US Embassy in Australia: Centenary of Mateship

Commemorating the Centenary of the Battle of Hamel
Remarks by the Director of the Australian War Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson AO

3 July 2018
Anzac Hall, Australian War Memorial

Excellencies, Mr Stokes, CDF, Australians and Americans

In January 2014, I stood in front of the US Customs and Immigration officer at the Fort Worth airport. 

I handed him my official passport he looked at the passport, he looked at me and with a very thick Texan accent he said “the Australian War Memorial we need one of them here”.

He said my son’s a marine he came back from Afghanistan late last year and he was telling me about the Aussies and how awesome they are and their Special Forces he said “are almost as good as ours”, then I knew he wasn’t being honest.

He said “I said to my son every time we pick a fight the Australians are the first in with us and they’re the last out”.

We pause here at the Australian War Memorial and it’s here that we reveal our character as a people, our soul.

The paradox of this place is that it’s not about war; it’s in a context of war and the stories here of two million Australian men and women who wear and have worn our uniform.

And it’s also the stories of many, many Americans.

It’s also not possible for people to understand, why Australia and the United States are allies and not just good friends, until they come here.

We are brought together here to celebrate Independence Day for the United States on the eve of a seminal event in what has been an alliance and we describe as a ‘century of mateship’.

At the end of the battle General Sir John Monash said that the Australians regarded the Americans as blood brothers. The birth of the alliance was in the battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 and then formalised in 1951. 

There’s not a day goes by in this country where privately or publicly, we don’t give thanks, thanks for American sacrifice in the pacific from December 1941 until to the end of the second world war.

300,000 American casualties, 103,000 of them dead, half their bodies never found.

An alliance that has brought us capability, intelligence, inter-operability, trade and cultural relationships and benefits.

And James, when I go to your country and its capital Washington which I have done now on about 30 occasions in my public life, there are two places I always go; two, no matter how tight my program.

I go to the Holocaust Museum to remind me of that to which human beings are capable of descending and i go to the Jefferson memorial to remind me of the ideals of mankind and the common values and interests by which we live and share.

As you reminded us we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among these life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And to uphold these rights, governments are instituted among men.

Sometimes as Australians we are asked, ‘what is mateship’? A great bush poet of the early 20th century Henry Lawson described a mate as ‘someone who abuses you to your face and then defends you to the death behind your back’.

Charles Bean, who observed all of this, as you reminded us James, including the battle of Hamel, he said of it,

‘To be the kind of man that would give way when his mates were trusting to his firmness, to live the rest of his life haunted by the knowledge that he lacked the grit to carry  it through this was the prospect with which these men could not live. Life,’ he said, ‘was very dear, but life was not worth living unless they could be true to their ideal of Australian manhood.’

Mateship is just that, the spirit that makes people stick together no matter what. To defy hardship, danger and death and retain a consummate belief in one another.

And finally there are voices in our country as I’m sure your cables are reporting back to Washington. Voices that say that we Australians, that our interests would be better served by focusing a lot more on countries that are emerging and remerging in our region and less on the United States. 

We should focus more on those countries but what’s absolutely essential for us is to understand, as John McCain said last year of your country, our interests are our values and our values are our interest.

And every single day at this place we remind Australians what those values are, they are ones for which we have fought and we have died and we will continue to do so. And that a mate is not someone that leaves another mate behind because he thinks that his interests are going to be better served elsewhere.

Congratulations for what your country has achieved.

We are proud to be allies and we are proud, very proud here to have you as a part of our story.