TUMBY BAY - There have been rumblings among the ever diminishing ex-kiap community for several years now about the desirability of erecting a monument to the work they did in colonial Papua New Guinea, and especially to commemorate those who lost their lives in the service.
The proposals range from a physical structure at a selected location to something like a scholarship for Papua New Guinean students named to mark the kiaps’ contribution to the development of their nation.
As with the previous and partially successful effort to have their work remembered through the provision of a medal, the old kiaps have been facing an uphill battle taking the idea to the politicians.
In the previous case, the initial goal was to have a medal struck specifically to mark the kiaps’ service. The ultimate result was that the Australian government agreed they should be awarded an existing police medal.
Of course, the kiaps’ role in PNG was much broader and more complex than a policing function. But at least there was some form of recognition.
Now, a small cohort of ex-kiaps seem dedicated to the project of memorialising their work while a larger group seems indifferent to this.
What separates these two groups is an interesting study in the psychology of commemoration.
It begins with a consideration of the role that memorials play in a society and whether these acts of remembering contribute to any national or community sense of identity.
What gets remembered, what is allowed to be forgotten, and who decides?
Historian Cynthia Mills thinks that monuments are messengers from the past and play a special role in weaving stories of national identity.
She says they help us come to know ourselves as a national community, especially in relationship to others.
Other historians think monuments that carry the past to the present act as reminders for people and help prevent meddling with and changing historical facts and events.
In 1800 a North Carolina, USA, congressman expressed a different view.
“Monuments are good for nothing,” he said, arguing that democracy and the spread of literacy had made commemorative rituals and monuments obsolete, a leftover from the days of monarchy and superstition.
Reflecting on Congress’s reluctance to fund a monument to George Washington, John Quincy Adams famously observed that “democracy has no monuments”.
Despite these early protestations, commemoration has become commonplace in America, just as it has in Australia.
Not only have Americans and Australians come to embrace traditional forms of commemoration, but they have pioneered new ways of doing it, particularly in the remembrance of war dead.
Today these practices continue to multiply and spread in ways no one could have imagined, now even extending into the solar system with a monument on Mars to the fallen crew of the spacecraft Columbia.
It seems that a deep psychological need has developed among people, individually and collectively, to be remembered and celebrated.
It is also a lucrative avenue exploited by the media. Nothing increases ratings more than a good old public patting on the back.
At the same time there has also developed a political practise of being highly selective about what gets remembered and what doesn’t.
Every nation is sensitive about its creation story. But in most cases it is unwilling to examine the grim details of that creation, which are deflected, sanitised or rewritten to suit an acceptable present day view.
Australia is particularly good at this. The sorry story of the displacement of our indigenous people has effectively been buried for the last 230 years.
If the response to home-grown writers is anything to go by, politicians in PNG don’t want to remember anything either.
In Australia the colonial experience in PNG is still tainted with reminders of imperialism and all that it entailed, including racism, notions of white supremacy and cold-blooded exploitation.
Among other things it seems Australian politicians and officials don’t want is to be reminded of these ugly facts by a bunch of old kiaps trying to erect a monument.
That North Carolina congressman who said “democracy has no monuments” had a good point because he also explained that literacy had made physical monuments obsolete.
There is now an extensive and detailed canon of literature about the kiaps that will outlast anything built in concrete and steel.
Amongst that literature is information and tributes to those who lost their lives as part of Australia’s colonial ambitions.
Monuments get covered in bird shit and most eventually fall apart or are vandalised for their brass plaques. But the literature remains.
Perhaps the ex-kiaps should be happy with that.