Helmand: The Soldiers’ Story


While the majority of exhibitions at military museums date back to World War II and before, Helmand: The Soldiers’ Story may be the first to actually record an ongoing deployment.


Just how hot a topic Afghanistan is at the moment was underlined on the day that I visited the National Army Museum, with the commander of British forces in Helmand telling the Observer that he believed troops would still be there in 10 years time.


The report also mentioned that, despite ex-defence secretary John Reid’s claim that operations might be conducted without firing a single bullet, 650 soldiers from the First Battalion of the Royal Anglians had fired an incredible 480,100 rounds since April.


"This exhibition is written about, and by, soldiers," the visitor is told as they enter the exhibition space. "Their wish is not to upset you, but to show you."


Using soldiers’ oral testimony, film footage, photographs, mock-ups of living quarters and examples of equipment used on the battlefield, the exhibition tells the story of the 2006 British Airborne troop deployment to Helmand province, Afghanistan, an area half the size of Britain with a total population the same as Cambridgeshire.


Beside a looping video showing the 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre, the exhibition’s "objective" written commentary explains that the overall aim of the invasion was to "encourage a peaceful and democratic Afghanistan."


Stationed in towns such as Now Zad, Sangin and the state capital Lashkar Gah, the troops were involved in some of the fiercest fighting that British forces had seen since the Korean war.


On top of this, they were working in one of the most inhospitable environments on earth, with temperatures as low as minus 15 degrees centigrade in the winter and over 45 degrees in the summer.


The problem is, like other recent investigations into British foreign policy – think the Hutton Report or Channel Four’s Iraq Commission – the exhibition has a very limited remit.


So, while it gives an interesting insight into British soldiers’ experiences in what they renamed "Hell Land," it ignores anything that contradicts its overall message of benign intervention.


Where is any mention of the 2-3000 Afghan civilians who died in air strikes last year, according to the international policy think tank the Senlis Council?


For example, in one single incident in June, 25 civilians, including three children, were killed in an air strike called in by British soldiers, according to the Times newspaper.


The exhibition, of course, is littered with the usual grumbles made by squaddies on tour, but surely some soldiers have more serious concerns about the operation than the state of the toilets? And, if you are looking for testimony from Afghans themselves, forget about it.


Nevertheless, sharp-eyed visitors can still discover valuable information. On one look-out post, soldiers had noted 79 confirmed kills, four 2,000lb bombs and seven 500lb or 10,00lb bombs dropped.


Elsewhere, there is an example of a cross-shaped Mousehole charge used to "blast holes into the walls of houses or compounds," a tactic also used by Israeli forces against Palestinians and by US forces in Iraq.


Further along on one wall, the reality of what the British army is actually paid to do is made plain. "So we let rip with the four 50-cal heavy guns. The force of the blast from those guns is so powerful it can rip off your arm without even hitting you. All that was left of those guys was a pink mist," reports Capt M, from 3 Para.


So who are "those guys" that British soldiers are fighting in Afghanistan? "Anti Coalition Militia," says one display, that is "those presenting a threat to UK troops in Helmand. These could be Taliban troops, al-Qaida, local warlords, drugs traffickers or press-ganged members of the local population."


The idea that an Afghan might have a legitimate grievance and has willingly taken up arms against the occupying British forces is simply unthinkable to the creators of the exhibition.


Heavily advertised in Tube stations across London, it is difficult not to see Helmand: The Soldiers’ Story as, wittingly or unwittingly, part of the government propaganda effort to whip up support for the continuing British occupation, at a time when 53 per cent of the British public would like to see troops withdrawn "more or less immediately," according to a recent YouGov opinion poll.


Helmand: The Soldiers’ Story runs until December 2008. Ian Sinclair is a freelance journalist based in London, England[email protected]. 





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