April 09, 2003

Canberra Trip, Day 8

Day 8 of the trip was a Saturday; Gulf War II had been in progress for a day and half. We went off the complex to meet with the operators of Team D, and then had lunch at the complex cafeteria (pepper steak and chips). After that we visited the Australian War Memorial.

The War Memorial is an incredible place. It is, at one and the same time, a memorial to all Australian soldiers who died in war and a museum of military history.

The upper level is built like a shrine. You go up the steps, through glass doors, a lobby, and more glass doors, and you're in a courtyard. At the far end is a chamber with a dome; if you go inside, you find yourself in a darkened room with stained glass windows; the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is at your feet. On either side of the courtyard, raised above the floor, are two long galleries containing floor to ceiling metal plaques. On the plaques you'll find the names of the Australian war dead, from Kitchener's march on Khartoum to rescue "Chinese" Gordon up to the war just before the current one. Many of the names will have red flowers tucked in beside them. On the outside of the galleries, visible from the courtyard, are the names of the places Aussies have fought. Many were unfamiliar to me; others, like Gallipoli, are known to everyone.

It was deeply moved the first time I was hear, in 1999; I was even more affected this time, knowing that people might be dying in Iraq as I stood there. Now, of course, I know that the casualty figures for both soldiers and civilians have been unbelievably low--God be praised.

After visiting the memorial, we went downstairs to the museum, which is simply enormous. It would take two or three days to do it justice. And the tone is perfectly set. The War Memorial doesn't glorify war; the aches and pains and blood and guts of warfare are clearly documented. The War Memorial doesn't trivialize the reasons for war, either; the wars for which Australians have fought and died are not dismissed simply as the result of evil warmongers and arms merchants. And finally, the War Memorial respects her own, the soldiers who fought. Their sacrifices are recognized, but their accomplishments are celebrated.

The Australian War Memorial is unique; the United States has nothing comparable.

Posted by Will Duquette at April 9, 2003 08:30 PM