Helmand, Kensington

I steeled myself for this exhibition on Afghanistan at the National Army Museum but in the event found steeling strangely unnecessary.

The exhibition is the story of the 16 Air Assault Rifle Brigade’s tour of duty in Helmand Province. Its members, who planned and built the exhibition, are half of Britains rapid reaction force and were the first NATO troops into Helmand in April 2006. They call themselves ‘air-minded’ – used to working with helicopters. The web site says:

“The unit is made up of assault infantry, airborne troops and helicopters. The unit’s main combat mission profiles are deep strikes into enemy territory, seize and hold, interdiction and raiding operations as well as support for Special Forces operations. The Brigade’s composition also makes it very well suited to humanitarian, evacuation and peacekeeping operations.”

It was fitting for the exhibition to begin with footage of September 11th. Then you progressed through different zones listening to (or reading) themed excerpts from interviews with polite young man after polite young man (one polite young woman from the medical corps). They talked about things like mending bombed coms cable under fire, improvising food, investigating deaths and accidents, rescuing injured mates, negotiating working relationships with the Afghan allies, receiving daily briefs, making good relations with local people, suicide bombs, finding things to do with dead time, being effectively imprisoned in enclaves, defending their bases, getting supplies from A to B in the sand, dealing with poppy farmers, coming under and returning fire, the way Afghanistan knackered their kit, the little polystyrene desert hawk toy plane drones. Remember the squadron which trod on land mines and didn’t have enough medical supplies to avoid using T-shirts for tourniquets? One of them talked about that.

Use of multimedia was excellent. There was a lot of ambient noise (including Green Day, Metallica, Cranberries and looped interviews) contributing to the immersive experience of an army base, but the positioning of the kiosks and the quality of the sound was like somebody talking right next to you – fine and much better than a sterile silent environment with headphones. The kiosks were like large army chests containing equipment or objects on a theme (investigating accidents, rations – 4000 kcal – lots of Yorkie bars- and day-to-day apparel. Embedded into them were laptops under persex with separate rollermouse console. The video and audio were themed – communications, supplies, combat, &tc – and chunked into short excerpts with a menu.

The photos and videos lent great immediacy. One which will stay with me was a video – maybe with a mobile phone – in which there was an unexpected explosion 100m away. The camera operator jumped so violently your heart turned over for him. The clattering and franticness of combat came across, as did the bleakness and brokenness of Afghanistan.
There were also conspicuous gaps. I don’t know whether there was bromide in the instant white tea sachets, but there was no mention of sex whatsoever. Matt explains that’s because they weren’t conscripts so were more self-contained and resourceful in distracting themselves. It may have helped that they were sleeping in pod tents made of net curtains and showering out of black plastic bags. No mention of family either. One solitary unfavourable mention of Selly Oak. Very little death, and relatively little injury, and understated accounts of what little there was.

16 Air Assault Rifle Brigade left in October 2006. They lost 19 soldiers on that tour. Since then fatalities have increased. On the journey I read that three Helmand soldiers had just been killed in US F15 (blue on blue) fire.

The exhibition was excellent for a sight, sound and feel of British army life in Helmand and definitely worth a visit.

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