Dr. Brendan Nelson, Director of the Australian War Memorial
Mat: Hello everyone. Welcome to Living History and the next of a special series of episodes I’m doing from the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and joining me is a very special interviewee. It’s the director of the War Memorial, Dr. Brendan Nelson. Dr. Nelson, thank you very much for joining us on the podcast.
Dr. Nelson: My great pleasure, Mat. Thank you.
Mat: I should start off by saying the last time I saw you was at the start of the month at Cowra for the 75th anniversary of the Cowra breakout. Didn’t they do a wonderful job down there commemorating that event?
Dr. Nelson: Australians can be very proud of what the people of Cowra have done. from in fact the day after the breakout to today they’ve led the way in really helping us as a nation come to terms with the impact particularly of the war with Japan had upon us, and in leading reconciliation following the war. it was led by those men and they were men of the local RSL, so to go there 75 years after the event and see what’s been achieved, and it’s had a rippling impact right across Australia and of course into Japan itself, so bloody proud of them actually.
Mat: Yeah, I agree. I grew up in West Wyalong just down the road from Cowra so I’ve been visiting that site for a long time and to me Cowra is a great example of how memory and remembrance and commemoration isn’t just something that belongs in the past because it’s such an evolving story in Cowra that continues from the Second World War onwards to today and well into the future. It’s a really great example of the importance of commemoration, isn’t it?
Dr. Nelson: Well it is, and it also illustrates that this history and how we approach that history, how we memorialize it and remember it actually has a lot more to do with the future than it does the past, and so to see what has happened in Cowra and continues to do so is extraordinarily important, and of course here at the Australian War Memorial we have 2 Australian George Cross recipients commemorated as we do the story of what happened in Cowra, the breakout and then what subsequently was done to build our relationships with the Japan that is vastly different from the one we were fighting during in the 1940s.
Mat: I first met you several years ago when you were the Australian Ambassador for the European Union based in Brussels, and as I understand speaking to you then, you had the opportunity to visit Flanders quite often and particularly the town of Ypres and listeners would know that Ypres is the focal point for commemoration of the ghastly First World War battles that occurred in that area, and the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing and the Last Post that they play every day. How was it for you in this very important role as a representative of Australia? How was it for you visiting those battlefields walking that ground, attending that Last Post service at the Menin Gate?
Dr. Nelson: I did many things on behalf of Australia as our ambassador of the European Union and NATO and I met Heads of State, Presidents. I constantly engaged those key institutions on behalf of our nation but it was the time I spent in the cemeteries in Flanders in Belgium and at the Menin Gate that were the most meaningful to me of all the things I did. On my last night in Brussels as the Ambassador, my wife and I went to the Menin gate again and we were just waiting for the ceremony to begin and Benoit Mottrie, who’s the president of the Last Post Association that delivers the daily Last Post ceremony. he leaned over and he said, ‘Ambassador, this is your 74th visit and I said Benoit, you’ve been counting them, and he said ‘well, we weren’t at first but we noticed you were coming more often than anyone we’ve ever seen’ and I said ‘mate, if it was in Brussels instead of Ypres, I would come every night’ and it was remarkably special and I had some of the most immensely rewarding experiences of my life at that Menin gate.
I remember one afternoon my EA came in and said I’ve got a phone call from a school teacher from Goondiwindi High School and I said really and she said yeah and they’ve got a group of kids from Goondiwindi at Menin Gate tonight and they want to know if you’re going and I said, don’t they realize it’s an hour-and-a-half drive and I said I’ve got a diplomatic dinner on tonight and I said please tell them apologies, but I won’t be there. So about half an hour later I said ‘Look Gayle. Ring them back. Pull me out of this diplomatic thing. I’ll go down to the Menin Gate and there were six girls from Goondiwindi who actually had a relative on the Menin Gate of the 15 kids from the high school that were at the visit, and all six recited the ode in unison and these kids, like all of the Australian kids that I encountered at the Menin Gate, they had an excited sense of reverence about being in the Menin Gate. That meant so much to them, so yeah, immensely rewarding.
Mat: For those who don’t know, at the Menin Gate, they play the Last Post every night to commemorate the more than 50,000 soldiers on that memorial including more than 6,000 Australians and I haven’t been to 74 of them as you have, but I’ve been to a number of ….
Dr. Nelson: Well, I’ve been to more now because I’ve been quite a few times since I left Brussels
Mat: Well, I haven’t been anywhere nearly as often as you but I’ve been to a number, many of the services, and the thing that strikes me is that they’re different every night. I don’t think I’ve been to two in a row that are similar and they just do a wonderful job. Did that experience and that emotional experience, an incredibly emotional experience of standing there so many times at the Menin Gate, did that change your outlook on commemoration, on the way that we should remember our soldiers from the First World War?
