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What's a war museum for?

I was worried about the new Canadian War museum before, but I'm quite a bit more worried about it now:

PROMINENTLY displayed in the new Canadian War Museum, which opens to the public next week, is a 10-foot painting of a Canadian soldier choking a young and bloodied Somali prisoner with a baton.

Done by Toronto artist Gertrude Kearns, it is copied from a photograph taken by Trooper Kyle Brown of Master Cpl. Clayton Matchee of the Canadian Airborne Regiment torturing Shidane Arone to death.

This has caused a lot of anguished head-shaking -- and rightfully so because this sort of display has no place in the story of our military history. This was the action of a small group of criminals and had nothing to do with the disposition of the Canadian Forces. Publius, Kate, the Last Amazon (and many others, no doubt) have already commented on this, and I have nothing to add.

Most people will hopefully be able to keep the context of this incident in perspective and will not let this shameful event tarnish their view of Canada's military. Unfortunately, I detect another theme that is running through the new museum's exhibits that is even more destructive.

Canada's new war museum will present a bleaker, more brutal and complex picture of war.

"We shy away from heroism because that tends to be associated with glamorizing war," says museum historian Peter MacLeod.

War is a miserable experience, he says. "This is why we respect our veterans, because they have gone through these hideous experiences themselves. To make it something dashing and heroic, like a war movie, insults their real achievements."

There's many more similar comments in that article. I get the feeling that the 'respect' this historian has for the veterans is similar to the 'support' American anti-war groups have for the troops in Iraq. It's a condescending attitude towards the honourable motivations of soldiers and their belief in what they do. Instead of people who have done or are doing something dangerous and horrifying yet noble, they're looked on as victims. Pawns in the games of greater men.

I'm hoping I'm wrong. A war museum is a place to honour and remember those who sacrificed to defend us. Every nation or civilization that has retained a core identity understands this. Showing soldiers as heros says that what they did was right and encourages others to see that their country is worth fighting and even dying for. Treating soldiers with pity (and especially contempt) is commiting cultural suicide.

I hope to visit the museum next week and see what they've done. I'm not optimistic.


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I have to say I respectfully disagree with your opinions regarding what a war museum is about and how to properly remember our military past. I'll point to a post I did at Before Dawn instead of trying to reiterate it inside the word limit imposed by this comment box.

In short it says that war brings out the best and worst in humans and to ignore one of these aspects is not doing our history justice, we cannot hide all our skeletons away. While the image shows a criminal act it also shows what war can be.

The respect the historian in question has is perhaps not directly towards the veterans but to the history itself. He has to give an accurate account of Canadians at war, he has to include the good and the bad. The Victoria Cross is rare, and so are atrocities.

If anything, including both does honour to those who acted accordingly. It tells us what it is to be human, and therefore how not to act. Also, by providing a "bleaker, more brutal and complex picture of war" is needed, as in school all we get is the glory and empire line.

If you want glory go to the countless war memorials scattered across the country, history should have its place at the museum.


I'm not arguing for a whitewash. I just want respect for the veterans. The comments by the museum's defenders for avoiding 'something dashing and heroic, like a war movie' are specious: no one wants that. But I would like the attitude towards combat to be 'look at the terrible trials these men went through for us', not 'those poor bastards'.

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