Every time we drive past the Australian War Memorial, the kids plead, ‘Can we go there?’ Our six-year-old is fascinated by the hulking decommissioned weaponry. ‘Was that a tank? Woah, is that part of a ship?’ In the rear-view mirror I see three golden-haired boys in their booster seats craning their necks as we continue to Mt Ainslie.
We resist taking them. They seem too enthusiastic. In their play, they display fervour for weapons, destruction and killing bad guys. They style themselves as Jedi, ninjas and Power Rangers. I don’t want them to enter the memorial with the wrong impression about its purpose. These aren’t times to be casual about violence.
One of their close friends is Japanese. The boys came home from school asking, ‘Dad, why is North Korea firing missiles over Japan?’ The Trump presidency and tensions on the Korean Peninsula have become hot topics of conversation at primary school. A sense of unease shades the playground. Even our four-year-old integrates the chatter, ending his imaginary play with superhero and dinosaur figures in a decisive ‘Hulk nuclear blast’. I grew up in the post–Cold War 1990s. I never imagined I’d be talking with my kids about the prospect of nuclear strikes.
Our boys are eight, six and four. What’s the right age for the memorial? My father took me when I was about six but he had prepared me in some way for its gravity. Our Saturday mornings at the park in Dubbo had eased into a regular pattern: dad would sit on the slat bench with its flaking green paint while I slid down the slippery-dip, we’d wander over to the Victorian-style glasshouse and peer in at the exotic plants, throw a few coins in the wishing well, feed the ducks at the pond and occasionally be dazzled by a peacock in full display. Blue sky, a dusty breeze, fresh mown grass and bees in the clover. We would end our visit by circling around the cenotaph. I’d run my fingers across its trachyte base and squint at the stone laurel wreath at the top of the obelisk. At the centre were brass sculptures depicting the Light Horse and artillery units in action.
Entombed in the cenotaph were the Books of Remembrance with names of the fallen from Dubbo. ‘All those names,’ dad would say. ‘But millions died. Can you imagine that?’
On our drive to Canberra, dad told me about his father who fought in the First World War. ‘Just one bullet and we wouldn’t be here.’ Dad didn’t talk about imperialism or nationalism or motivations, but he spoke gravely and simply, encouraging curiosity, not just reverence. He pointed to a helmet with a hole in it and said, ‘Imagine what that would do to your skull.’ No explanation, but no glorification or sentimentality.
Since I visited as a child, the memorial has built a ‘Discovery Zone’ in which children can dress up in military uniforms and play war games. Kids can climb into a UH-1H Iroquois helicopter, or ‘Huey’, and imagine transporting troops or using M60s to gun down Vietnamese people. I think there’s no way I can re-create the sombre experience I had with my father.
I seek advice from Professor Peter Stanley, the distinguished military historian and former principal historian of the memorial. He’s ambivalent but says there is no way of completely protecting my kids from militarism. As a parent himself, he suggests, ‘Go and see the memorial while they’re young enough to take your views seriously—if you wait until they’re 14 you won’t have any influence over them.’ My partner and I decide to take them.
• • •
The morning we’re due to visit the memorial I ask the boys to sit on the couch. I explain our four-year-old’s middle name honours his great-uncle Alexander, who was homeward bound at the end of the war when his plane crashed into the ocean. I tell them about my dad’s father, who departed Sydney at 18 years old weighing only 59 kilograms, for Gallipoli and France. I never met him but dad said he was withdrawn and suffered from anxiety and depression.
I turn on the TV and show them YouTube videos of interviews with veterans who are in tears as they recall the men and women who died, the people they killed, and the trauma of living with those memories. Our boisterous kids fall silent. I tell them the memorial is a place to remember people who died, to remember the consequences of war, and for ensuring we do everything we can to prevent it happening. ‘Okay,’ they nod, in unison.
At the memorial we go straight to the cloisters above the Commemorative Courtyard with their red poppies like so many wounds. We point out their great-uncle Arthur’s name on the Honour Roll but the boys aren’t impressed and are more interested in the coins tossed into the Pool of Reflection and the flame burning at its northern end.
The boys stop at a digital display in the First World War Galleries. Our eldest two begin reading the text but the youngest one nudges the other two to get a better look. He starts pushing. Our six-year-old turns to me with an indignant look and I need to intervene.
A couple is watching the boys, beaming, displaying that look some parents have when they’re nostalgic for the times their kids were little but have blocked out memories of broken sleep and impossible reasoning.
‘He’s a fighter!’ says the man, pointing at our four-year-old.
‘He’s trouble,’ I say, frustrated.
‘It’s good, I like him!’ he replies, and shapes up to him.
Great. A fighter is the opposite of what I’m trying to achieve. The comment confirms my suspicion that this place is about venerating militarism.
Our six-year-old pauses at a glass-topped case, points to a metal object, and asks what it is. I tell him it’s a bullet.
