I recall the first time I visited the memorial as a young boy and being overwhelmed by the solemnity; I felt like I was in a cathedral – a truly sacred place.
Anzac Day during my lifetime has been revived as a centrepiece of our national story. The ode For the Fallen and its incantation «lest we forget» has become a secular liturgy. Visiting the War Memorial or commemorating Anzac Day, acknowledging the sacrifice and service of Australians does not feel like glorifying war. It is central to national identity.
The world over, conflict forms the bedrock of national myth. Indeed, the very idea of the role of modern nation states emerged out of the end of the Thirty Years War of 17th century Europe and the Treaties of Westphalia.
There are those who would rather the money be spent acknowledging Indigenous Australia – I am all for that – but remember the War Memorial and Anzac Day speak to Indigenous traditions too.
On Anzac Day I can honour the service of my grandfather – a Wiradjuri man – a Rat of Tobruk – and his brother, who died on the fields of France in World War One. Aboriginal men who signed up to fight for our country even when it did not fully recognise their citizenship. I can think of my cousin a serving army officer and a veteran of the Iraq war.
Indeed, Anzac Day connects me to my fellow Australians in ways that our fraught Australia Day celebration of January 26, cannot.
Given this money is to be spent, let’s recognise the conflicts in our history that still largely go unspoken. Let’s think about how we can acknowledge the wars fought on our soil when courageous Indigenous patriots defended their lands from the British. The frontier wars are our story – all of us. They should form the story of Australia just like Gallipoli, Tobruk, El Alamein, Kokoda.
We still shy away from what the Australian anthropologist, Bill Stanner, called the «secret river of blood» consigned to the «locked cabinet of Australian history». It need not be this way. This does not need to be a «black armband» litany of horror, but a truth telling that sets us all free.
Wars were fought here and my family was indelibly shaped by them. In the 1820s the Wiradjuri confronted the British settlers – in their eyes no doubt invaders – on the open plains west of the Blue Mountains. The battle of Bathurst was described at the time in the Sydney Gazette as an «exterminating war».
After several years the Wiradjuri survivors trekked over the mountains to sit with the governor at a feast in Parramatta and talked peace. This should not go untold. It must not be about clinging to vengeance and resentment but acknowledging a shared history that could – told honestly and well — bring us closer together, just as the story of Gallipoli has fostered friendship between Turkey and Australia.
I had ancestors who fought the British in Bathurst and a hundred years later their descendants, Wiradjuri men, signed up to fight alongside the sons of settlers as Australians. What a profound story of reconciliation.
It is a sign of the ideological identity-driven politics of our time that there are those who support the War Memorial renovation and embrace our military history as defining the Australian identity but won’t recognise the frontier conflicts of our own country and there are those who rail against the Memorial and Anzac Day as valorising war, yet argue passionately to commemorate Aboriginal sacrifice.
Sadly, I don’t think it is in Brendan Nelson’s plan to spend any of the $500 million to include the fallen of the frontier wars in the memorial’s roll of honour and this week I have been reminded again just how far we are from telling the story of our nation: this «spiritual principle», this “thing of the soul».
Stan Grant is a professor of global affairs at Griffith University.