Stopping Sacrilege at the Australian War Memorial

Two days ago I launched a petition on change.org protesting the intention of the Council of the Australian War Memorial, expressed by Council Chairman Dr Brendan Nelson, to

have a much broader, a much deeper depiction and presentation of the violence committed against Indigenous people, initially by British, then by pastoralists, then by police, and then by Aboriginal militia.

I found this an outrageous proposal from a governance point of view because it flies in the face of the charter of the AWM, as detailed in the Australian War Memorial Act of 1980.  I wrote about this here.

Peter O’Brien’s petition can be signed here

But I also found it personally repugnant because I am a Vietnam veteran, and the Memorial has special significance to me.  Not because I suffered unduly – indeed, I emerged relatively unscathed from the experience.  I made the point in my earlier article that the principal, possibly the sole, purpose of the Memorial is to honour the memory of the thousands of Australian men and women who have given their lives in the defence of this nation and its values.

And that brings me to the personal dimension.

For me, those honoured dead have a face and a name.  John Lee and Bernie Garland  graduated from the Royal Military College Duntroon in 1967.  That was in my first year at the College and I greatly admired both men. To me, at the age of 18, they seemed so much older and wiser and, at the age of 74, I still strangely think of them that way, although age shall not weary them.  I attended both their funerals at the RMC Chapel and the memory of the distress of their young wives stays with me today.  Bob Pothof, who graduated in 1968, and John Wheeler, who graduated in 1969, also never made it home.  I was probably closer to John Wheeler than the others because he was only one year ahead of me.  He was killed just before I arrived in South Vietnam.   Corporal Wilkinson and Privates Beilken, Pengilly, Duff, Kingston-Powles, Niblett, Sprigg, Harding and Rhodes were my comrades in the Fourth Battalion Royal Australian Regiment who also are honoured by the Memorial.

I have never suffered any pangs of conscience about my role in what I think of as the Battle of Vietnam rather than the Vietnam War.  Maybe I’m kidding myself, but I believe, that although it might be thought of as a tactical defeat, it certainly contributed to the ultimate end of the Cold War. The only distress I have ever felt about my involvement is when figures such as Robert McNamara have questioned its legitimacy.  That was a kick in the guts to me.  This implicitly devalues the sacrifices of all those who died in South Vietnam.  I imagine veterans of Afghanistan feel the same way.

And that is why I feel such anger that all veterans, but particularly those – most of whom were volunteers – who lost their lives in the two major conflagrations of the Twentieth Century, should have their sacrifice diminished by anything that might suggest the nation that they cherished was illegitimate in its conception.   How ironic it would be if it eventuated that those killed at Gallipoli were more honoured in Turkey than in their own country.

And that brings me to the question of these atrocities which the AWM Council are planning on highlighting.  There can be no doubt that atrocities were committed against Aborigines.  But they were isolated incidents.  Many of them were in reprisal for killing settlers or their stock – and no less reprehensible for that.   Where atrocities were committed, they were crimes according to British law.  How effectively colonial governments dealt with them is a contentious issue.  But they had nothing whatsoever to do with the defence of the nation, they do not form part of our military history and therefore have no place in the AWM.

But what about the ‘Colonial Wars’?  There is a new myth which has emerged in the last decade or so, and that is that the Aborigines fought a series of sustained wars of resistance.  Rachel Perkins, the daughter of Charles Perkins, has produced a documentary film, The Australian Wars, in which she claims that up to 100,000 Aborigines were killed.  If that were true it might provide a basis for inclusion in the AWM.  At least I can understand why some people might think so.

But this story is demonstrably not true.  The figure of 100,000 killed in some form of military action is totally implausible.  The most authoritative database of incidents in which Aborigines were killed in clashes with whites is maintained at the University of Newcastle, under the direction of Professor Lyndall Ryan.  Scores of historians have, over a number of years, scoured the historical record to dredge up every last Aboriginal death they can find. They have ‘documented’ 416 incidents which reportedly resulted in the death of some 11,000 Aborigines.

Keith Windschuttle, Michael Connor, Scott Seymour, George Brown, Roger Karge, Rod Moran and myself (amongst others) have conducted audits of this database and we have all identified serious discrepancies.  In most of the incidents reported, the number of Aboriginal deaths has been based on estimates and they almost always err on the high side. 

But regardless of that, even if the figure of 11,000 deaths is correct, how is it possible that this legion of researchers, anxious to plumb the very depths of this well, could have missed 90,000 deaths?

To include in the AWM museum any mention of ‘colonial wars’ involving the deaths of 100,000 Aborigines would not only be an insult to those whom the Memorial is supposed to honour, it would also be a travesty of rational thinking and a gross falsehood.


BACK to the petition.  At the time of writing, 1110 people have signed.  That may not seem like a huge number, but I think it’s not bad for two days.

I don’t know how many signatures it will take to shift the Memorial Council.   The ‘No body, No Parole’ petition in relation to murdered mother Lyn Dawson attracted 30,000 signatures – although that was a simple and (almost) unarguable proposition – so I suspect we’ll have to do a lot better than 1,000 odd.   That said, I have no doubt we face an uphill battle given that, firstly, conservatives tend to be petition shy and, secondly, the fact that this proposal emanates from the Council itself and involves yet another sop to the Aboriginal grievance industry, would lend it a certain (spurious) legitimacy in the eyes of many.

