I’ve been interested in the way societies remember war ever since I began to seriously study how war is socially constructed and legitimated. I have a fascination with war memorials and the kind of ‘banal militarism’ they represent and engender. I will always visit and photograph them when I get the chance. As material embodiments of narrative, identity and historical remembrance, they are endlessly fascinating to me. I believe they can tell us a great deal about how societies concieve of war, justify it, remember it.
This is why I was so interested to see the famous war memorial in the centre of Melbourne on a recent visit. When I got there, I was really surprised to note that it was called ‘The Shrine of Remembrance’, which is a clear indication of its religious significance and the role that religion plays today in the way we have come to remember war in Australia and New Zealand. After all, it could have been simply called a ‘memorial’ of remembrance which would have had no obvious religious connotations. A shrine, by contrast, is by definition a religious place, a place of worship and religious ritual and reflection. In this case, the shrine was also designed like a Greek temple on a hill overlooking the city.
The religious dimension of Melbourne’s shrine to war remembrance can also be seen in one of the prominent statues in the surrounding gardens. A very masculine-looking soldier poses in a very obviously Christ-on-the-cross pose. It’s religious-sacrifical motif is linked to other aspects of the shrine’s structure, such as the Eternal Flame which burns beneath the World War II monument outside the shrine’s walls.
Its religious characteristics can also be seen in the very heart of the shrine, where a plaque in the centre of the floor is engraved with the words, ‘Greater love hath no man’. This is part of a verse in the bible which says, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13). Here, sacrifice in war is being rewritten as a biblical virtue, a sacred duty to the nation. The architectural design of the shrine is such that on the 11th of November at 11 minutes past 11:00am (Armistice Day, or Remembrance Day), a beam of sunshine from a gap in roof moves over the words, illuminating the word ‘love’ at the moment of silence.
Inside the sanctuary of memory, the sacred names of the glorious dead who died for the greatest form of love are illuminated. They glow with a warm, holy light. The entire inner walls are surrounded by these holy books of names, each with an illuminating light and the flag of the nation. The nation’s flag is ubiquitous – inside and outside the shrine. It symbolises the unbreakable bond between war, memory, and national identity, all of which has become wedded to a sense of the sacred.
But it’s not just religion that is being used to construct our memories of war in this place. Masculinity and its associated values are also a common motif in the shrine, much like they are in a great many war memorials. The second Vietnam War Memorial in Washington has four muscled and well-armed men looking over towards the more well-known wall of names, for example. In Melbourne, two highly masculine-looking soldiers are displayed back-to-back, an attitude of comradeship and brotherhood. One of them holds a gun; the other poses like Christ on the cross.
Similarly, in the crypt, two soldier-brothers keep watch back-to-back over the sacred regimental colours in a state of stately discipline. Not far from these brothers in arms, there is a wall of medals. A sign explains how medals celebrate the place of courage in military culture.
Importantly, this sacred shrine to religiously-sanctioned manly violence in the name of nation and brotherhood sits on a hill overlooking the central city. From its steps, you can look straight down into the heart of the central business district. This is a deliberate design: not only do the gods watch over the city and all its ways, but citizens simply need to glance up to see the sacred shrine and be reminded of sacrifice, nation, and religious duty. It’s the reason why so many churches – and war memorials – are put on hills overlooking the town. Importantly, the inherent religiosity of this particular ‘shrine’ is quite apart from the religious ceremonial practices which go along with it. On ANZAC Day, for example, senior religious figures will participate in all the remembrance ceremonies; scripture verses will be read; hymns will be sung; and many prayers will be said.
Interestingly, in Australia and New Zealand, war remembrance has been constructed around the so-called ANZUS myth, where members of the ANZUS Regiment were needlessly slaughtered in their thousands at Gallipoli. This was not the worst loss of life for Australian and New Zealand troops in World War I, but it has in recent decades become the central narrative and symbol of war remembrance – and a primary narrative of national identity. Today, ANZAC ceremonies are attended by thousands of young people, and any national policitian who wants to remain popular must be seen at them. At these events, and in a great many ANZAC remembrance materials and practices, such as movies, novels, statues, plaques, memorabilia, and so on, the central mythology is reiterated over and over: these brave and selfless soldiers went off to war to fight for our freedom and democracy; they sacrificed their lives for the love of nation, the love of the comrades, and as a consequence, we owe them a solemn debt of gratitude.