Dr. Nelson: I don’t know. I suspect it probably did. you don’t realize what you’re learning when you’re learning it in life, no matter how young or not so young you might be, and the most significant ideas and thoughts that have most challenged and transformed my own thinking and outlook have often come in random moments of quiet revelation when I didn’t really appreciate that I was learning anything. And I used to stand at Menin Gate waiting for the ceremony or during the ceremony and I would look across to the panels. I’d look up at the names and there’s one enormous panel on your left which has all Australian names, which then go up around the inside and back around the internal walls, and I used to look up at them and wonder why don’t they tell us something about one of those people and I had many experiences.
In fact, my wife and I went to the Menin Gate one New Years’ Eve. Rather than join the party scene with the diplomats, we thought we would go down the Menin Gate and there are only 20 people there. It was -8°, a beautiful still night and of those 20, 8 were Western Australians, and just very powerful impact and what’s also rewarding is you see the impact of the Menin Gate and the ceremony being conducted and the wreath laying and on the people that are there. Extremely emotional in so many ways and it’s really about an ennobled memory, and also the Menin Gate as does the Australian War Memorial, it prompts us to ask ourselves do we continue to be people that are worthy of the sacrifices that have been made for us?
Mat: You’ve been director of the Australian War Memorial now for seven years and you’re moving on at the end of this year. When you began, did you feel the weight of that legacy? We’re sitting here now looking out on the magnificent building first envisaged by Charles Bean. Did you feel the weight of that legacy of the importance, and how did you make your mark when you first began, given the weight of history and the attention that would be on every decision you made in this institution?
Dr. Nelson: Well, I found out quite by accident that the job was available and when I found out, the moment I found out, I applied for it and then came back to Australia from the interview, and I couldn’t believe my good fortune when I was advised that I was going to be appointed as the Director. I think in life you don’t know what you don’t know and so when I came here, I didn’t really know what to expect. I knew that it was a position of the immense responsibility, that this is a place where we don’t just tell the story of the Australian experience of war, but we reveal our character as a people. We reveal our soul and certainly firmly imprinted on my mind were those cemeteries that I had gone through in Flanders and in northern France, and in an earlier life to [unclear; 08:51] and other places throughout the world, and I was conscious of that but it wasn’t until I got here that I really appreciated the full responsibility of being the Director.
It’s interesting. before the public announcement was made, I confided in a small number of my friends I said I’m gonna run the Australian War Memorial. One of my friends said to me – he said “What? You’re going to run the Australian War Memorial?” He said, “You’re wasting your life”. He said “you’ve got far more important things to do for Australia than rearrange its history”, and I said to him “in part, it’s actually got a lot more to do with the future than the past”, and one of the things I had learned through my period as certainly being Minister of Defence and then through Opposition Leader and then as our ambassador to NATO and the EU is the world isn’t just changing. I actually think humankind is moving to a new age.
We are living through a period of immense transformation which is beyond our comprehension, a bit like people that lived in the late 15th century, and so I ask myself, well what’s most important for us in this and it is to never lose sight of who we are, in what we believe as Australians. What are those values that define and bind us as a people, truths by which we live? What are those things that are worth fighting to defend politically, diplomatically, and sometimes militarily, and they are encapsulated by this Australian War Memorial. Not the building, not the things that are displayed within it as important as they are. It’s the stories of the men and women and the values that are in and have been in these men and women that wear our uniform. That’s the kind of gravity of how I saw it.
Mat: Given that period of change that you feel we’re going through, how does an institution like the Australian War Memorial evolve and still be relevant in the future, given that it’s come so far from a homage to the men who fought in the First World War and a collection of interesting relics. It’s now become this focal point of remembrance in Australia. How does the War Memorial continue to evolve and to continue to stay relevant to a generation who are not touched by war in the same way that their ancestors were?