If this proposal goes ahead it will add to the growing and tiresome collection of concessions we already make to Aborigines – the flags outside every public building in the land (and in our Parliaments), the grating and contrived ‘welcome to country’ ceremonies at every public event, the renaming of our towns and landmarks (particularly by the ABC), the grandstanding in Parliament by the loathsome and falsely sworn Lidia Thorpe and so on.

Once it’s in, it will be impossible to remove.  Let’s nip it in the bud now.

So, if you haven’t signed my petition, can I urge you to please do so.

And if you haven’t promulgated the link to at least 10 other people, can I ask you to please consider doing so.

And a huge thank you to those who have already signed and given this petition the momentum it needs to go to the next level.  I want 10,000+.

13 thoughts on “Stopping Sacrilege at the Australian War Memorial

  • Rebekah Meredith says:

    Thank you for your past service for our country, Mr. O’Brien–and thank you for continuing to serve her, today. I appreciate the fact that you can look back on a difficult war, in which you lost comrades, and still be glad you served. Few things anger me more than Anzac Day coverage that shows students in awe and gratitude for what the ANZACs did, while bitter old men bemoan their own sufferings in war–war to preserve the freedom (even such as it today is) that their grandchildren currently enjoy.

  • RobyH says:

    I have signed and sent to 20. Surely the Australian war memorial is only about the Australian defence forces in active duty for Australia in arenas where war or support for our allies has been declared by the Australian government.

    It is not and can never be about England (pre-Australia) fighting against the natives which were citizens involved in affrays, insurrection … that is for the museum.

    Never stop Peter. No one stop.

  • NarelleG says:

    @Peter – thank you one again.
    I had expected the numbers to be higher – I have shared to twitter and on facebook till blue in the face.
    I truly believe people think it won’t happen.

    Thank you again – could you post a downloadable flyer to the petition – and here please. tia

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    You were 8 years ahead of me. In 1959 I entered RAAF College Pt Cook after turning down an offer from Ready Mixed Concrete. Missed Viet Nam because of an error, being called up while already in the Services. Resigned on medical grounds after a car crash. There was no altruism. My Dad had applied for me to get me out of the house with a job. He had been 6 years in WWII RAAF, several years in New Guinea so I did not know him until I was nearly 6. That war broke him mentally. My young brother volunteered for Nam, 5 Btn RAR, also came back mentally unstable, died too young.
    Later in life I had some close involvement with aboriginal affairs, for example some years as president of the NT Chamber of Mines plus our mining at Ranger 1 and Tennant Creek. If ever there is a place in Australian history for the telling of tall stories, the prize would go to aboriginal affairs. Many people know this, but are being shouted down in an onslaught of propaganda to enshrine the noble savage dream, pay out huge monies for grog and drugs and lose more control over the use of our land. All for a minority of a few % of the population, one that has done bugger all to say thank you for past extravagant largesse.
    Peter, you are spot on. Our War Memorial has long had a defined and inviolable purpose. It is not to be changed by the particular fad of the day, be it woke or worse. It is supposed to be a timeless tribute to and reminder of those who did not return. Geoff S

  • Davidovich says:

    Peter, this information needs to get into the main media. Sure, the ABC and SBS won’t promote this intended travesty but The Australian may be the vehicle to get this out there. The good folk from Quadrant readership simply aren’t enough.

  • Peter OBrien says:


    I have submitted a piece to the Australian.

    • Davidovich says:

      The Australian had an editorial dated 9 October 2022 about the so-called Australian Wars and agreed with Professor Blainey that “..the better places for the frontier stories to be told would be in the National Museum in Canberra and in Ngurra (meaning home, country or place of belonging), the national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural precinct, announced by the Morrison government in January.”
      Hopefully, your piece gets published Peter. I watch Sky News regularly and have yet to see anything there which surprises me as Andrew Bolt, at least, has given a lot of coverage of Bruce Pascoe’s fictions.

      • Peter OBrien says:

        No response from the Australian (pretty much as I expected). Andrew Bolt has a column in today’s Sun Herald – at least the online version.

        Long way to go on this. It’s all about money. The AWM want $550million. Labor wants a quid pro quo.

        They will need legislation to amend the charter.

        • Brenden T Walters says:

          Many years ago, I was down around Eden and read a plaque which told me that the aborigines were a peace-loving people. Some years later I went to a remote aboriginal community in the NT.

  • vagan says:

    Can’t imagine even the Americans, Canadians or Kiwis doing this to their War Memorials.

  • Mike O'Ceirin says:

    I had a bad experience with change.org just wanted to sign your petition. It would not let me go so eventually I unsubscribed from change.org. I am totally with you on your sentiments about the war memorial but I will not go near change.org again and I am not sure I did sign. If not I’m sorry.

  • JamesBowen says:

    If the council of the Australian War Memorial took time to read the founding Australian War Memorial Act of 1980 it might possibly appreciate that the so-called “Frontier Wars” have no place in a Memorial to those who died in wars in which the “Defence Force” was engaged in the defence of Australia. The only times that members of Colonial military were involved in the often deadly skirmishing between settlers and Aborigines was the very rare occasions when the military were deployed in small numbers to enforce peace between settlers and Aborigines. Perhaps it is time to review membership of the Australian War Memorial council.

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