LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Amputation, post-traumatic stress, bravery, camaraderie and the unique life of the British soldier is painstakingly documented in a new show at London’s National Army Museum.
“Conflicts of Interest” explores more than three decades of soldiering by examining the role of the British Army across the globe and the impact on the lives of the men and women who sign on to serve Queen and country.
Photographs, blown-up images of newspaper front pages, touch screens, machine guns, rocket launchers, uniforms, a raft of facts and figures, thematic wall and floor decorations and even a piece of shrapnel which cost one British soldier his arm, tell the tale of sacrifice and danger in the British Army.
The exhibition focuses on key international conflicts from Northern Ireland and the Falklands to Iraq and Afghanistan, while debating domestic issues and the modern military.
The show doesn’t flinch from the less painful aspects of army life, the hardship of enduring rapid turnarounds from one conflict zone to the next and the terrible price that many pay when their careers end in tragedy or after leaving the army.
Curator Mairead O’Hara said the museum tried to portray army life behind the recruitment posters, and said the Army exercised no editorial control over the exhibition.
“I felt it was important that we presented a very rounded perspective of these conflicts,” O’Hara said.
A white wall in the middle of the show details facts next to a large photograph of a homeless middle-aged man sitting against a wall, his legs under a grubby sleeping bag and lighting a roll-up cigarette.
“In London alone, almost 1,100 veterans find themselves homeless every night. Over 90 percent of homeless veterans are ex-Army. Most of them served in the Falklands and Northern Ireland. At least nine percent of the prison population in the UK are veterans. The majority of those are ex-Army”
Those are some unflattering statistics to post in an exhibition that sits next door to the Royal Hospital Chelsea, where the Chelsea Pensioners — former serving soldiers of the British Army — live and can be seen in their famous scarlet coats.
O’Hara, who spoke to serving soldiers and veterans, amputees, those in prison and went on excursions to some of the conflict areas to speak to people there, said she found that part of creating the exhibition one of her toughest challenges.
One of the touching stories is that of Corporal David Aitchison of 1st Battalion the Parachute Regiment, whose shrapnel-peppered helmet is part of the display that examines the British Army’s operations in Sierra Leone, where he was badly wounded.
“It’s not the easiest thing in the world to approach people who are going through the most traumatic period in their lives,” she said.
The exhibition’s Afghanistan area sheds light on recent fighting and the British Army’s long history in the region. Incorporating recent and historic images of Afghanistan, first-hand accounts from servicemen and women and news footage of the war, the area explores the reasons behind British engagement and the results of the conflict.
The show also contrasts the first and second Gulf Wars with chemical warfare kit and a painting by war artist John Keane and highlights threats faced during the 1990 - 1991 conflict.
The space devoted to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo explores varying levels of British military engagement during the 1990s - looking at the army both as UN peace-keeping force, and when engaged in full conflict under NATO.
O’Hara said that public feedback has been overwhelmingly positive in support of the military, but perhaps less enthusiastic about the conflicts.
One message in particular, scrawled in the handwriting of a youngster, showed the enduring appeal of the heroism highlighted in the exhibition by portraits of such people as Private Michelle Norris, the first woman to be awarded the Military Cross for her actions in Iraq in 2006.
It read: “I’m going to be a soldier - Freddie”
Editing by Patricia Reaney