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Afghanistan: the Australian story: opening speech, Canberra

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Campaign Media Release

Prime Minister


Acknowledgments omitted

I am honoured to be present today at the opening of ‘Afghanistan: the Australian Story’.

I’ve been to a lot of exhibitions. This one hits you between the eyeballs. It’s quite extraordinary.

What you’ll see when you see this are the voices of our men and women in uniform; those with whom they’ve worked and fought.

The triumphs, the success, the tragedies in an extraordinary piece of, Australian style, knock you between the eyeballs cinema.

So for those of you who have done this, I believe you have done something very good, genuinely good.

I listen carefully to what the diggers were saying and the others who have featured in it and above all, as Brendan has just said, the core message to folks like me is the absolute importance of telling the story, the absolute importance of telling the story.

Not in a decade’s time, not in 20 years’ time, as we wait for the official histories to be written, but to tell the story now. Because it is a story worth telling, it is really a story worth telling.

As I’ve reflected on what was just said by those featuring in it, the purpose for which our men and women in uniform went and served, and some died, and many were wounded. That purpose, and its absolute and continuing importance, in a word ‘freedom’ is not easily had.

Freedom is purchased very expensively and the walls of this memorial are testimony to that. Freedom in foreign lands is important as well, even a land as distant as Afghanistan.

It also hit me between eyes with, frankly, a clear, clear picture of how physically tough and confronting the fight has been.

When folks like myself go to Afghanistan, I’ve been there a number times; you’re taken to Tarin Kowt, you’re taken to the base - once or twice you go beyond the wire.

What you see in the presentation, in this master’s work, is action as it happened: bullets flying off vehicles; the direct account of a suicide bomber detonating himself as a twelve year old three meters away from a serving member of the Australian armed forces.

And one soldier said I don’t think back home they quite know how confronting and tough, and brutal the fight has been. This will answer that in such a big way.

And I think of a third thing comes through to what I’ve just seen, and I’ve just been talking to the padre about this, who features in the film - well done padre - it’s the absolute importance of looking after our veterans when they come home and the stories that are contained within the film of PTSD.

To our veterans’ affairs community and department this represents a whole new challenge. I think the magnitude of which the country hasn’t yet fully grasped. I’m taken overall by an extraordinary statement by the Governor of Urozgan, a bloke who I just met a week or so ago over there, and the Governor said in the film, and I quote him;

“You, Australians, have come from your heaven-like country to come and walk in our dust. We don’t intend for your sacrifice to have been in vain.”

It’s an extraordinary statement. One of thanks, of gratitude, His Excellency the Afghan Ambassador is with us. From a people we have not known before but for whom now we have a genuine sense of kindred spirit.

And so to you one and all who haven’t seen this production spend some time. It’s worth it.

It takes us out of the day-to-day nonsense of our lives sometimes, and puts you right up close and personal with people for whom decisions are very black and very white and whose lives really are on the line.

In this place, in this extraordinary institution, my great predecessor John Curtin, when he opened the War Memorial in 1941, he called this place the true sanctuary of Australian tradition. Curtin on this, as on so many things, saw through the glass to the future.

I’ve never tired of coming to this place since I first came here as a ten year old in short pants on our first visit from Queensland. Whether you are religious or not, this has become, for many Australians, a holy place. It is in many respects a cathedral of our nation’s memory.

This exhibition preserves part of our national memory. Nearly 30 000 of our nation’s finest, who have served in Afghanistan, are honoured as part of our national story.

So too are the great actions, the feats of bravery, the humanitarian endeavour, that underpin our work in the ancient land.

As one of our poets have said of another land, in fact our own, from the deserts the prophets come.

Above all, we come here to honour the 40 brave men who lost their lives in this theatre, whose names were movingly read to us all a short time ago.

Together with the hundreds who were wounded, and the thousands and tens and thousands who have served, this great monument has been built for a grateful nation to commemorate the sacrifice of all the husbands and wives, the mothers and fathers, the brothers and sisters, the daughters and sons, to whom Australia owes an unpayable debt.

The Australian men and women who have served in Afghanistan have shouldered a great burden in a vast hard land so far from our shores.

The names of the fallen Afghanistan have been etched in the walls of this memorial together with 100 000 other names. Families come from around the nation to honour them. Whether they have fallen at the Somme, a century ago, or fallen within the last year in and around Tarin Kowt.

Therese’s mum, now 87, has been a frequent visitor here over the years, quietly placing her little red poppy next to her brother’s name, who disappeared in the skies over Burma, 70 years ago. He had no grave, this place is his only memorial.

And so it has become a memorial for all of us. For Afghanistan veterans, we believe it will become a fitting place of personal and national reflection.

Facts and figures are the part of the Afghan story, achievements in the field, the raising of a full brigade of the Afghan national army. Also, an important story of achievement all round, the building of bridges, schools, hospitals, roads, to offer hope to an often despairing people.

The facts and figures don’t capture the challenges and triumphs, the heartache and the mateship, of these modern day ANZACs, and the families who have nurtured them, and to have loved and lost in the service of the nation.

War is not about the cold arithmetic of numbers. It is about real life human beings and their stories of survival, courage, compassion, and yes, humour, but above all, beauty. And it is this exhibition that tells those stories with an extraordinary force.

The exhibit’s images, sights, textures, objects, sounds represent the faces, the forces, the friends, the families, and even the foes of our Afghan story.

Of course Afghanistan is not just an Australian story, it is an Allied story. It’s an

American story, it’s a British story, it’s a New Zealand story, it’s a story of so many of our allies, but above all it’s a story of Afghanistan itself and that wonderful country’s future.

And we all wish this new State resting tentatively in the arms of a truly ancient nation God’s speed for the future.

As I said to the women and men serving in Urozgan when I visited them a week or so ago, when the Australian flag is brought down for the last time in Urozgan, each and every one of you will know that you have been part of history.

And here, in this great national memorial, your story will be forever told.