‘That is?’ he says. ‘It’s tiny.’
Peter Stanley had mentioned to me that some of his colleagues believe the war memorial is too sanitised. I decide I need to describe the internal trauma a bullet wound causes. I can tell him the causes and politics of war but I don’t know much about ballistics. I fear providing an answer like the father in the advertisement with the Great Wall of China and rabbits. I remember a documentary I’d seen years ago and I tell him how the bullet can break up as it penetrates the body, it can deflect off bones, and how the energy of fast-travelling bullets is transferred to the surrounding tissue, which has the effect of making the wound tunnel much bigger than the bullet itself. I say this while pressing his arm, ribs and torso. He nods, his brown eyes wide.
The boys stop to gaze at the dioramas. These depictions of trench warfare are simple glued and painted models. I’m glad the memorial retained them as historic artefacts. I can tell the boys that the dioramas were created to provide a pre-television audience with a tangible visual overview of battle. They depict the contrast between what was promised—a fast, fair and glorious masculine venture—with the reality of indiscriminate mechanised mass killing, stalemate, squalor and fear.
I think maybe here I can segue into the reasons why the men were there. In April our six-year-old repeated lessons from school about how the Anzacs fought for our freedom, as if the crumbling Ottoman Empire and the beleaguered Germans had intentions to sweep through Asia and the Pacific down to Australia. I’m standing there in the galleries trying keep watch over the boys and I’m wondering if this is the right time to tell them that imperial Britain asked us to assist imperial Russia, a regime with no interest in freedom, and in the words of Jeff Sparrow, ‘one the most repressive’ in history. We entered Russia’s war against the Ottoman Empire, the culmination of a centuries-long religious and nationalist conflict that saw atrocities on both sides, including the massacre and forced migration of millions of Muslims, while the Turks had begun driving Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians on death marches into the Syrian desert.
While I’m contemplating this the boys have disappeared in different directions.
‘Wasn’t he with you?’ my partner asks, referring to our four-year-old.
We find him, and the eldest, and after some frantic searching through the maze of galleries we find our six-year-old in tears. We arrive at the bridge of a battleship, I’m too distracted keeping an eye on the four-year-old to talk to the other two. I hear them laughing over some sort of game they’re playing. I separate them.
‘Read this,’ I say to our eight-year-old, and point to a panel.
‘Dad, what does decapitated mean?’
He knows what it means, but it’s his way of asking for an explanation. Why would a captured man, disarmed, and no longer a threat, be decapitated on the beach?
‘Do bad guys start wars?’ he asks. ‘Is the man from Korea bad?’
‘It depends,’ I say. ‘The Nazi Party in Germany were definitely bad guys. For World War I, though, it’s not so clear.’
I try to explain alliances between imperial powers, the new idea of the ‘nation’, and how every belligerent thought they could take advantage of the situation for their own gain.
‘What’s imperialism?’ he asks.
All my commitment to complexity and nuance goes out the window. ‘Greed,’ I reply.
I’m getting uncomfortable and I’m stressed about where the other two are and how I can’t control their experience of the memorial. I talk about the colonisation of different lands and ports. ‘Greed and a belief that you are superior to everyone else.’
Our youngest runs off somewhere again and we need to follow. I’m relieved. I’m afraid of where the questions are heading and that I don’t know how to answer except with more isms, which are just euphemisms for the darkest of human motivations. I’m too gutless. Inevitably, he’ll ask what I can’t answer—why do people treat each other this way, why do people kill.
In the Anzac Hall the boys are transfixed by a projected film loop portraying an aerial dogfight. The noise is overwhelming and there’s no way to talk to them or gain their attention. They want to get an ice cream from the café and head to the Discovery Zone. I feel that the purpose of the visit is slipping away.
It matters because I want them to help build a better future than the one that is unfolding. The world is taking a militaristic turn and Australia is among the vanguard. We are one of the world’s top arms importers. Our government boasts of undertaking ‘the largest defence procurement program in Australia’s history’. The militaristic agenda has blurred with our domestic administration. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection recently spent more than $200,000 on weapons, including 1282 pistols, 103 shotguns and 45 machine guns: public servants wielding firearms and trained in the use of force. Politicians pose on naval ships in our northern waters, they send officers to check identity cards on the streets, store our communications and web browsing, and order reinforced cars and a fence to ring Parliament House. We’re creating a punitive culture with black-and-white, forceful solutions to complex social problems. Even health and welfare are reframed in these terms as we drug-test some classes of people receiving government assistance.
Our response to the risk of terrorism is so out of proportion that if the narrative switches to a threat from a state actor, it’ll come easy, we’ll have geared for it, we’ll be ready. We will have lived in a perpetual sense of estrangement for so long, things will suddenly make more sense, because nothing had conformed to reality until this moment.
