Gathering history in Afghanistan
Australia’s 12-year commitment to the war in Afghanistan has been a mix of tragedy and triumph: soldiers have been killed, Victoria Crosses won, and security and services improved in some parts of the war-ravaged nation. By the end of 2014, international forces will have gone – but what legacy will they have left?
Australian War Memorial senior historian Dr Steven Bullard recently travelled to Afghanistan to interview serving members about their roles and experiences for an official history that will one day draw conclusions about the war. He travelled with a photographer commissioned by the Memorial, and a senior curator who photographed and interviewed 19 members of the Australian Defence Force as part of a special project which will highlight the roles and reactions of those serving in the Middle East Area of Operations.
Official histories are the national record of Australia’s involvement in particular conflicts. They give a comprehensive, authoritative and accessible account of the Australian experience of war across all services. The histories are commissioned by government but do not follow any “official” or government line – the author draws his or her own conclusions about the missions. The Memorial has sponsored Australia's official war histories since its inception.
There is no government commitment yet to an official history on the Middle East conflicts that would include Afghanistan, but there is an expectation that one be produced. Bullard is writing a volume for the official history of Australian peacekeeping, humanitarian, and post–Cold War operations project – the fifth separate series of official war histories, following on from those covering the two world wars and the Cold War conflicts in Korea and south-east Asia. His experience in that capacity led to the month-long deployment in the Middle East theatre, which has Afghanistan at its core.
“It was a great opportunity to get to an operational area,” Bullard says. “As a military historian it’s really nice to witness these things first hand, to see how things are operated.”
Bullard interviewed 74 people across the ADF, as well as some coalition personnel and civilians working with the Department of Defence, stationed in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and at Tarin Kot and Kabul in Afghanistan. They were of all ranks of the Australian Army, Royal Australian Air Force, Royal Australian Navy, and Special Operations, and included a proportional representation of men and women.
“The most recent Australian official histories cover three aspects of our war experience,” Bullard says. “The first is at the political level: why do we get involved in conflict, what decisions do we take, and what relationships do we have with other coalition partners and allies in order to go to war. The second is the narrative of our involvement in war: what we actually did, when we did it, and how we went about it. The third level is the experience of individual Australians who served in these wars: to try and understand their experiences, their motivations, and their individual challenges. The interviews I was conducting were really trying to flesh out the last two of those.”
The men and women were asked questions of a personal as well as professional nature. Bullard started by establishing their background – such as the length of their service, their motivation for choosing one service over another, their preparation for deployment – before getting into operational details about their individual role and how that fitted into the larger unit structure. They were asked about security and the hazards or threats they might face; their living conditions and contact with home; and their assessment of what they were doing in terms of Australia’s overall commitment, as well as its ultimate legacy.
“I’d also try and find out if there were any specific experienced they’d had that were quite hard or emotional or really trying … invariably people were quite willing to open up, and a number of times they related quite personal and very emotional experiences. With a few people, we had to stop a number of times to let them gather themselves because it was obviously still quite difficult to talk about.”
Bullard says it is interesting to see the range of activities that Australians are involved in, from logistics and supply to weapons advisory roles, intelligence, and counter-terrorism maritime security. “It’s a really large coalition military environment there, and Australians are hooked into a whole range of activities right across the board. At the moment not a lot of Australians are involved in combat operations, with Special Forces the exception. A lot of the Australians now are working towards the transition to hand over security and a whole range of other things to the Afghan National Army and the Afghan government. They’re working very hard and very long hours to do this, and it’s a really unsung aspect.”
The international mission in Afghanistan has been frequently criticised, and Australian soldiers have occasionally been the subject of negative commentary. Bullard says: “The vast majority of Australians who are over in the Middle East serving are doing an amazing job. As a rule, they are quite dedicated, and committed to what they’re doing. That shouldn’t have been a surprise to me … but you tend to hear only the bad news stories now. Invariably, the people who are there believe that they are making a difference and they are really working very, very hard.”
Australia will withdraw most of its force from Afghanistan by the end of this year, and while some Australians will stay on indefinitely in training, advisory, and counter-terrorism roles, it is expected that Afghanistan will be responsible for its own security from 2015. An official history of the mission will be important to the veterans of the campaign, as well as the broader public. “I’d always tell people before we did the interview that they weren’t doing it for me or the Memorial, but that it was their opportunity … to tell their story and the story of the people that they work with,” Bullard says. “I think that resonated with people. They realised it’s an opportunity to tell our story as serving members, and to have those stories understood.”