Constructing emotions: Australia leads world in WWI commemoration spend

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During this prolonged war commemoration season, there is a lot of talk about emotion, but not a lot of time spent asking why — and that is just the way politicians like it, writes Dr David Stephens from Honest History.

During this commemoration season, words frequently heard are “emotion” and “emotional”. Ordinary people, contemplating a tombstone at Anzac Cove or returning from a Dawn Service, asked how they feel, almost invariably use the E-word — as in “very emotional” or “I feel a lot of emotion”. We do not often get the “emotional rollercoaster” rumbled out but, if the grave of a relative – even a distant one – is in the vicinity, we sometimes hear that awful word, “closure”.

As retired archivist Michael Piggott notes, museums have had a new lease of life (in the face of assaults from the virtual world) by evoking emotional responses from their patrons, particularly emotional responses to objects. The Australian War Memorial is a prime example.

The National Museum of Australia has got in on the act with an exhibition – The Home Front – which groups 21 stories of the Great War under five types of emotion – pride, sorrow, passion, wonder and joy – and gives visitors the chance to nominate the emotional impact on them of other stories, drawing upon a list of no less than 20 emotions. 

Over at the ABC, readers of some stories on The Drum have been asked, how does this story make you 'feel'. For example, after a piece on the Gallipoli commemoration, readers were given the choice of feeling proud, sad, inspired, angry, grateful, hopeful, annoyed, or indifferent. Nothing about whether the story made you think, just about your feelings. We even looked for an option “thoughtful” – as in, the story made me feel thoughtful – to try to sneak thinking into the picture that way, but no luck.

Of course, death in war evokes emotion. The point is to work through the emotion and move on to ask questions: Why? Was it worth it? Did they die in vain?

We are still not good at this next step. There is recent evidence. A couple of weeks ago, we heard the prime minister announce that the Government planned to spend $100 million on a Western Front “interpretive centre”, named for Sir John Monash, next to the Villers-Bretonneux memorial.

The centre is to be reached via imitation trenches and will offer a 'leading edge, multimedia experience' which is 'immersive, interactive and informative' (rather like, one imagines, the original Western Front experience). There will be 'dramatic and emotive narratives' and the visitor will leave 'filled with a sense of quiet pride and sorrow'. (No mention of passion, wonder or joy.)

No indication either of asking the big questions, or even some lesser ones. No clue yet to which subjects are on, and which off the interpretive centre’s agenda. Is venereal disease to be covered? What about the “mutinies“ (CEW Bean’s word, though the modern euphemism “combat refusal” may have been in use then) in France in 1918 in perhaps ten battalions? What about shootings of German prisoners?

Taking in the Villers-Bretonneux announcement, some observers wrote letters to the editor. For example, one Canberra reader said this:

'Outside of Anzac Day it is hard to see who will visit such a centre in the middle of nowhere unless hordes of tourist buses are expected to bring Aussies from Paris each day. There are a lot better things to spend $100 million on than extravagant seldom-visited memorials.'

Another letter writer imagined the ghost of Monash entreating the prime minister to spend the money on something more useful.

Other people, though, seemed not to care. Perhaps the effort of kicking Woolworths or Scott McIntyre into touch had sapped their energy.

We reckon Monsieur le President, Francois Hollande, thinks John Monash has saved France again, though. Unemployment in France is at around 11 per cent, a record level, and the Villers-Bretonneux area has been particularly hard hit. Even if a lot of the technical work on the interpretive centre is done in Australia, there should be plenty of digging, lifting and banging jobs for the locals.

Following the lead of the National Museum and the ABC, we thought of asking our readers at Honest History how they felt about the museum... sorry ... “interpretive centre”.

Here are six options (use the comments field below to express an opinion).

How do you feel about the proposal to build the $100 million Sir John Monash Interpretive Centre at Villers-Bretonneux?

Appalled. What on earth are they doing now?

Exasperated. Surely it’s enough for Monash to have his face on the $100 note and have the world’s 70th ranked university named after him.

Puzzled. I thought the nation was born in the Dardanelles in 1915.

Reassured. It’s nice to know that, after all, there is no Budget crisis.

Relieved. It will mean Australia’s commemorative focus will shift away from Turkey to France. Gallipoli is so hard to get to and Villers-Bretonneux is really close to Paris.

Resigned. No matter what we think, it makes no bloody difference.

Regardless of what Monsieur Hollande will get out of this project, going for broke in the north of France is part of Prime Minister Abbott’s strategy to turn our attention away from the “glorious defeat” at Gallipoli to the “terrible victories” in France. Like Lincoln during the American Civil War, wrapped in his shawl, haunting the telegraph office next to the White House, waiting for a triumphant message from General McClellan, the prime minister yearns for something to celebrate. Even a century on, the Battle of Hamel, “the textbook victory”, according to the Australian War Memorial, fits the bill. Major Tim Fischer AC (ret’d) is in there, pitching for the reputation of Monash; the prime minister seems to be a willing disciple.

When we were writing this we realised the prime minister and his office were probably too busy with the Budget to answer questions but we thought of getting a comment instead from the Minister for the Centenary of Anzac, Ballarat boy, Senator Michael Ronaldson, but it turned out he was in Paris at a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe.

Seventieth. In many families, reaching 70 years of age might be an occasion for a mild celebration, but not much more of a shindig than would be put on for a sixtieth or a fiftieth. An international commemoration of a 70th anything seems a bit excessive. It’s such a mundane number. But the minister was definitely there.

But then we remembered. We are in the midst of commemorating not just the centenary of the Great War (or the centenary of Anzac, as we prefer to call it in Australia) but also a century of (military) service, so pretty much any anniversary with a military flavour potentially has a profile.

We will, for example, be invited to commemorate in 2016 the 50th anniversary of the end of Confrontation with Indonesia; in 2017, the 75th anniversary of the formation of the Women’s Land Army; and in 2018, the tenth anniversary of the dedication of the Park of the Australian Soldier in Be’er Sheva, Israel.

Honest History reckons the total cost of Australia’s commemoration of the Anzac centenary now stands at more than $550 million — and it will go higher as corporate donations come in. Even at the current level, that is more than twice the total Great War commemoration spend of every other country in the world combined. It seems a rather odd thing to be leading the world in.

David Stephens is secretary of Honest History. Honest History is a broad coalition; the views in this article are not necessarily those of all supporters of Honest History. Click here for an earlier version of this article published on the Honest History website. You can follow David Stephens on Twitter @honesthistory1.

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