never be on display.

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    Set up a separate military museum away from the AWM. Remove the war promotions

  12. Avatar

    Yes it is a mixed blessing but isn’t the real issue the end product . Corporate names can ultimately become meaningless e.g holden.TAA

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    Well yes, there is a glaring conflict of interest. A visit to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute website ( reveals logos for Thales & the rest. Arms manufacturers fund ASPI & our government does too… they pay ASPI to provide ‘expert’ advice they want to hear. It is a cosy arrangement for all concerned, including those well paid consultants.
    The fact that young Australians pay with their lives, their physical & mental health, or that taxpayers are suckered by main stream media – complicit in this narrative by other means – matters not. Of course AWM is now a war advertisement. Australia is on course for war, as always with its ‘ally’.
    Our is not to reason why; ours is but to pay & do & die.

  14. Avatar

    Indeed, Charles Bean was scrupulous enough, and brave enough, to include in his WW1 history an episode where Australian soldiers wantonly killed a large number of German soldiers who were trying to surrender. This happened despite the best efforts of officers on the spot trying to put a stop to this. One can’t imagine the same sort of searing honesty being made public nowadays. A lot of my friends served thier country in South Vietnam and none glory in the memory, but remember they do. The memorial should be a place of reflection and sombre contemplation. My father’s generation, who fought in WW2, would be aghast at the crass commercialisation described in this excellent article.

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