Waging culture wars on heroes known only to God?

2013-04-24 04.49.50 am


Published in The Australian, October 29, 2013

IN 1999 the words “Known unto God” were carved at the northern end of the plinth surrounding the tomb of the Australian Unknown Soldier in Canberra.

It is the epitaph Rudyard Kipling advised the Imperial War Graves Commission to adopt in 1917 to mark the graves of soldiers whose remains could not be identified. It is inscribed on the headstones of more than 212,000 Commonwealth soldiers.

Six weeks ago, on the day Tony Abbott was being sworn in as Prime Minister, the War Memorial’s director, Brendan Nelson, told the National Press Club that the inscription was being removed. The words of explanation at the opposite end — “He symbolises all Australians who’ve died in war” — also would be going under the hammer and chisel.

“We are removing those,” Nelson let slip towards the end of an unscripted speech.

There was no press release; no announcement on the memorial’s website; no draft plans: no period of consultation: indeed nothing resembling a proper explanation.

The memorial’s council, its quasi-autonomous governing body, had made the decision during the caretaker period of government. The council did not inform Labor’s minister for veterans’ affairs or the Coalition opposition.

The memorial is, in Nelson’s own words, “the soul of the nation”. Yet the body of worthy men and women appointed as its custodians was prepared to chisel the name of God off its face.

In its place were to be inscribed the words of our 24th prime minister, the Honourable PJ Keating.

“Into one end we will engrave: ‘We do not know this Australian’s name, we never will,’ ” said Nelson. “At the end, as you walk into the hall, it will say: ‘He is one of them, and he is all of us.’ ”

Keating’s 1993 tribute to the Unknown Soldier is undoubtedly an elegant speech. It expresses the shared sentiments of a nation with a grace today’s political class struggles to match.

To replace an inscription chosen by men and women who lived and fought in the Great War with the words of a living political figure, however, and a controversial one at that, is a frightening act of hubris that politicises our most sacred memorial.

Nelson’s throwaway announcement went unnoticed at first. Perhaps the journalists present assumed they had misheard, since the idea was utterly preposterous.

Veterans’ Affairs Minister Michael Ronaldson, who was being sworn in by the Governor-General at the time, did not learn about it for several days — when he received an incoming briefing from his new department.

There was more: Keating’s speech was to be engraved on a brass plate and mounted inside the Hall of Memory.

Ronaldson wrote to the council’s chairman, Rear Admiral Ken Doolan, expressing his extreme displeasure and asking the council to think again.

It was only when Abbott spoke directly to Nelson that compromise was reached.

“Known under God” would stay but the inscription “He symbolises all Australians who’ve died in war” would go. It would be replaced by Keating’s phrase “He is one of them, and he is all of us.”

Keating will get to speak on November 11 and his brass-plated speech will be hung outside — not inside — the Hall of Memory. The government appears willing to live with it. Others may not.

Nevertheless, let us acknowledge — through gritted teeth — that Nelson and the council deserve the nation’s gratitude for preventing this act of postmodern sacrilege, notwithstanding the fact it was their idea in the first place.

Let us charitably assume the council was pressed for time when this particular agenda item first came up, because anyone who thought about it longer than, say, 15 seconds would have realised the downside of setting about the name of God with a chisel.

Certainly, it is hard to imagine Keating agreeing to such a barbarous act any more than he would agree to removing the reference to the resurrection from Mahler’s second symphony.

What next? Will they be sending the masonry police to every foreign field where Commonwealth soldier, name unknown, rests beneath the inscription “Known unto God”? There are 212,000 of them by the way, although for obvious reasons there is no way of knowing how many of them are Australians.

And what of the design of the War Memorial itself, built on a floor plan in the shape of a cross, in a manner strikingly similar to a baroque cathedral? Should we knock it down and start again?

The urge to run the ruler of contemporary political correctness over the actions and attitudes of our ancestors is among the uglier conceits of today’s cultural class.

In the 1921 census, conducted 31 months after the Armistice, 97 per cent of Australians declared themselves Christian, 2 per cent more than in 1911. Freethinkers, agnostics, atheists and those who said they had no religion amounted to a mere half of 1 per cent. Today, religion has fallen out of fashion among the cultural class, though less so in the rest of the population; more than seven out of 10 Australians declared religious affiliation in the most recent census.

In the end, however, what we think of God is irrelevant. The men and women who chose the words “Known unto God” were contemporaries of the fallen. They experienced the consequences of a horrible war and knew the pain of loss. Who are we to change them?

The words of Charles Bean, whose vision inspired the War Memorial, leave no room for ambiguity. “Here is their spirit, in the heart of the land they loved,” Bean said in 1948, “and here we guard the record which they themselves made.”

When Bean proposed a building dedicated to the memory of wars, it is doubtful he would have imagined the culture war would be one of them.