11 October 2018
Wing Commander Sharon Brown (Ret'd)
Australian War Memorial, Canberra
I offer my own warm welcome to the Australian War Memorial, to our distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. To my fellow veterans and families, welcome home.
Here, in the heart of the land we love, we commemorate those Australians who have died in war.
We devote ourselves to our mission to assist Australians to remember, interpret and understand the Australian experience of war and its enduring impact on Australian society.
Over the past four years, we have commemorated the centenary of the First World War. A war which is still remembered as the war to end all wars. We know that it was not that.
Sadly, the truism applies from 1918 to 2018 that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
And as we approach the Centenary of the Armistice of the First World War, we launch this exhibition to explore the common themes of the Australian experience After the War from 1918 to today.
After the War – without even stepping inside the gallery, the title itself provokes deep reflection as After the War implies that there is an end to war.
Those that have seen the end of war are not amongst us today. They no longer enjoy the privilege of the life that we do – they are the dead.
Only the dead have seen the end of war.
They are the more than 102000 Australians who permanently inhabit the Commemorative Area of the Memorial. Sitting silently upon the Australian Roll of Honour as a stark visual representation of the enormity of our sacrifice.
They are the countless men, women and families whose personal war raged on, here in Australia. The ones whose lives ended alone, by their own hand.
We can only assume that any hope of a time After the War was simply imperceptible to them.
Imagine if you will, what After the War could be. The realisation by world leaders and everyday people that war is but a mindless folly of humankind, paid for with the most precious resource available to each of us – life.
Imagine that the First World War was indeed the war to end all wars, and that in the wake of such global destruction, the generation that endured such loss, resolved that such sacrifice would never again be abided.
Just imagine . . .
Because indeed, War comes at a cost.
A human cost. One that does not discriminate between the victors and the defeated.
A human cost that hangs heavy in the air as the guns fall silent.
The silencing of the guns may well be rejoiced, but it is tempered by a heartbreaking loss that not even the passage of time can diminish.
Stand before John Barker’s oil painting Sorrowing Mother and witness the boundless grief that it portrays. The universal human bond between a mother and her child, knows no geographical, nor political boundaries.
Whether your dead child was on the side of the victors or the vanquished bears no comfort.
Shortly, you will have the privilege to listen to the inspiring Hannah Pearce, whose father, Trooper David “Poppy” Pearce, was killed in Afghanistan when she was just a child.
Her father’s sacrifice for Australia does not end with the presentation of a folded flag but is borne by his family in their pride; their joyous memories and their sorrow, for the entirety of their lives.
Our fallen are honoured and remembered at memorials and on national days of remembrance across the world.
But what of the living?
Dr Archibald McIndoe, served as a plastic surgeon in London during the Second World War, treating badly burned airmen including those of the RAAF. Reconstructing their disfigured faces, he stated “It is one thing to die for one’s country, but to live for it is quite another!”
For those who return, and the families to whom they return, none are unaffected by their service.
I have seen them arrive at the edge of the battlefield in Afghanistan and known that when they departed for home, that they would never again be the same.
I have known, that their Minds and Bodies would never again be the same.
That even though they have returned to the safety of Australia, the challenges ahead could include physical and psychological rehabilitation, social readjustment in their careers and relationships, and sadly for some, the realisation that the country for which they gave their youth to defend, does not accept them nor that which they have done.
Yet I have always, always hoped that they will forever find the strength and courage to emerge from the too often persistent shadows, to stand tall in the world for which they have given so much to secure, to stand shoulder to shoulder with comrades, loved ones and with ordinary strangers. I have always hoped that they would somehow come to value and accept that which they have seen, that which they have done and mostly, that which they have given. I have hoped that they will see the advances and not just the retreats, the gains and not just the losses and, ultimately, the immense value of their service and of their lives.
Australian veterans are not broken. They are enlightened with a knowledge of humankind – good and bad – that only those that have seen true human horror can appreciate.
This evening as you venture through 100 years of war, you will begin to discover that my hopes for our veterans and their families are realised, as their incredible ability to recognise their unique value and to Rebuild New Lives.
In fact, at the invitation of Dr Kerry Neale, I have seen firsthand how my hopes have transformed into reality.
I spent the morning of 21st April this year in the presence of giants – I’m not joking – if you see me standing beside Olympian Curtis McGrath, I’m not as tall as you may think I am! – but I digress . . .
I spent the morning in the studio of photographer Peter Brew-Bevan with five Australian veterans who have risen against unimaginable adversity to light the path ahead for others. Individuals who have transformed their pain into powerful purpose.
Veterans Talissa Papamau; Damien Thomlinson; Curtis McGrath; Dane Christison; and Michael Lyddiard. Our shared narrative after our experience of war is included here in the exhibition. The consequences of war are horrific, but as those who bear these consequences step up as leaders in our world, a true period of time After the War becomes imaginable.
On the 11th November 1918, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau said: “Nous avons gange la geurre . . . Maintenant nous devons gagner les paix, et ce sera peut-etre plus difficile.” (We have won the war . . . now we must win the peace, and that will be perhaps more difficult).
Yet, it is possible.
If we truly wish for there to be a time After the War, this exhibit is an inspirational foundation from which to begin.
With the stories of our past and the hope of our future, we can commit ourselves to explore a life beyond war.
We have the power, if not the responsibility to change the narrative.
Those who have seen war often appear to be silent about their experience, do not mistake this as a mark of admirable stoicism, it is merely a reflection of a world that is not prepared to listen.
With great appreciation to Dr Nelson, Dr Neale and the team responsible for this exhibition we have an opportunity and a time to listen and to commit ourselves to a world where After the War might actually exist.
For what they have done, this we shall do.