The National Army Museum’s new exhibition, Conflicts of Interest opens this Saturday, September 12th. It follows on from Helmand, the acclaimed and uncompromising look at a tour of duty in Afghanistan by members of 16 Air Assault Brigade.
This new display examines the conflicts and peacekeeping missions which have involved the British Army over the last three decades. What becomes immediately apparent is that the British Army has done an awful lot of fighting during that time, with the Parachute Regiment at the forefront. Some campaigns have been hugely successful (the Falklands, Sierra Leone, the First Gulf War), others controversial (Northern Ireland, Kosovo, the Iraq War, Afghanistan) and the sheer number of them is emphasised by the somewhat overwhelming nature of the exhibition. It’s a large room but feels claustrophobic, like a maze, bombarded by a torrent of sound and vision where the barren wastes of Iraq and the tight terraced streets of Belfast seem too close together. But what a wealth of material. Visceral, articulate accounts from officers and men; vivid paintings by John Keane, a war artist never afraid to confront his fears as he accompanies frontline troops; candid personal photographs of soldiers fighting, sleeping, returning home to loved ones, marriages, Brits v Aussies playing cricket in the Desert Ashes. There are the medals, including a posthumous VC and OBE, of Colonel ‘H’ Jones, Falklands hero; an officer’s desert fatigues reduced to threads by a mixture of the desert climate and the wear of body armour; the piece of shrapnel embedded in the helmet of a corporal while fighting drug-crazy gangs in Sierra Leone.
Among the most interesting aspects of the exhibition is the change in attitudes towards difference in the army: one chart reveals that the Army is strikingly more diverse in terms of religious belief than British society as a whole. Uniformed soldiers now join – and are allowed to join – Gay Pride Marches. Women have a greater profile than at any point in the Army’s history (there’s a pregnant soldier’s uniform on display). The concerns of the British Army inevitably reflect those of wider society as this thoughtful and fascinating exhibition makes explicit.