Culture and Life
by Rob Gowland
Visiting Canberra's War Memorial
Last week I was down in Canberra for a couple of days and paid a visit to the National War Memorial. It's been quite a few years since I last visited this combination of memorial and museum. It is a remarkable place — and "very" large. We could only spare three hours and it was not nearly long enough. War means death and desolation and the thousands of names of Australian war dead inscribed on the walls flanking the Pool of Remembrance indicate the magnitude of its impact on even a relatively isolated country like Australia. A multitude of red (paper) poppies have been inserted into the wall by visitors beside the names of relatives or friends who were killed, a graphic reminder of the grief and loss and blighted hopes that those deaths brought to so many families. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is located in the great domed hall at the end of the courtyard containing the Pool and is a very impressive example of memorial architecture. It combines the stained glass windows of the original WW1 memorial with tiled mosaics representing WW2. Although the artist who did the windows in the 1930s clearly accepted the official view of WW1 as a grim but heroic "war to end war", there is no sense of rejoicing in war here. There may be no overtly anti-war sentiment displayed, but the overwhelming sentiment is one of sacrifice and loss. The Unknown Soldier I sympathised with the young man — a student, he told me, working there two days a week — who had the irksome task of trying to keep visitors and especially their children from actually walking on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. They were, of course, unaware of its significance. The RSL may lay flowers on such tombs, but they do not try to educate young people as to the horror that they represent. The parents of the children running up and over the Tomb in Canberra were almost certainly ignorant of the fact that it was the grave of a young man of 19 or 20, who had been conned into volunteering for what he believed would be a great adventure, saving civilisation from the Hun. Instead, he was blown apart by artillery in the Dardanelles or machine- gunned to bits while tangled in barbed wire in the mud of Flanders, his body unrecognisable when eventually recovered. He was a dupe, the victim of an imperialist war fought for no loftier goal than the control of markets. Could any death be more inglorious or deserving of sympathy? Such a view of WW1 is not the one displayed in the museum part of the War Memorial. I heard a guide telling high-school students that Britain entered the First World War to defend the neutrality of Belgium which Germany had invaded and similar long-discredited furphies. We had time only to look over the exhibits dealing with the two world wars, so we did not get to see the overtly anti-Communist displays dealing with Korea, Vietnam, Borneo, Malaya etc. But a certain bias was evident everywhere. Racism and anti-Sovietism The racist captions to some of the exhibits dealing with WW1 in Mesopotamia ("the Arab never discards a weapon, no matter how old" and "a favourite weapon of Abdul") should be removed and updated to a more sensitive form for today. But it was the anti-Soviet bias that permeates much of the WW2 display that I found interesting — and objectionable. A glass case contains life-sized models dressed in the uniforms of the various belligerent armies, including a German soldier and a Soviet soldier. The caption for the Nazi soldier described them as "fighting with fierce patriotism to defend their country" and similar stuff. There was no mention of the way they were inculcated with a hatred and contempt for other peoples and encouraged to act with indescribable bestiality towards people they regarded as racially "inferior". Nazi atrocities as far as I could see were not part of the exhibits at all: their weapons, their uniforms but not their defining characteristic. While ideology was noticeably absent from the caption for the Nazi soldier, the caption to the Soviet soldier informed us that the Red Army's troops fought "mainly from a sense of Russian patriotism and not from any belief in Communism". While the anti-fascist nature of the WW2 alliance barely rates a mention, the military history on display is flawed by similar bias. In a room devoted to 1942, "Year of Crisis", there was an illuminated world map on which the various critical actions of the year flared up in chronological order, giving a good idea of the global spread of the war and the number of theatres involved. However, while every battle or incident in the west, every cross Channel raid, is displayed, the theatre in which by far the largest armies were involved and in which the decisive struggle was taking place, the Eastern front, was indicated by only one flash on the map: Stalingrad, half way through the year. Apparently nothing else of any significance happened on the whole 2000-mile Soviet front in the whole of 1942, not at Voronezh; not in the Caucasus not at Leningrad. In November of 1942, the great Soviet counter attack at Stalingrad began, the turning point of the war. But the "crisis" map had already noted Stalingrad and rates no further mention. Sadly, the War Memorial reflects the prevailing historical revisionism: the war on the Eastern front was not only not decisive, it barely existed. Next time you are in Canberra, check out the War Memorial. For various reasons it makes an interesting visit.