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Afghanistan: The Australian Story at The War Memorial. A review

By Barcham - 13 August 2013 9

Two men and a dog.

Afghanistan and the Middle East are now indelibly linked to Australia’s national story.

Australia’s mission is clear: to combat international terrorism, to help stabilise Afghanistan, and to support Australia’s international alliances. Yet a mission statement cannot capture the challenges, the successes, and the comradeship of the Australian men and women who pursue it. Nor the joys and heartbreaks, or the loneliness and dedication of those who wait at home.

Some of these experiences, set against the powerful imagery of a modern war, are told in this exhibition…

Thus begins Afghanistan: The Australian Story, a new exhibit at the Australian War memorial. The exhibit is a thoroughly (but appropriately) depressing look into the stories of Australian soldiers and their families whose lives have been impacted by the conflict in Afghanistan.

Surrounded by somber black walls and set in the underground level of the War Memorial, the exhibit houses little by the way of artefacts. It mostly consists of recordings of stories alongside a few works of art. The few artifacts they have from the war were very well chosen. The boots cut off a bleeding solider, a section of a crashed helicopter that was used as a make shift stretcher, each object has a story attached to it. Each added some emotional weight to the exhibit.

It all fit together and tied into the theme of the exhibit very well.

The most noticeable part of the exhibit comes in the form of two giant screens sitting on opposites sides of the space, both constantly playing a loop of some rather fantastic footage of Afghanistan while a series of depressing and/or inspiring audio clips of soldiers or their widows plays over the top. These audio clips tell stories about things like PTSD, coming home on leave, or some people not coming home at all.

These screens took turns playing these sound files, and when the active screen changed the audience would pick their chairs up, walk across the gallery and sit on the other side to listen. It was rather odd. At times both screens would be playing sounds, and the noises would bleed into each other making it difficult to pay attention but that was rare.

Tucked away around a discrete corner were computers in booths you could sit at to watch video interviews with veterans or their loved ones, however there are only two PCs available and the wait to use one was considerable, seeing as you could really sit and listen to as many stories as you would like. Eventually a computer was left unattended and I jumped on, only to discover the computer in question wouldn’t actually load the videos. Fortunately they’re all just on the War Memorial Website. Check them out here if you’re interested, it’ll be easier than seeing them there.

Again this all was tied together very well into the theme of the exhibit, and if I were to review this exhibit based on how successfully it achieved it’s goal or presenting that theme I would rate it very highly.

However it’s the theme that bothered me.

It felt like a place designed more for an emotional function, rather than a place designed to inform. If you want to learn about the situation in the Middle East this exhibit won’t help you. If you want to go and feel moved by the efforts of our troops, then this exhibit has been tailor made for that exact purpose. It’s less war documentary, and more war porn.

I was moved emotionally, but when I left had gained nothing.

There were tragic stories and inspiring stories and sweet stories about Australians whose lives have been affected by the war. These stories have value sure, and they absolutely deserve to be told.

However the lack of stories from perspectives outside of our armed forces and their immediate families cheapened the affair for me.

On 11 September 2001, Australians felt outrage at al Qaeda’s attack on the United States. A year later, the devastating Bali bombings in Indonesia again brought home the threat of global terrorism. Some of those who planned the bombings had trained in Afghanistan. Australians were killed in both attacks.

That above quote was more or less the entirety of what was written on the history and motivations behind the war. A weak three sentences providing a weak link between three separate events. There was no mention of the politics involved, the huge controversy that has continued to be a hot topic for the past decade, nor the men and women behind the decisions to go to war.

There was absolutely nothing about the war from the Afghan point of view, which to me feels like a massively wasted opportunity.

There is so much that could be covered, so much that could be discussed, but instead we got a hand-picked selection of stories designed to play on our emotions.

This could have been an enlightening and educational exhibit, but what we got was the equivalent of another statue on Anzac parade.

The cynic in me wants to call it propaganda, but that’s not fair. It’s a memorial, and it’s not meant to do any of those things that I want it to.