Dr. Nelson: We are in leadership in a civilian context. what differentiates leadership from management is vision and from the moment I arrived to this very day, I have constantly said to our staff and to wider audiences that we remain true to the vision of Charles Bean, the official First World War correspondent who your listeners especially would know, landed with the Australians at Gallipoli, stayed with them at the front through the entire war, was wounded three times, refused evacuation from Gallipoli to [unclear; 11:44] and to the Armistice. He was there at the very front and in 1948, having built the War Memorial he had conceived in 1916 and written the official history or edited the 12 volumes, he articulated the vision for this place – Here is their spirit in the heart of the land they loved and here we guard the record which they themselves made, and as I’ve said to people, it’s absolutely essential we remain true to Bean’s vision. That we don’t discard it but rather that is the bedrock upon which we build the future of this institution but we have to make the history live. It has to be engaging to and engaged by a new generation of Australians. It has to be an institution that evolves and continues to be a place where people find emotional resonance and meaning and a deeper understanding of what it means to be an Australian, and that means in a practical sense a whole range of things introducing technology. Technology, not for its own sake but technology which assists us to draw out and tell the stories of the men and women that are behind the objects that we display. We need to be an institution that doesn’t wait decades after wars have finished and the politics are washed out of them and every single soldier, sailor, airman or woman has come home before we tell a story. We have to tell the stories as soon as we practically can after those stories have been created by the service and sacrifice of Australian men and women. We have to and my very first week when I was told it would be at least a decade before we had an Afghanistan exhibition, I said well perhaps if the Memorial had told the story of the Vietnam War broadly and deeply sooner, then some of those men might not have suffered quite as much as they have.
This place as I discovered early on is a part of what I call the therapeutic milieu for men and women coming back to a country that has no idea what they’ve done. They can’t explain it their families, let alone the rest of Australia. we have a responsibility to tell those stories and to be a part of the healing process, helping young servicemen and women veterans, their families come to terms not just with what they have done, but the impact that it’s had upon them. Increasingly and belatedly, we’re drawing up the stories of indigenous service to Australia, not to put them above any other service man or woman but to ensure Australians understand that after everything they had endured through the 19th and early 20th century, they volunteered to serve, fight, suffer and die from the young country that had taken so much from them. So to also increasingly recognize that the wars that we fight and that we do in the modern age include not just uniformed service men and women, but federal police officers, non-government organisations, aid workers, diplomats, a whole range of people and to progressively introduce their storytelling into the Australian War Memorial.
So those and the other thing that’s particularly important is Charles Bean articulated the vision for the memorial a year after our very first peacekeeping operation. We’ve now done 64 of them. 40,000 Australians have gone off in our name for peacekeeping operations. their names, as a consequence of a policy change I drove in my first year, those who are killed are now on the Roll of Honor, but for so many of them there’s a sense of meaninglessness that what they did doesn’t count. Nobody knows, nobody cares as Kev Ryan said coming out of Namibia. I mean, how many Australians knew we were even in Namibia, let alone where it is. It’s as if, he said, we never existed. We never were. well what’s really important here is that Australians need to know that they were there, that what they did does count and it’s in their stories told and it’s proudly told at the Memorial, which is why the Government supported by the Opposition has invested five hundred million over a decade to create the spaces here to tell these stories.
Mat: That decision has not been without its critics. the criticism I’ve heard levelled is a rather broad one that perhaps less money should go on military history and more money should go into other areas, and also secondly that that’s not the role of the Australian War Memorial to help current service people deal with their service. How do you respond to that criticism?
Dr. Nelson: Firstly many of those critics are not people that you will bump into in the galleries of the Australian War Memorial. They have a fixed false narrative. They’re largely intellectuals, academics and retired public servants and fellow travellers. They have a fixed false narrative that the Australian War Memorial in some way glorifies war, and that it’s full of dusty artefacts and relics and that it’s for the dead. This place is very much for the living and increasingly with growing spaces will be for the living, and it’s not like any other cultural institution. Some of those people you’re alluding to for example say well the War Memorial should be like any other cultural institution. If you haven’t got enough space, take something out. So I say to them well there’s a reason why the Australian War Memorial is where it is, at the opposite end of Anzac parade from the Parliament. We have a man buried in the middle of the place, in the heart of it. Cloaking him are the names of 102,800 Australian men and women – dead – as a result of giving their lives to ensure that we are able to enjoy our political, economic, and religious freedoms. We are not about to remove the half of the First World War galleries, for example because the Centenary is gone and we want to put in an Iraq exhibition. That is not this place at all. Under no circumstances does any serious person countenance that we should do such a thing.
I also say, as many of your listeners would know, I have a medical background and I’m a patron of nine charities. One of them is Lifeline. Within two months of getting here, I realized the power of this place to heal, and what I discovered is immense emotional release of people here. We see it every day. Not just up in the Roll of Honor, but in the galleries, people breaking down. There is currently not a single place that you can take a person having an emotional breakdown in the Australian War Memorial. Not a single room, not a single place! There will be in the new galleries. I put all of our staff through the accidental counselling program that Lifeline runs which equips you with the skill to be able to help a person that’s being extraordinarily emotional in front of you.
