A War Memorial Is Being Expanded. Some Say It Whitewashes History.

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CANBERRA, Australia — In a small section of the Australian War Memorial, past softly lit halls displaying World War I and II battlefield dioramas, is an exhibit dedicated to the Iraq War.

In the display cases are gas masks and uniforms, modern updates of those worn a century earlier when troops fought at Gallipoli and the Western Front. The accompanying text tells visitors that the “U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was motivated by concerns that the Iraqi regime continued to hold weapons of mass destruction.”

The description goes on to chronicle Australia’s role in the 2003 invasion, which included committing special forces, carrying out naval and air operations, and training Iraqi troops. But it does not mention that the United States, Britain and Australia greatly exaggerated that threat, and no such weapons were found.

Now that partial account of the war in Iraq, as well as Australia’s participation in the war in Afghanistan, is about to get a significant boost: The memorial — composed of cenotaphs, a research center and a museum — has received 498 million Australian dollars (around $350 million) in government funding to build new sections commemorating the country’s more recent foreign conflicts.

Critics contend that the memorial’s expansion, to include a bigger focus on Iraq and Afghanistan, minimizes the enormous losses of earlier wars. Moreover, they say, the memorial’s administrators have sanitized the history of the present conflicts in order to legitimize ongoing deployments in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

More than 30,000 Australian troops were deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, and there are still about 1,600 service members in Afghanistan and across the Middle East. Forty-two Australians have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001, and three have died in Iraq since 2003.

Those death tolls pale in comparison to the more than 60,000 Australians who died during World War I, and the 39,000 killed in World War II — conflicts that were formative moments in Australia’s history.

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Nearly 500 million Australian dollars have been allocated to expand the memorial’s exhibits. CreditChristina Simons for The New York Times

Nearly every schoolchild in the country will at some point visit the memorial. They are taught how Australia, by participating in the world’s most significant modern wars, emerged from Britain’s shadow to become its own nation. It is a place where military heroism is celebrated as a foundational national principle.

The tone of the history presented in the memorial changed after the Sept. 11 attacks, said Peter Stanley, a professor at the University of New South Wales and the former principal historian at the memorial.

“There was an increasing tendency from 2001 onward for governments of both persuasions to valorize Australian military history and to extol Australian military achievements,” he said, referring to Australia’s conservative and progressive governments, which have both supported the wars.

Beyond questions of historical accuracy and the glorification of war, the expansion has also been criticized for its commercialism — the Afghanistan exhibition is sponsored by Boeing — the secretive process by which the government approved the plan, and concerns that the money could have been better spent to help veterans.

Some of that criticism has focused on Brendan Nelson, the memorial’s director. Mr. Nelson was Australia’s minister of defense from 2006-2007, at the height of sectarian bloodshed in Iraq and a spike in suicide attacks in Afghanistan.

His time as defense minister, Mr. Nelson said, “changed me in ways I didn’t really understand until I had finished.” When he became director of the memorial, he pushed for representation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even as thousands of troops remained there fighting.

The memorial presents the story of how Australia, through participating in significant wars, emerged from Britain’s shadow.CreditChristina Simons for The New York Times

“If someone hadn’t been minister of defense, would they have come here and said, ‘We’ve got to change things, we’ve got to get an exhibition now?’” he said in an interview. “Certainly it drove me.”

Knowing and visiting firsthand with the troops who fought and died for Australia gave him a “sense of the importance of their story being told,” he said.

But many have asked whether the former defense minister is using his current position to burnish his own legacy and promote a whitewashed version of war.

Sue Wareham, the president of the Medical Association for Prevention of War, said the memorial was presenting a version of history that was “avoiding the big picture, taking out bits and pieces that we want Australians to be proud of, and patriotic about, and doing it in a way that if you criticize you are against the troops.”

Never has the tradition of celebrating the Australian soldier been more popular than it is today, wrote Peter Cochrane, a historian at the University of Sydney, “yet never have its defenders been more chauvinistic, bellicose and intolerant of other viewpoints.”

The government has not made public any of the details for the memorial’s expansion, but administrators said one major focus would be Afghanistan.

Some critics — including a former memorial director — are upset an award-winning building will be demolished to make room for new displays. Mr. Nelson plans to include exhibitions on veteran trauma and mental health, and feature the work of diplomats and foreign service officers in the field.

Part of the exhibit on Afghanistan is housed in a corridor. CreditChristina Simons for The New York Times

Supporters believe the war in Afghanistan deserves the attention. It is Australia’s longest war, just as it is the United States’.

“Seventeen years, and this is all we’ve got,” Chris Wagner, a spokesman for the memorial, said during a tour of the building and its grounds.

“It’s not really fair, is it, when you think that 30,000 Australians have served our country in Afghanistan, and this is all the space we have to tell their story and they’re alive, they’re bringing their families here,” he said, pointing to a corridor that doubles as gallery space. “There’s little to show them of what they’ve done,” he said.

Mr. Stanley, the former principal historian, said that using the length of time a war was fought as a way to compare conflicts was misguided.

“Because we’re so close to the current conflicts, they might seem much bigger than they really are,” he said. “But if you look at it in a historical perspective, they’re not big conflicts and they don’t deserve disproportionate attention.”

Mr. Nelson remains unmoved by the criticism.

He rejected suggestions that displaying military hardware might contribute to the glorification of war, saying that damaged vehicles pulled from war zones would be displayed.

But he also plans to install an F-111 striker jet, which has not played a role in any Australian combat operations.

The wall of remembrance.CreditChristina Simons for The New York Times

Funding for the expansion was arranged behind closed doors.

Josh Frydenberg, the country’s treasurer, would not discuss the project’s price tag, other than to say in an interview that the government “thinks that it is a good investment.”

The details of the cabinet’s decision are classified “secret” under the Freedom of Information Act.

There is no investigation planned regarding the grant, and no members of Parliament have requested an audit, according to the Auditor-General’s office.

Neville Bartlett, a retiree from Sydney, recently traveled to Canberra. He said that every time he came to the capital, he stopped at the memorial to honor two people: his great-uncle who perished in October 1918, and his Sunday school teacher who died six weeks after arriving in Vietnam.

As long as Australia keeps fighting wars, he said, there will always be a need for a place like this.

“It keeps going on,” Mr. Bartlett said. “You can’t make the original stuff go away just to fit in the new stuff.”

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Source: NYT

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