The War Memorial is not really a museum, even if it is presented that way sometimes. It is not really an educational institution either, despite the several school groups I saw wandering around on excursion.

The War memorial is just that, a memorial, and this exhibit memorialises the lives lost and the sacrifices made by Australian troops in Afghanistan very well.

[Image by Gary Ramage, taken from the War Memorial’s collection]

What’s Your opinion?


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9 Responses to
Afghanistan: The Australian Story at The War Memorial. A review
Postalgeek 4:11 pm 14 Aug 13

Barcham said :

Postalgeek said :

Hence the title of the exhibition. It’s the Australian War Memorial, not the Afghanistan War Memorial. It’s role is to focus on Australia and Australians in the various theatres of war. Besides, what’s the opportunity that you see and which groups of Afghans do you want to see represented? Should the war memorial provide the perspective of groups that the ADF is currently in conflict with? How does that make returned service men and women feel?

How would showing a wider more rounded picture of global conflicts make returned service men and women feel? I don’t know, but I would hope they would feel good about it.

We see footage of our troops working in communities, building schools, repairing damaged town centres, and sometimes just hanging out with locals. It certainly looks to me like there is a friendly relationship there. If that is the case why on Earth would service men and women mind the stories of these locals being told alongside their own?

As for stories from the actual groups we are in conflict with, well if somehow we did manage to get audio clips of them telling their stories and allowing us to see the conflict from their point of view I would absolutely be all for including it.

I think that could be a really powerful thing. It would be a fantastic way of humanising the war and allowing the visitors to really understand what is going on, and what our troops are dealing with.

I do not have an answer for your question of exactly how broad they should go with their coverage. Where do they draw the line? I don’t know. That’s not an easy answer. You raise good points. Still while I don’t know how broad they should go, I definitely felt they had not gone broad enough.

Also you make a fair point about the use of the word ‘review’. However until I come across another word that means ‘the critical thoughts of someone who got paid to go experience this thing and then write about his personal reactions to it’, I’ll keep using the word review.

Barcho, you’re a braver man than me to publicly critique AWM exhibitions so I wish you luck, and I’d be the first to agree that a broad understanding of global conflicts should be encouraged. I don’t think it’s wrong to hold the AWM to a high standard, and to say there wasn’t enough information is a valid complaint. But it’s a tricky area to get right and there are a lot of pitfalls.

And if you want to keep using the word ‘review’, knock your socks off. Just warning you of possible connotations.

Postalgeek 3:15 pm 14 Aug 13

johnboy said :

Maybe if we put a bit more effort into understanding our enemies we might do better in these wars.

Here’s a good look:

http://exiledonline.com/the-war-nerd-market-lessons-from-the-pashtun/

I don’t think anyone here would disagree with what you say or advocate ignorance, but the AWM is a unique Australian institution with it’s own set of protocols, and it is surrounded by conflicting expectations of the roles it’s expected to perform. Is it a memorial, a museum, or an education centre? Do you tone down material for younger children, or do you keep all the sanguinary, VD-encrusted detail and confront the families who come to remember? I’m just suggesting that people need to understand its limitations as well as its strengths.

We have a sea of alternative educational resources available at our finger tips in order to understand the ‘enemy’, as your link demonstrated.

IrishPete 2:53 pm 14 Aug 13

johnboy said :

Maybe if we put a bit more effort into understanding our enemies we might do better in these wars.

Here’s a good look:

http://exiledonline.com/the-war-nerd-market-lessons-from-the-pashtun/

Had a quick read.

Anyone who didn’t know this before 2001 didn’t deserve their job as a politician, senior military officer or senior public servant. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

And so the USA and its lackeys invaded Afghanistan in the conceit that they were in some way better than the USSR before them, and many others before that. And now they/we slink home with their tails between their legs, heads held high denying the obvious. And Afghanistan will proceed to do what Afghanistan always has done.

