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Rights and wrongs of remembering war service

Albert Jacka, the first Australian to be awarded the Victoria Cross in World War I.

“I worry that a decision to spend half a billion dollars on a memorial related to war is a questionable priority when, for so many Australians, life is a daily struggle to survive,” writes JON STANHOPE.

I HAVE conflicting views about the proposed $500 million expansion of the Australian War Memorial.

Jon Stanhope.

On the one hand, I worry that a decision to spend half a billion dollars on a memorial related to war is a questionable priority when, for so many Australians, life is a daily struggle to survive.

On the other hand, I can’t clear my mind when I think about the more than 100,000 Australians who have given their life and the countless others who have offered their life in defence of our freedom and the greater good, of the thought that there can be no price too high to honour their memory and their sacrifice.

In World War I, as with so many families, two of my great uncles on my father’s side and two on my mother’s died as members of the British and Allied forces in France.

In World War II, my wife Robyn’s uncle Max Poyser was killed when HMAS Parramatta was sunk off Tobruk by a German U-boat. My father Eric Stanhope and Robyn’s father Gordon Poyser each served and fought in World War II. 

Neither of our fathers were physically injured, but both spent much of their lives after the war either self-medicating or personally managing, as best they could, the impacts of their wartime experience. My father died from the combined effects of alcohol and tobacco, aged 70.

Two of my brothers, Simon and Tony, both born in England before my parents migrated to Australia, were members of the Australian Defence Force. 

Simon is a Vietnam veteran and Tony served in the Australian Navy for 10 years. Tony died two years ago at the age of 69 from a brain tumour which the Australian Navy did not dispute may have been linked to his service in warships clad with asbestos or other aspects of his service. Simon has a range of chronic, debilitating and potentially life-threatening health issues that the Australian Army has not disputed are a legacy of his service in Vietnam. The treatment each received from the Commonwealth after becoming ill has been exemplary.

Both my father and Robyn’s father are dead as is my brother Tony. I am nevertheless certain, if I was able to ask them or my brother Simon, Robyn’s uncle Max or indeed my quartet of great uncles buried somewhere in France, if they supported a half-billion-dollar expansion of a war memorial in order to better reflect or honour their service or that of all other service men and women who have given or risked their lives in war, that they would all answer with a resounding: “No”.

But they would say that, wouldn’t they?

In the last month, I’ve been reading books relating to World War I and what prompted me to write about the current imbroglio re the expansion of the Australian War Memorial was a two-page vignette at Page 296 of the “RSL Book of World War I” titled “Boarding System: Jacka a Victim of the Anzac Legend”, which was written in 1932 by Capt Ken Millar MC, following the death of Albert Jacka, the first Australian to be awarded the Victoria Cross in World War I.

Millar, who served with Jacka wrote, with undisguised bitterness, the following:

Outstanding gallant-man of super courage – Jacka is dead. His war-rackled body is now at rest.

Only 39 years of age, and dead from the effects of severe wounds, in the prime of life. Jack was the victim of a wretched voluntary system of fighting a war.

If Jacka had been in the Imperial Army he would not have been allowed to go back to the line, time after time, with his wounds.

The wretched AIF system which prevailed of boarding an officer [appearing before an officer] was to leave the onus on him to say how he was. Was there ever such a travesty of justice to wounded men – I mean to men of “guts” and spirit, such as Jacka?

The procedure in that little room was – firstly a question from one of the medical officers, “How do you feel? Are your wounds better?” The whole atmosphere was repugnant.

Could anyone imagine Jacka, a frontline troop, answering in any other manner than “I’m all right”.

Could anyone imagine a member past or present of the Australian Defence Force answering a question about whether they believe a memorial to their service should be expanded or enhanced, in any manner other than that of Jacka, namely “I’m all right – I don’t want or expect a memorial to my service”.

For myself, I do want and expect our recognition of their service and sacrifice to be of the highest order.

 

 

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Jon Stanhope

Jon Stanhope

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