The story of frontier warfare between settlers and First Nations people is one that the War Memorial should be telling, writes Professor Frank Bongiorno with Professor Michelle Arrow and Dr Carolyn Holbrook.

The recent media rounds of the new chair of the Australian War Memorial Council, Kim Beazley, appear to presage a major shift in the institution’s attitude to the frontier wars. Beazley explained it is “enormously important” that the current $550 million renovation of the war memorial provides significant coverage of violent conflict between settlers and Indigenous Australians. He elaborated: “We must give the Aboriginal population the dignity of resistance.”

Beazley’s attitude, which complements that of Veterans’ Affairs Minister Matt Keogh, signals that the Australian War Memorial is not impervious to the changed political landscape. Yet there remains resistance to Beazley’s vision on a war memorial council composed of Coalition government appointees and ex officio military officers, and among conservatives more generally.

The Australian War Memorial may change how it acknowledges the frontier wars . Photo: Boyd159/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

A constantly evolving memorial

Some of those who are resistant to coverage of the frontier wars assert the war memorial is hamstrung by its legislation, which restricts its remit to overseas wars or those fought by uniformed personnel. In truth, the Australian War Memorial Act 1980 contains a very broad definition of the institution’s role as “a national memorial to Australians who have died as a result of any war and warlike operations.”

In any case, over its history, the memorial has adapted to shifting political imperatives and social mores.

Charles Bean conceived the Australian War Memorial during the First World War. After serving as Australia’s official correspondent, he dedicated his life to sanctifying the Anzacs. Through his editorship of the 12-volume Official History of Australians in the War of 1914-1918, and his advocacy for a shrine that would also serve as a museum and archive, he did more than anyone to promote the belief that the Anzacs had made the nation.

Charles Bean working on the Official History of Australians in the War of 1914–1918. Photo: Australian War Memorial (Public Domain)

When the war memorial opened in 1941, it was already apparent that a new world war would need to be recognised. In 1952, during the Korean War, the memorial’s charter was altered so it could cover all wars in which Australia had been, or would be, involved.

The war memorial has changed so much since Bean first conceived it, that former director Brendan Nelson included a space for “emotional release” in the blueprint for the current expansion. Bean might have been puzzled by Nelson’s claim that the memorial should provide “a therapeutic milieu” for veterans.

A wealth of historical research to draw from

Aside from claiming that frontier violence sits outside the memorial’s governing legislation, opponents routinely deride the issue as a “woke” preoccupation.

They might be surprised to learn it was the conservative historian Geoffrey Blainey who suggested more than 40 years ago that what he termed “irregular warfare” between Indigenous and settler Australians be depicted in the memorial.

While the Australian War Memorial dissembled, historical research consolidated the claim that there had indeed been a violent and sustained conflict on the frontier that should be understood as warfare.

Jeffrey Grey’s A Military History of Australia, first published in 1990, left readers in no doubt on this score. A chapter titled “The Military and the Frontier, 1788-1901” explored such things as doctrine, technology, tactics and morale in seeking to understand how the war was “fought and why the outcome was so decisive”.

Grey’s argument received powerful confirmation in the more detailed research of historians John Connor and Stephen Gapps for the period before 1838.

A large body of writing on frontier violence across Australia, including Ray Kerkhove’s recently published How they Fought, has disclosed the use of military-style forces and tactics to suppress Indigenous resistance.

Significant research such as the University of Newcastle’s massacre mapping project, Colonial Frontier Massacres, Australia, 1788 to 1930, and the recent television series The Australian Wars, likely contributed to an environment in which the war memorial felt it needed to gesture towards the demand for recognition.

How to properly capture the gravity of the tragedy?

The war memorial’s plans at present seem rather modest. As David Stephens, Peter Stanley and Noel Turnbull of the Honest History group have pointed out, the current plan is for the addition of a small amount of space to the Colonial Conflicts (Soldiers of the Queen) gallery, from 385 to 408 square metres. They rightly argue that such an approach is unsatisfactory given the importance of the frontier wars in Australia’s history.

According to the director, this will be renamed the Pre-1914 Galleries – a choice that ignores the killing of First Nations people in northern Australia well into the 1920s. The war memorial is still apparently committed to the idea that the frontier wars, if they are to be acknowledged as wars at all, were some kind of distant and unrelated prehistory to Anzac.

There is a need for serious research, reflection and discussion on how to create a gallery worthy of the gravity and tragedy of the frontier wars.

How, for instance, will native mounted police – Indigenous men recruited to use violence to overcome resistance by other Indigenous people – be represented?

How will settler deaths be framed? How will the war memorial deal with those old settler family names that figure in the context of frontier warfare – names that will sometimes also appear in the present Roll of Honour?

The Australian War Memorial is a morally charged national space that promotes a powerful national origin story. National character finds its purest expression in Anzac, we are told.

The story of frontier warfare is another powerful – and arguably alternative – foundation story. It tells us Australia was built on invasion, dispossession and violence, and that the nation can only ever approach authenticity and wholeness once it gives a proper recognition to this reality.

As we prepare to head to a referendum later this year to vote on the proposal for an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, it is worth remembering that the Voice is the proposed first stage in a three-step process: Voice, Treaty, Truth.

For the Australian War Memorial to include meaningful exhibits about the wars that were fought on this land would be a powerful act of truth-telling in service of the nation.

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