Canadian War Museum's Afghanistan Exhibition Provokes Debate

The curators at the Canadian War Museum are no strangers to controversy when it comes to the way they present the past. In recent years, they've angered veterans by displaying a painting of a Canadian soldier torturing a teenager in Somalia, and again with the text in a Second World War exhibit that stated the "value and morality" of Allied bombing of Germany remains "bitterly contested." But with a new show, Afghanistan: A Glimpse of War, set to open on Feb. 9, the museum shifts from probing history's sore points to tackling an ongoing military mission - one that is a very current political hot button.

Dean Oliver, the museum's director of research and exhibitions, says the show is carefully designed not to suggest whether Canada's combat role is right or wrong. "The exhibition is very intentionally called 'a glimpse of war,' " Oliver says, "because it isn't a geopolitical exploration of its origins and impact." Visitors will see photographs, documentary video footage and artifacts like a G-Wagon - a sort of jeep - the front end of which was blown up by an improvised explosive device, injuring three soldiers and a journalist. "You try to approach it very simply," Oliver says. "Present the factual evidence without trying to lead people as to what they should think about it."

But the journalist who shot the photographs that form the core of the show is less guarded about the lesson he hopes visitors will take away. Stephen Thorne, a Canadian Press reporter and photographer who spent nearly 12 months in Afghanistan in three hitches from 2002 to 2004, says the exhibition should help put to rest the notion that Canada might be able to withdraw from fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan's violent southern region, but somehow still go on helping rebuild there. "We can't just go in and build bridges and dig wells and repair schools," Thorne says, "without first stopping the guys who are trying to stop that."

That won't be a welcome message to those who argue that Canada should pull back from combat, while stepping up reconstruction efforts. Yet it's doubtful that politicians or others who want Canadian troops out of Kandahar will be inclined to challenge the museum for its take on the war. If the exhibition tends to lead to Thorne's conclusion, it does so implicitly, by bringing images of Canadian forces engaged in hard fighting together with portrayals of the same troops trying to restore health care, education and a shattered economy.

And the show may be inoculated against criticism by the way it pays tribute to the more than 40 Canadian soldiers who have died in Afghanistan. The final station visitors will see before leaving features a computer screen displaying a sort of continuous slide show of the names and family pictures of those killed - from baby pictures to snapshots of boys playing hockey. Such intimate images are bound to pack an emotional punch. But Oliver says museum-goers will be left to draw their own, perhaps conflicting, conclusions. "It's equally possible that somebody would leave thinking, 'What a tragic loss of human life - it justifies me in my opposition to the war,' or thinking, 'These are the heroes of our time.' "

He says dealing with a conflict while it's still making headlines is not unheard of for the museum. In 1994, it opened a new PEACEKEEPING gallery while debate about the future of peacekeeping was swirling in the aftermath of the 1993 Somalia debacle. In 1999, while Canadian fighter pilots were taking part in the NATO bombing of Kosovo, the museum opened a gallery surveying Canada's role in the Atlantic alliance. Those chance intersections of the museum's historical work and current events, though, hardly equal the Afghanistan show's boldness - a full exhibition on the biggest and most contentious Canadian war story in decades as it continues to unfold. And this exhibition comes as the museum, following its spring 2005 move to a striking new building west of Parliament Hill, is well on the way to establishing itself as a must-see for tourists to Ottawa.

The Afghanistan show is scheduled to run until next January, but it won't remain static between opening and closing. Oliver says the museum plans to update the displays as events in the theatre of war demand. One grim but perhaps inevitable task: adding names and faces to that closing computerized roll call of the loved and the lost.

Maclean's February 12, 2007