Perhaps the most emotive justification for the planned $500m expansion of the Australian War Memorial came from the man behind the plan, the revered institution’s former director Brendan Nelson.
In April 2018, announcing the expansion via an uncritical ABC story, Nelson said, “Whatever the cost is, as one man said to me, ‘We’ve already paid. We’ve paid in blood, and whatever the government spends on the Australian War Memorial … will never be enough’.”
In my opinion a questionable justification for the memorial expansion is that it might somehow form part of a “therapeutic milieu” for injured personnel.
It’s hard to find the evidence for that.
Opposition to the memorial expansion is widespread, evidenced by submissions to a parliamentary inquiry that is now examining it. Two former AWM directors, Steve Gower and Brendon Kelson, are on the record as opposed to the expansion. Many other prominent Australians including writers, journalists, architects, historians and departmental secretaries also oppose it.
Their grounds are varied. Most say the expansion – proposed, among other reasons, to tell Australian stories of recent and current conflicts, to provide space for more military hardware, and for therapeutic reasons for veterans – is unnecessary, a blight on the original design and a waste of money.
Prominent among the opposing arguments is that the money would be better spent on the actual wellbeing of damaged veterans – on the living rather than on more remembrance. The proposed $500m spend comes after Australia lavished some $600m on commemorating the first world war centenary.
There has been virtually no parliamentary scrutiny of the exorbitant commemorative spending or AWM expansion plans. Labor supported it without question. As Australian historian and novelist Peter Cochrane has written, “Drape Anzac over an argument and like a a magic cloak, the argument is sacrosanct.” Indeed.
Given the paucity of evidence about the therapeutic value of a visit to an expanded memorial, it’s worth considering how serious a problem service-related post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, suicidal ideation and alcoholism is.
About the same time Nelson made his “paid in blood” comment, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs released (amid far less – if any – publicity) the disturbing results of a study into veterans’ mental health.
The Mental Health Prevalence report is part of Australia’s most comprehensive study on the impact of military service on the mental, physical and social health of ex-personnel – those it calls “transitioned [to civilian life] ADF [Australian Defence Force] personnel” between 2010 and 2014.
Transitioning ADF members “represent a group at particular risk for mental disorder”, the study concluded.
An estimated 46% of ADF members who had transitioned from full-time service within the past five years met 12-month diagnostic criteria for a mental disorder … This level of 12-month disorder combined with the significantly greater severity of current self-reported symptoms of psychological distress, depression anxiety, anger, suicidality and alcohol use, particularly at subthreshold levels in the Transitioned ADF compared to the 2015 Regular ADF, places this population at significant risk of impairment and disability, highlighting the challenges of transitioning out of full-time military service.”
The report is replete with alarming statistics including:
An estimated 75% of former ADF members met criteria for a mental health disorder prior to, during or after their military careers
A quarter were estimated to have met criteria for post-traumatic-stress disorder in their lifetime
More than 20% had suicidal ideation
29% had felt life was not worth living
8% had made a suicide plan
2% said they had attempted suicide.
They would, it said, “benefit from proactive strategies that aim to lessen the burden of mental illness and assist the transition process”. This seems like an understatement.
Meanwhile, in a submission to the parliamentary inquiry on the AWM expansion, a group of opponents, Heritage Guardians, recounts the assessment of Charlotte Palmer, a retired general practitioner with 25 years’ experience in treating psychological trauma.
“PTSD and moral injury are complex and profoundly disruptive to the lives of sufferers and their families … Any well-founded therapeutic input is welcome, but glib and selective accounts or affecting anecdotes from individuals – like those found in the memorial’s promotional material – are insufficient to justify the claim that an expanded memorial, replete with retired military machinery, will provide a therapeutic milieu,” the submission quotes Palmer saying.
Conflict journalist Dean Yates, a PTSD and moral injury sufferer, had three stays in Austin Health’s Ward 17 psychiatric unit from 2016 to 2018. He met many veterans with post-traumatic stress. He is now researching and writing a book partly about PTSD and moral injury.
“Every veteran I got to know in Ward 17 felt a deep sense of abandonment by their government,” Yates says. “I saw how a loss of identity had crushed their self-esteem. Many had made suicide attempts. Some said they could have dealt with the horror of their deployment but not the betrayal of getting dumped from the military because they were suddenly a ‘head case’.
“I’ve done a lot of research into PTSD and I’ve never seen such worrying data. I’m sure most Australians would prefer $500m be spent on the mental and physical health of veterans, not more monuments … Has the government acted on this data with an urgent taskforce to deal with the issue?”
Now that would be worth spending $500m on.
• Paul Daley is a Guardian Australia columnist
• In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org