Only a few weeks ago I’m walking past the Afghanistan “Welcome to Tirin Kut” sign and the blast walls which we’ve created which we invite veterans who’ve served in Afghanistan and Naval Ops in support to sign. I noticed a young man on one knee with his hand on the wall, very emotional. It’s in an access corridor by the way, so lots of staff a walking past just to get to the back of the building because we’ve run out of space, and so I stood back and I waited for him to compose himself and stand up and then I introduced myself. 25 year-old young bloke from Townsville, a six-hour ride and he was touching the name of a mate with whom he’d served who had subsequently taken his life. We get that every day. We have young servicemen and women and veterans coming in here out of hours, once the crowds are gone and the noise is gone. One who are damaged and one of the psychiatrists wrote to me and said, “I don’t know what you’ve done with my patient. I never thought I’d see him stand in front of that Afghanistan Exhibition and sign your wall. Thank you.” I mean, how do you put a value on this stuff?
So those who say that this is the Memorial has no role in the therapeutic journey of troubled veterans simply has no idea what they’re talking about. I mean, one of the photographs which your listeners can’t see but you can see in front of you Mat, behind my desk is a black-and-white photograph of nine men taken outside their camp at the Mena camp in Egypt in 1915, and they are members of the 10th battalion from South Australia and the man in the top left hand corner is a man called John Rutherford Gordon, so the 10th was in the second wave at the Gallipoli landing.
John Rutherford Gordon survived until October that year. Severe enteric fever, was repatriated back to Australia, he was so ill. He then re-enlisted, got into the Royal Flying Corps and then subsequently the Australian Flying Corps. Got a Military Cross as a rear gunner/observer, retrained as a pilot, survived the war. His nephew told me that he brought John Rutherford Gordon to the Australian War Memorial in 1972, and he said when we walked up the front steps, he got to the foyer and he suddenly broke down with immense emotion, and he said “all those young men gone. All gone! Their lives just gone! This is just so emotional for me to come in here.” It has always been a place of as I say, of emotional meaning and part of the healing of the young servicemen and women.
The other thing I’d say on the nuts and bolts of this by the way, not a cent of this money is coming out of the Veterans Affairs budget. Over the same period of time, the country our nation will spend 120 Billion on veterans. We will spend over 230 Billion buying equipment for our defence personnel. Over the last 20 years, this country has created 100,000 veterans by definition, all pretty young and their families. In that same period of time, we spent 22 Billion dollars sending them to wars, peacekeeping, humanitarian, disaster relief. We spent 400 Billion equipping them and now as a nation, we are going to spend 500 Million over a decade to create the space to tell the stories of what they’ve done in our name so we can understand it, and also so we can say to them we’re actually proud of what you did, as proud of what you did as we are of those young men who landed on the beaches of Gallipoli, struggled at Isurava or Kokoda, held the line at Capeon, or fought at Long Tan or Coral Balmoral. That’s what we’re doing.
Mat: Just finally, when it comes to your legacy at the Australian War Memorial, what are you most proud of – the initiatives you’ve created here, the changes you’ve made? In 20 years when people look back and they look at this institution, what are they going to remember Brendan Nelson for?
Dr. Nelson: Well look, that’s judgment for others to make, but I’d like to think that the two things that mean the most to me and when I say I’ve achieved this, it’s not me. it’s an entire team of people – our staff, our volunteers, the support of our council members and so on, but the two things that that really I’d like to think people would feel have been the right thing to do is significantly increase that commemorative role of the Australian War Memorial, the focus on what I describe as the ennoblement of memory that we play a role in in giving people, and the second thing is that these young servicemen and women today regard this place as being as much their spiritual home as earlier generations. you know, it hit me hardest most significantly a hundred days out from the Invictus Games and they were all here – these young men and women with their physical and/or psychological traumas, the families who love and support them, the sponsors. They wanted to be here at the Australian War Memorial. That means a great deal to me in terms of transformation and I think back to that young soldier in October 2012 when my appointment here had been announced and I was in Afghanistan with the Secretary- General of NATO and this young soldier says, “why is it I can go to the War Memorial and take my son. I can show him what his great-grandfather did, what his grandfather did, but why can’t I show him what I’m doing?”
Well seven years later, no young servicemen and women is going to ask that question and certainly seven or eight years from now when these expanded galleries are done and they see a major expansion, the peacekeeping story of course Iraq, Afghanistan, East Timor, Solomon Islands, northern Iraq, Syria, and the story of what we do to actually stop war in the first place also with a space for quiet emotional reflection, I think that will even speak more to what we’ve been able to do
Mat: Well Dr. Nelson, thank you. I think I speak for everyone when I say thank you for the work you’ve done over the last seven years, and thank you for taking this time to sit down with us and tell us some of those stories. It has been wonderful to have you on the program.
Dr. Nelson: My great pleasure, Mat and thank you to all your listeners.