Soldier Recognition, Trauma, and the Australian War Memorial

By Dr Mia Martin Hobbs

The expansion of the Australian War Memorial comes at a public cost of half a billion dollars. Anzac Hall will be demolished and completely rebuilt to create space for displays of military hardware: a Bushmaster, light-armoured vehicles, and a CH-47 Chinook helicopter. The purpose of this expansion and hardware display, according to AWM Director Brendan Nelson, is “to deal with and to prevent post-traumatic stress” among Australia’s veterans.

An Australian Bushmaster provides protection for an Australian C-130J that delivers stores and equipment to the Reconstruction Task Force troops in Southern Afghanistan.
An Australian Bushmaster provides protection for an Australian C-130J that delivers stores and equipment to the Reconstruction Task Force troops in Southern Afghanistan.

Nelson is justifying the $500 million expansion by trading off a myth, created by Vietnam War revisionists, which blames the War failure and veteran trauma on the anti-war movement. This myth originated in the 1980s and developed through the 1990s, warping psychological theories to argue that a pro-military culture mitigates combat trauma. In the early 1990s, prominent mental health practitioners identified a specific kind of trauma called “moral injury”, a deep emotional distress we experience when we violate our moral code. Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay located signs of trauma in classical texts, arguing that moral injury is intrinsic to combat experiences throughout history and that it can be healed by the community’s recognition and acceptance. This theory gained traction with repeated research studies demonstrating that veterans are most at-risk for mental health issues when they are transitioning out of the military. The security of the military structure vanishes, and veterans often struggle to make connections, develop trusting relationships, and find meaning in their post-service lives. Scholars who research the “bonds of war” argue that post-traumatic stress becomes post-traumatic stress disorder during the adjustment period, when veterans feel most isolated and alienated. When divorced from the context of veterans’ lives, the social recognition theory shifts blame for veteran trauma from the military onto a wider society. Such blame was effectively deployed in the US with the “Support the Troops” campaign for the First Gulf War, and in Australia with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when apocryphal stories of anti-war hostility to returning soldiers galvanised public support. Nelson’s argument that those who oppose the memorial “lack passion for the stories told here” is merely a continuation of the narrative that those who critique war glorification also oppose our duty of care to war veterans.

Brendan Nelson in front of the AWM
Brendan Nelson
Picture: Gary Ramage

This blame game deflects attention from the actual mental health crisis among veterans. Last year, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare released findings from the largest ever study on how ADF service affects military personnel’s lives. Half of ADF veterans experience a mental health disorder. Nearly one-fifth of veterans report post-traumatic stress within five years of leaving the ADF. Men who serve in the ADF are significantly more likely to develop a lifetime mental health disorder than their civilian counterparts. While PTSD is more prevalent among combat veterans, the suicide rate is much higher among non-combat and non-deployed personnel – so high that the suicide rate among all veteran men is 18% higher than the average for all Australian men.

What does this mean? Mental health disorders are a likely consequence of serving in the armed forces. They are not restricted to those who experienced combat or to those who deployed to warzones. Scholars studying trauma and suicide among ADF veterans suggest that these patterns may result from the sustained stress of counterinsurgency warfare, and by military institutions that only take seriously the distress of those who faced combat. The suffering of these veterans will not be alleviated by a display of tanks and weapons.

The Director has emphasised that the $500 million allocated to the AWM is not drawing funds away from health services in the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. However, prioritising the display of war machinery in commemorative spaces implicitly suggests that the only worthy war story is one from the frontline. This suggestion may itself compound alienation and isolation among traumatised veterans. Oral historians argue that that people work to “compose” their memories into stories that resonate with social and cultural expectations. We seek to build narratives about our past that are psychologically comfortable; that make sense and have meaning. The stories that the War Memorial chooses (not) to tell affects how veterans find meaning in their own stories. Military hardware displays may carry emotional significance for veterans who worked with them, but they also dwarf everything around them: giving primacy to combat in our collective war memory. They send a message that combat is the most valuable kind of soldier experience, and that it is more valuable than what they do – or who they are – as veterans. For those recently transitioning veterans who are most vulnerable to life-long PTSD, such memorialisation tells them that the most important part of their story is already behind them.

The Australian War MemorialThe half billion dollars gifted to the AWM would be better spent on veterans’ mental health services and on the called-for Royal Commission into veteran suicide. A small portion could jointly serve the National Archives and the War Memorial in collecting interviews with veterans about the full range of their experiences with the ADF. There is a desire among veterans to incorporate non-combat stories into our war memory. I have interviewed dozens of Australian Vietnam veterans, many of whom argued that the deaths of their friends from dioxin (Agent Orange) poisoning, alcohol-related illness, and suicide should be officially commemorated as part of the costs of Australia’s Vietnam War. The most recent generation of veterans indicate that they would appreciate similar attention to the lived legacies of their wars: on Remembrance Day this year, veterans, families, and supporters gathered for “Vets We Forget”, drawing attention to veteran suicide rates. These war stories – and they are war stories – should be brought into Anzac Hall. The AWM is the most influential public space or cultural artefact for transmitting social understanding about war experiences. To publicly acknowledge that mental health disorders are a fundamental part of our national war history would de-stigmatise the struggle new veterans face, and better equip everyday Australians to support veterans with the difficulty of integrating back into civilian life – more than any fighter jet could.


Mia Martin Hobbs

Mia Martin Hobbs completed her PhD in History at the University of Melbourne in 2018. Her doctoral project was a transnational oral history with Australian and American veterans who returned to Vietnam after the War. She is undertaking a second oral history project with women and people of colour who served in the British, American, and Australian armed forces in the War on Terror. Her research interests include war and conflict, memory, trauma, international history, and security studies.

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