Originally published in Canberra Times on June 10, 2023

The Australian War Memorial is currently displaying the uniform of a soldier found by the federal court, on the balance of probabilities, to be a murderer, war criminal, a bully and a liar.

It’s a desecration of a national monument. It is supposed to be a place to grieve victims of war and to commemorate the sacrifice of those Australians who have died in war or on operational service, not to glorify war, or war criminals.

The adulation accorded to the actions of Ben Roberts-Smith flies in the face of the core purpose of the AWM. The Australian War Memorial chair, Kim Beazley, said the War Memorial was “considering carefully the additional content and context to be included in these displays” including Ben Roberts-Smith’s uniform, equipment, medals and artworks. The statement also noted this was a civil legal case, but since when is a criminal conviction required to remove a museum exhibit? It’s unacceptable.

The War Memorial had months to prepare and its tepid response is not good enough. The current AWM Board would be well advised to familiarise itself with its own history. Those more familiar with the AWM’s history than I relate that when Charles Bean was Chair of the Board of Management, it established the criteria for the “hanging list” – the portraits and memorabilia approved as suitable decoration for the Memorial’s displays. The principal criterion was not heroism, valor, fame (or notoriety), standing, honors or station in society. Rather, it was the contribution to the nation’s war effort and the good that the person in question had done for their community and their comrades.

Apparently, following Bean’s retirement, the Board decided to hang a portrait of the controversial and prickly Lt Gen Gordon Bennett, who had relinquished his command of the Australian forces captured in Singapore in 1942 and escaped to Australia. Within a couple of days, the portrait had been slashed across the throat. It was taken down, never to be re-hung.

In Ben Roberts-Smith’s case, even without criminal conviction, his actions reveal his character to be so base as to persuade the AWM to remove exhibits honouring his service. Memorably, it was an agreed fact of the case that Roberts-Smith asked an Australia Post employee whether stamps could be traced and sure enough the judge found Roberts-Smith had lied and intimidated witnesses—itself a criminal offence—using a private investigator to send threatening letters to those testifying against him. Every day of the spectacular defamation trial revealed a new low to which he had stooped, causing one person following the trial on twitter to ask “Can a judge find that someone has not been defamed enough?”

A careful read of the judgement answers that question: “The imputations which I found to be substantially true because of the conduct I have identified are so serious that the applicant has no reputation capable of being further harmed.” [emphasis mine]

This has not stopped a multitude of commentators defending the tattered remains of Ben Roberts-Smith’s reputation, with Peta Credlin bravely leading the vanguard.

“Even if he were to be convicted of a war crime, to what extent, if any, should that detract from his undoubted heroics in winning the ultimate military accolade?” she asked.

This is the rhetorical question of a radical, not a conservative. Let those who have not kicked an unarmed, handcuffed prisoner off a cliff cast the first stone? What’s a few murders amongst friends? Come on. Of course war crimes should detract from military accolades.

Justice Besanko found that, on the balance of probabilities, Roberts-Smith had, amongst other things, kicked an unarmed, handcuffed villager off a cliff and ordered him shot dead, and forced a junior soldier to execute a civilian. Wearing an Australian military uniform, Roberts-Smith murdered, or was complicit in, no less than four murders in Afghanistan. He has disgraced Australia and the Australian Defence Force.

Yet Greg Sheridan, drawing the world’s longest bow, is worried that ‘Going woke risks destroying the ADF as a real fighting force’, as though the Chief of the Defence Force might propose more rainbow morning teas as a means of cleaning up the SAS.

The Texan journalist Molly Ivins once observed that she preferred “someone who burns the flag and then wraps themselves up in the Constitution over someone who burns the Constitution and then wraps themselves up in the flag.” Those more interested in prosecuting a culture war against ‘wokeness’ than in the alleged criminal conduct of our soldiers in war are attempting to wrap their arguments in the cloak of military accolades while setting fire to the idea that war crimes are anathema.

Roberts-Smith’s fall from grace is not just a sad story, as some commentators have said. It is what happens when a person’s combat record is exploited for political purpose – in this case to honor and legitimize a war where allegedly criminal actions were condoned and which ended in ignominy. Politicians and ex-politicians occupying prominent official positions heaped praise on a man who has disgraced his nation, the ADF, his regiment, those he led in combat, his family and not least of all himself. They exploited his “heroism” to bask vicariously in reflected glory that only served to feed their own vanity.

Investigative journalist Nick McKenzie—the subject of Roberts-Smith’s defamation proceedings alongside Christ Masters, David Wroe, the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and the Canberra Times—described how the soldier accumulated a “very wealthy, very influential and very determined cheer squad”. Chief among these were two former Chairs of the Australian War Memorial, Kerry Stokes, who was also his financial backer, and Brendan Nelson. Both are gone now, but their actions and remarks tarnish the reputation of the Australian War Memorial.

We will need to await developments before we know whether Ben Roberts-Smith might face criminal charges for alleged war crimes. In the meantime, the AWM has no option but to take down the display that glorifies a murderer, a war criminal, a bully and a liar.

Between the Lines Newsletter

The biggest stories and the best analysis from the team at the Australia Institute, delivered to your inbox every fortnight.

Sign up

General Enquiries

02 6130 0530

Media Enquiries

Luciana Lawe Davies Media Adviser

0457 974 636

RSS Feed

All news