IP

Barcham 2:46 pm 14 Aug 13

Postalgeek said :

Hence the title of the exhibition. It’s the Australian War Memorial, not the Afghanistan War Memorial. It’s role is to focus on Australia and Australians in the various theatres of war. Besides, what’s the opportunity that you see and which groups of Afghans do you want to see represented? Should the war memorial provide the perspective of groups that the ADF is currently in conflict with? How does that make returned service men and women feel?

How would showing a wider more rounded picture of global conflicts make returned service men and women feel? I don’t know, but I would hope they would feel good about it.

We see footage of our troops working in communities, building schools, repairing damaged town centres, and sometimes just hanging out with locals. It certainly looks to me like there is a friendly relationship there. If that is the case why on Earth would service men and women mind the stories of these locals being told alongside their own?

As for stories from the actual groups we are in conflict with, well if somehow we did manage to get audio clips of them telling their stories and allowing us to see the conflict from their point of view I would absolutely be all for including it.

I think that could be a really powerful thing. It would be a fantastic way of humanising the war and allowing the visitors to really understand what is going on, and what our troops are dealing with.

I do not have an answer for your question of exactly how broad they should go with their coverage. Where do they draw the line? I don’t know. That’s not an easy answer. You raise good points. Still while I don’t know how broad they should go, I definitely felt they had not gone broad enough.

Also you make a fair point about the use of the word ‘review’. However until I come across another word that means ‘the critical thoughts of someone who got paid to go experience this thing and then write about his personal reactions to it’, I’ll keep using the word review.

johnboy 2:34 pm 14 Aug 13

Maybe if we put a bit more effort into understanding our enemies we might do better in these wars.

Here’s a good look:

http://exiledonline.com/the-war-nerd-market-lessons-from-the-pashtun/

beardedclam 2:30 pm 14 Aug 13

I do like the dog in the pic.

IrishPete 1:12 pm 14 Aug 13

It’s probably “courageous” of the AWM to have a memorial/exhibit to a war that isn’t over yet, not even from an Australian perspective.

How soon before we have an exhibit on a war we haven’t started yet?

IP

Postalgeek 12:20 pm 14 Aug 13

There was absolutely nothing about the war from the Afghan point of view, which to me feels like a massively wasted opportunity.

Hence the title of the exhibition. It’s the Australian War Memorial, not the Afghanistan War Memorial. It’s role is to focus on Australia and Australians in the various theatres of war. Besides, what’s the opportunity that you see and which groups of Afghans do you want to see represented? Should the war memorial provide the perspective of groups that the ADF is currently in conflict with? How does that make returned service men and women feel?

Should the Australian war memorial tell the story of every group Australia’s rubbed shoulders with in every conflict? Are Boers under-represented? What’s your criteria of selection? Where do you start and stop with the causes? Whose interpretation of motivations do you go with? You can run the chain back through 9/11 onto decades of multi-national foreign policies involving the Middle East, flit over to American support for the Afghan mujahideen during the Soviet occupation, ANZUS, and then there’s the ideologies: neo-conservatism, capitalism, Islam and its ‘radicalism’, Christianity and its ‘radicalism’ and the plethora of crusades and on and on. Libraries of books are written expanding or disputing theories about the driving forces of wars. An exhibition paragraph, or paragraphs, can only ever gloss over the surface of a very complex discussion. And let’s not even talk about the mundane practicalities like budgets and staffing resources.

Personally I think it’s eminently sensible for a War Memorial exhibition to step around the ongoing academic arguments and revisions surrounding conflict in an exhibition. They will never do the topic justice, and they have a dedicated history section with full-time historians for those people who wish to do further reading.

BTW as far as ‘reviewing’ war memorial exhibitions goes, are you sure you want to open that can of worms? Not that I think the AWM should be above scrutiny, but I hope you’ve got a flak jacket handy. For a start, I wouldn’t use the term ‘review’. Nothing wrong with the word per se, but I think it’s tarred with the evocation of amateur bloggers voicing trivial opinions about restaurants and movies.

johnboy 11:28 am 14 Aug 13

It’s a real concern that national institutions are so scared of presenting history for fear of courting controversy.

Instead we just get a series of “stories”. Nice enough, a good start, but no substitute for the broader narrative.

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