Thursday, 28 February 2013

Brave Ben Quilty goes in to bat for our Diggers

A sketch Quilty made in Afghanistan.
Artist Ben Quilty was on TV news last night again, talking about his year spent as official war artist in Afghanistan. Today he's in the media talking about how sportsmen and -women get a free ride, subsidised by our tax dollars, while artists, teachers, nurses and other specially-trained workers must meet their own financial obligations. It's an interesting point of view as it lies well outside the routine. But this is dangerous ground for anyone to cover. It's certain to attract negative attention from some parts of the media, just like Hilary Mantel's comments on Kate Middleton did. Sport is a sacred cow in Australia; criticise it publicly at your peril! Quilty risks being seen as a younger version of Germaine Greer; now there's someone the shock jocks love to hate. Only the brave take on the 'burbs.

In his article, Quilty compares the cosseted Olympians who were forced to apologise publicly recently for their poor behaviour in London, with Australian servicemen and -women working in Afghanistan under very difficult conditions. Interestingly, Quilty last night on his news spot talked briefly about how their stories are absent from Australia's media. It's a good point because it's absolutely clear that the Defence Department goes to excessive lengths to keep stories out of the media here that could attract criticism. It's a form of damage control. And while it might make life easier for politicians, senior officers, and the Army's media office, it's not good for the soldiers. It's not good for them because silence on this front means they lack the kind of support that they should be entitled to. The rank-and-file in places like Tarin Kowt are being dudded by a hierarchy intent on saving face. It's a damn shame, so good on Quilty for raising the profile of the women and men we send out to face danger, and who will one day come home with the mental and physical scars of their difficult deployment.

If you read what Quilty says about the soldiers he met during his assignment it becomes stunningly clear how cowardly the chain of command is being. Let alone the fact that, as voters and taxpayers, Australians have a right to more information about how the deployment is proceeding in Afghanistan, it is clear from looking at the images that Quilty has made that there is a desire on the part of servicepeople to reach out to the broader community and to generate a meaningful dialogue with them. It is because of the real dangers of serving in places like Afghanistan that we are entitled to enjoying this kind of relationship with these young - and often not-so-young - people. More knowledge about their lives over there and the damage they fall prey to can also signally inform public debate at home about Australia's participation in wars. Is the risk of psychological damage, let alone physical damage, offset by any benefits that can accrue to Australia by participation in such campaigns? We need to know these things. We are ultimately responsible for government actions. It is our right to be informed.

The Australian War Memorial has a long history of sending talented artists to the front lines to chronicle the experience of war. Just go to Canberra and see the incredible paintings that Arthur Streeton made during his assignment in Europe during WWI. And there are many more than this. Quilty joins a long line of painters who have gone to see and witness the experience of Australians serving their country, and he is entitled to be listened to. When was the last time you listened to the thoughts of someone who has spent a year living within the arc of war? How often have you heard someone speak of the experiences of soldiers who daily face the real dangers of battle? We should all listen to Quilty because he has the mark of authenticity on his face. He has been fortunate to see things that we will probably never even dream of.

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