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The cultural cost of war - an Anzac eve reflection

By Tim O'Dwyer - posted Friday, 24 April 2009

Anzac Day provides Australians with an opportunity to pause, to remember and to try to understand the cost and impact of war.

Jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, a veteran of the American Civil War, told the 1895 graduating class of Harvard College, “We have shared the incommunicable experience of war”. All of us today have shared, to lesser or greater extents, the experience of war. But how incommunicable is the experience of war? Holmes was probably exercising a little lawyer’s hyperbole, but we know what he was getting at. Ever since human beings began waging war against each other they have been moved to record and communicate, sooner or later, that experience mostly by way of written and spoken words - from battlefield diaries, despatches and letters home to multi-volumed histories, from correspondents’ reports to media briefings.

Some 30 years before Oliver Wendell Holmes’ Memorial Day address, and only a few months after the decisive Civil War Battle of Gettysburg, US President Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address in just 266 powerful words.


Napoleon Bonaparte, some 200 years ago, first remarked how a picture was more powerful than words. Needless to say, Napoleon had experienced his share of wars. What he actually said was: “un croquis vaut mieux qu’un long discourse”. Although the literal translation in English is that a sketch is better than a long speech, this universal truth is now expressed as: a picture is worth a thousand words. In many ways pictures or images may communicate - far better than words - the incommunicable experience of war.

On the walls of the Australian War Memorial’s Hall of Memory are four remarkable mosaic pictures of military figures - a sailor, a soldier, a servicewoman and an airman. Of the four mosaics, the most thought-provoking - even disturbing - is that of the airman.

While the Australian soldier, sailor and servicewoman appropriately and effectively radiate remembrance, the picture of the airman represents something different.

The hope for the Hall of Memory, suggests War Memorial literature, was that it would have "the atmosphere of a cathedral". (Should the words "synagogue or mosque" now be added to that material?) People could quietly contemplate the spirit of sacrifice of Australians who died in the two world wars, continues this material. Yet there is a glaring and disturbing contradiction revealed in the contemplative Hall of Memory and evidenced by the unsettled and unsettling expression on this airman’s face and by where he is standing: clearly inside a bomb-damaged cathedral.

The three other mosaic figures in the Hall of Memory appropriately and effectively radiate remembrance: the confident sailor standing squarely on the foredeck of his ship, the alert servicewoman stepping forward from a lit doorway, and the returning digger with his wartime equipment at his feet. By contrast at the flying-booted feet of the airman rests the carved stone head of a saint and a stone hand holding a book, both obviously broken from a cathedral statue. No wonder the airman's face seems almost turned away.

The War Memorial's official but disarming description of this mosaic is that the RAAF officer "stands and surveys the destruction of beauty and human ideals". The description continues with the suggestion that the result is a sardonic comment "on man's stupidity and on the perverted ingenuity by which he can destroy in a few moments what has taken centuries to build".


This insight differs from the simple assertion made some years ago by a Veterans’ Affairs Minister that the Hall of Memory figures represented the Australian sacrifice in World War II. True perhaps for the representations of the Army, Navy and Women’s Services, but the Air Force representation may speak more of sacrilege than of sacrifice.

RAAF bomber crews served in England during World War II so we might speculate that the setting for the Hall of Memory's fourth figure is the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, founded in the 11th century and destroyed with most of the rest of Coventry by Luftwaffe air raids in 1940. Might this mosaic depict an anguished and remorseful Australian airman, returned from his "tumult in the clouds", encountering at close quarters irreparable damage to sacred art caused by the enemy's aerial bombing of this historic place of worship? Could there also be a hint of revenge within the anguish and remorse on his face?

Or guilt?

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About the Author

Tim O’Dwyer is a Queensland Solicitor. See Tim’s real estate writings at:

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