The Australian War Memorial has mounted a new exhibition, Afghanistan: the Australian story. Director Brendan Nelson has recognised the need to get the balance right between depicting past and current wars and this exhibition delivers on that commitment. The exhibition, online and face to face, enables an appreciation of the reality of this long-running war, the professionalism and compassion of Australians doing a difficult job, the impacts on families, both Afghani and Australian, and the effects on soldiers killed, wounded and psychologically damaged.
One Australian soldier interviewed says of Afghani villagers, who only pause briefly in their work in the fields as bullets fly around them, that ‘nobody should be that used to war’. Yet there are victims among both Afghanis and Australians. In Australia, soldiers and their families bear the brunt of the political chop logic that attends most decisions to go to war, as the interviews with soldiers’ families show.
One does not need to support the Australian commitment to this or other wars to be impressed by this exhibition. Nor does one need to accept the conflation by one featured officer of his ‘responsibility to the Australian Government’ with something he describes as a ‘responsibility to the Australian people’. Nor need one subscribe to the patriotic bombast (the term ‘Anzackery’ has been used) often called up to support our wars. Drawing a distinction between opposition to a war and concern for the men and women who obey orders to fight it – and do so with spirit and commitment – should not be difficult although the more extreme ‘Anzackers’ seem to find it so.
Opening speeches at the exhibition came from the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Chief of the Defence Force. The only jarring note was Mr Abbott’s paraphrase (after mark 24.0 in the linked item) of Samuel Johnson’s remark that every man despises himself who has not been a soldier and that he (Mr Abbott) yearned to know more of the life of soldiers. This seemed to be support shading into sycophancy.