I reckon I have a duty to equip our boys to see outside this culture and resist it. I have a special responsibility as a parent of boys. In the late 1930s Virginia Woolf was exasperated and disillusioned with European militarism, writing that men find ‘some glory, some necessity, some satisfaction in fighting which we have never felt or enjoyed’. More crudely, Benito Mussolini made the case for essentialism, declaring, ‘War is to man what motherhood is to a woman.’ Whether true or not, this is the story we tell ourselves, and to our boys, and it’s the narrative that leads us to excuse their behaviour.
• • •
My partner and I wipe the smears of ice cream from the boys’ faces and head down to the Discovery Zone. I’m pleased to find it closed for the day. Staff direct us back up the stairs and my head is awash with worry and answers to the boys’ questions and the sounds of the shuffling crowds.
‘Look,’ says out six-year-old, pointing to a display containing life-sized uniforms that are filled out but lack manikins, appearing to float. ‘Their heads have been cut off!’
He’s doesn’t seem shocked but instead energised by the wonder of it. I’m out of my depth, they’re making interpretations and responses I could never have anticipated. They are too complex to teach, and I’m not a skilled teacher. I’m failing as a parent.
We head back to the cloisters for the last post ceremony. It’s good to be outside but I don’t know if the boys will have the patience. Our eight-year-old peers through the arches and reads the names etched into the walls of the Commemorative Courtyard. Borneo, Bougainville, Philippines, Papua New Guinea.
‘We’ve sure fought in a lot of places,’ he says. ‘It says “Australia”, did Australians fight Australians?’
It must recognise Australian soldiers who served at home, including during the Japanese air raids on northern Australia.
I say, ‘Well, there were wars against Aboriginal people.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘The Europeans, the colonisers, they fought for decades against the Aboriginal people.’
‘What?’ says our six-year-old, astonished. ‘Why?’
He’s long been fascinated with Aboriginal culture. I tell the boys it’s complicated but the main reason was to take their land and water. His face turns pale. I assumed the preschool and school units dedicated to Aboriginal history would have mentioned it. I grew up in Dubbo, where it was hard to miss.
Bagpipes sound as people lay wreathes at the Pool of Reflection. The boys aren’t religious but they understand a ritual.
In uniform, RAAF Squadron Leader Jim Eftos descends to the lectern and begins telling us about captain Louis Leon Le Nay. He had enlisted in 1915, qualified as a machine gun instructor in Egypt, and was part of the 11th Battalion force that attacked and captured Pozières. He was struck in the forearm by a piece of artillery shell and while recovering in London from a septic wound he met and married Kathleen. He returned the front but was gassed and evacuated. In mid 1918 he was classified fit for service, farewelled Kathleen and fought in the Battle of Amiens. On 10 August he was wounded but continued without treatment until he was killed by machine-gun fire. Five days later his son Desmond was born.
Squadron Leader Eftos’s voice starts to break as he reads the memorial inscription Kathleen commissioned. Then he ascends the stairs in front of the Hall of Memory. The bugle sounds for last post.
I’m holding our four-year-old who is huddled in my arms like a koala. Lately I’ve read so many passages in which the author advises parents to embrace moments like this, most recently Katharine Murphy in Meanjin, who counsels, ‘that school-soiled hand you are holding won’t consent to be held forever’. So I lean my face onto his warm head, breathe his hair, and hold tight. I want to burn it into my mind and body, to be able to recall it as vividly as the memories that come with long-unheard songs.
I’m thinking about the imperialism, militarism, politics and economics that plunged Le Nay and my grandfather into war, and which continue to thrust men and women and civilians into conflict now. I’m thinking about fire and fury and ashes and darkness and all the ways in which we’re failing our kids’ generation. During the war in Vietnam, one of president Lyndon Johnson’s advisers, Eugene V. Rostow, said the reality of the threat matters less than the feeling, that ‘nations enter war when they perceive a loss of control over their destiny’. American friends tell me they think war is inevitable. I don’t think the rest of us feel this way but it’s teetering.
The bugle reverberates to silence and our eight-year-old looks up and says, ‘Why are you crying, Mum?’ He has a sense of why but wants to talk about it more. This isn’t the time. It’s enough for now. I reckon our boys will continue to lightsabre bad guys and blow up Lego bases but I think it’s good they see their parents cry. That memory will last. We’ll keep explaining why wars start. We’ll encourage curiosity.
Across the lake from the memorial is a discreet sculpture you’d barely notice as you walk between the National Library and the shore. At ground level there is a plinth bearing a peace symbol and an inscription: ‘All who visit here are invited to commit themselves to peace and the elimination of weapons of mass destruction.’ I think of the advice of my friend who said nonviolent social movements changed more lives than any wars. Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr, Vincent Lingiari were a different kind of fighter. I’m planning our visit. •
Cameron Muir’s writing has appeared in Griffith Review, Overland, Inside Story and the Guardian, among others. He is working on a book for NewSouth on violence, punishment and justice.