One of the interesting things about these ways of remembering, these kind of practices and material structures, is that they not only function to make us remember, they also make us forget. We forget the horror, the massacres, the war crimes, the injustices, the political controversies, the mistakes, the enemy soldiers and civilians. Instead, we remember the ‘glorious dead’ who died for our freedom. In this way, the practice of remembering past wars is empitied of politics. We forget the political controversies and instead unite to remember the heroic soldiers who died doing their duty. By this method, wars are rehabilitated from nasty, brutish, politically divisive, avoidable tragedies, to sacrificial hero narratives. This is why there is no irony or contradiction in remembering, for example, the Vietnam and Malaya campaigns in the foundational structures of the shrine of remembrance. Through sacred remembrance, all past wars can be rehabilitated into a new unbroken national narrative of duty and sacrifice.
Interestingly, despite all efforts to the contrary, the truth about war sometimes seeps out and confronts us with its uncomfortable truth. I was surprised to see that on the side of the shrine of remembrance, in massive letters, it proclaims to all that the men and women of Victoria died in the service of the empire. This is the truth of the matter: they fought to protect the British empire, with all its oppression of millions of people around the world, its domination of territories, its racist ideology, its greed for resources, its brutal violence. They certainly did not die for the freedom of Australian or New Zealand subjects, or for democratic government; the British empire tried its hardest to prevent the emergence of democracy for many of its territories for as long as it could.
In the crypt, there are two plaques on the walls, either side of the entrance. On the right hand side as you enter, it says that the crypt was erected to the honour and memory of Victorians who gave their lives in the service of the empire. This is another instance of the truth seeping out into places it is not welcome; these poor men and women were sacrificed, and gave their lives, in the service of imperialism. On the left hand side, another plaque has been erected, perhaps much later, I couldn’t really tell. This one re-writes the narrative of the opposite plaque, perhaps as a way of correcting the impression any visitor might take. In this case, it is stated that this ‘holy place’ (note the religious reference once again) commemorates the ‘glorious dead’ who gave their lives that others might live in peace and freedom. In this way, the momentary tearing at the fabric of the heroic narrative is re-sutured. We can all rest easy in the knowledge that they died for freedom, not the continuation of oppressive imperial rule.
Finally, beyond the shrine and beyond the crypt, there is an educational centre and a memorial shop where you can purchase teddy bears wearing army uniforms, t-shirts and hats with the words and logo of the shrine of remembrance emblazened across their front, postcards, and a great deal of other war remembrance and ANZAC memorabilia. In the educational centre, peace makes an unexpected appearance. There are photos and stories commemorating Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King Jr, the Quakers, UN peacekeepers, and many other peace activists. In this way, the ‘glorious dead’, with their heroism, their comradeship, their holy love for their brothers, become part of a larger narrative in which the Australian soldiers are also ultimately fighting and dying for the cause of peace. They can be counted alongside Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, the Quakers and all those brave souls who struggle for a world without violence. Thus is the slaughter for empire in World War I, the horrors of Vietnam and Malaya, and all the other bloody and brutal wars of the past century rehabilitated into a sacred narrative of duty, sacrifice, nation and the struggle for peace.
What disturbed me about this particular memorial is that we all know how powerful religious ideology can be as a means of motivating people to commit or accept violence in war. Constructing a religiously-infused, ‘sacred’ kind of war remembrance and sense of national identity is a double-edged sword: while it helps a heterogenous settler society construct a sense of collective identity and binds people together in a new land, it also creates an emotionally-charged kind of national identity that can more easily be motivated into accepting the necessity of going to war against others who don’t share our identity or religion.
I was also disturbed that the central themes and narratives of the war memorial were so thoroughly de-historicised and de-politicised; the shrine (and the ceremony that typically accompanies it) contains no information about what really happened in those conflicts. As a consequence, by remembering we forget the horrors of war, the mistakes and miscalculations of politicians, the greed and hubris, the oppression, the unnecessary violence, the dead civilians. By not remembering the terrible things about any of the wars, it makes it so much easier for politicians to convince us to participate in the next one. They can remain safe in the knowledge that even if it turns out to be a complete and utter disaster, one day the names of the glorious dead will be inscribed into the sacred books and remembered with dignity and honour. One day soon, I expect, the soldiers who died in Iraq will have their names inscribed in the book and the words ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ will have its place on the wall of the shrine next to listing of ‘Vietnam’, ‘Malaya’, and all the other glorious campaigns. We will have then forgotten that Iraq was a disasterous, divisive war for which no politician was ever held accountable – like pretty much all the wars that came before.