When I wrote this review of an exhibit at the Canadian War Museum thirteen years ago, I had no idea how accurately it would presage the current debacle unfolding in Afghanistan today. It is also a rather shameful example of how, under the imprimatur of “museum”, such shoddy research and careless handling of narrative can reach the public exhibition stage. In retrospect, even the title of the exhibition seems somewhat ironic. In 2008, it might very well have been the curator’s intention to give just a little “glimpse” of this misbegotten foreign military adventurism that Canada entered. Today, it is incumbent on us all to take a long, hard look at this period. I have seen many examples of exhibits in war museums and historic sites that, in a very persuasive way, do not hesitate to advocate for peace. Unfortunately, AFGHANISTAN, A Glimpse of War was not one of them. For Aisle Say.ca readers who would like a more in-depth analysis of this tragedy, I recommend Noah Richler’s op-ed piece that appeared today in the Globe and Mail which can be found here.
Last year a controversy erupted at the Canadian War Museum when a group of veterans complained about a panel of text that raised concerns regarding the Allied bombing of Dresden during the air war against Germany in the Second World War.
The offending text (entitled “An Enduring Controversy”) contained 62 words in total and referred to “critical issues in the strategic bombing campaign that remain subjects of intense debate.” Particularly contentious was the conclusion that the bombing of this largely civilian population “did not result in substantial reductions in German war production until the closing months of the war” which, in the minds of some veterans, raised questions with regard to the morality of the mission.
No such moral qualms have been raised so far against the temporary exhibition now running through January of next year entitled “AFGHANISTAN: A Glimpse of War” in which the CWM claims to “go beyond the headlines to capture Canada’s participation in the international security mission in Afghanistan.”
Featuring images by respected journalists Stephen Thorne and Garth Pritchard, the promotional and educational materials supporting the exhibit purport to “detail Canada’s efforts to help Afghans rebuild a country shattered by war.”
But no mention of hot button headline grabbers like the recently exposed two-tiered “detainee transfer agreement” that renders prisoners captured by Canadians over to Afghan authorities who are accused of then subjecting them to brutal interrogation including torture.
Touring the exhibit recently with a group of Ottawa high school students, one couldn’t help but be struck by the manipulation of pedagogical and didactic elements deployed (to use a military term) within the exhibit that would seem to indicate there is only one side to the story.
The curatorial approach is largely chronological beginning with the arrival of the infantry at Kandahar airport on March 8, 2002 to inaugurate “Operation Apollo.” A side panel compares the methodology and use of material culture and primary documents within the exhibit with that of the rest of the CWM making particular reference to what was available in 1945 and comparing it to 2006:
Eyewitness accounts (Available)
Journalists reports (Available)
Prime Ministerial papers (Not available)
Government documents (Not available)
Turning the corner, the first showcased artifact that immediately catches the attention of the students is entitled “MacMillan Long Range Sniper Weapon” which was “used against a Taliban fighter, killing him from 2,430 metres, the longest sniper kill ever recorded.” One student commented that “he had a bunch of those” referring to the .50 calibre cartridge bullet also on display One can only speculate on the job classification level of the lonely bureaucrat in the Ministry of National Defence who is responsible for this information and presumably tasked with tabulating and recording the history of “long range sniper kills.”
Another intriguing observation presented a panel with an accompanying video clip that portrayed the mission of May 3, 2002, when over 400 Canadian troops were airlifted to Tora Bora, Osama Bin Laden’s last known location. The panel states flatly: “They searched suspected hideouts for three days finding no sign of their target or his reported mountain fortress.”
With an amazing sense of alacrity, the panel then goes on to present a detailed drawing of the never found fortress (much like the illusory weapons of mass destruction in Iraq) that apparently had five rooms capable of housing 32 Taliban fighters with sleeping quarters, a kitchen area, supply and storage space, a sniper turret and a large garage capable of concealing a fully outfitted attack tank that uses a built ramp to facilitate ingress and egress! I mean talk about a curatorial military historian’s flight of the imagination…
Moving further into the heart of the exhibit, my group watches a documentary that is met with derisive cries of “oooh gross” as we see Canadian soldiers engaged in ghoulish labour digging up the remains of bodies that have been buried with marked gravestones in order to discover bits of hair, bone or flesh that can be sent back to Washington, D.C. for DNA testing in an attempt to discover if any of them are “our friend Osama Bin Laden or high-ranking Al Qaeda members.” Another soldier comments: “hopefully we’ll soon get on to humanitarian assistance and nation building rather than war making.”
And therein lies the contradiction not only within the exhibit but within the Canadian mission in Afghanistan. Where is the humanitarian assistance and the nation building? Look hard as you tour the rest of the exhibit to see the name of one NGO mentioned in detail along with the work they are doing. You won’t find it.
There are grand rubrics in capital letters entitled “REBUILDING KABUL,” “RECONSTRUCTION AND EDUCATION,” “HEALTH CARE,” “NUTRITION” and “ECONOMY.” But the narrative is thin with statistical evidence that is highly debatable. Under “Nutrition” we are told that the bakeries are mainly run by women who sell bread at subsidized prices. God help them when the International Monetary Fund eliminates the subsidy.
The final dramatically positioned artifact of the exhibit is an exploded Mercedes-Benz G-wagon which today has replaced the traditional Jeep of the last century. Blown apart by an IED (improvised explosive device), it enumerates the gory details of the encounter and the emotionally manipulative story of the survivors.
Throughout the exhibit there are public spaces that invite visitors to write comments on post-it notes. I observe a young couple considering their message then posting it before exiting.
It reads: “Harper sucks! Bring the troops home now!”
AFGHANISTAN, A Glimpse of War is at the Canadian War Museum until January 6, 2008
Robin Breon is an independent arts journalist based in Toronto. He is formerly administrator and internship coordinator for the museum studies program at the University of Toronto