Ben Quilty Mon 11 Nov 2013. Ben Quilty is an Australian artist and the winner of the 2011 Archibald Prize. Remembrance Day takes on a profoundly different meaning once you have seen what people in the Armed Forces risk, their plight, their lives after service, writes Ben Quilty.In 2011, I was given the opportunity and great honour of travelling with the Australian troops involved in Operation Slipper into Afghanistan. For many years I’ve examined the way young men behave and exist in Western society. My deployment through the Australian War Memorial was in some ways the exclamation mark to that long road. A copy of the article may be downloaded by clicking on: The faces of war After Afghanistan
I was intrigued to see young men facing their ultimate fear and their own mortality amidst the very confronting human creation of war. My task was not to make comment on the validity of this war or any other war, neither was I sent to examine the intricacies of the Afghan people’s plight, nor the great and ugly divide between religious belief systems. I was there to travel with the Australian Defence Force and I was there to tell their story. I never really did imagine how sensitively human that story would be.
Last Anzac Day I begged two young soldiers to come to my own home town Anzac commemoration. Neither of the men were keen. Both had told me that the ceremony felt hollow, that their lost friends felt far away and that the day did nothing to soothe the sadness they felt on such days. I didn’t give in easily, explaining that it was the greatest opportunity I had had to attend such a ceremony with people whose travels would mean they had direct experience of the true meaning of Anzac Day.
Both men had lost close friends in the most violent ways in the enormous mountains and purple valleys of Uruzgan. My little boy was as proud as I’d seen him walking amongst the town and his friends with two young veterans. The commemoration was long and the two men became increasingly restless, and as the last of the speakers took their place at the front of the silent audience, I realised that not once was the word ‘Afghanistan’ uttered during the entire long ceremony.
Not once were the two young men I had rallied to the event acknowledged. Not once were the 40 fallen young men from Afghanistan remembered; neither were their widows, their parents, their children remembered. I saw in a flash why no young veteran from Afghanistan is keen to attend Anzac Day. As I write this the more senior of those two young men is now in the first weeks of his fifth deployment to Afghanistan. The other man has fought his way through the forms and bureaucracy of the Veterans Affairs and has been discharged with Depression and Post Traumatic Disorder.
Today is Remembrance Day. This day does have a profoundly different meaning to me now that I’ve seen what people in the Armed Forces risk, their plight, their lives after service. For me this day is not only about the fallen soldiers, but it is about the people who are left behind. It is about the children who have lost their dads forever. It is about the women who now face the rest of their lives bringing up those children alone.
It is about the parents, not much older than me, who have farewelled forever their boys, and maybe most importantly it is about the men and women who have served and survived while their friends have been killed around them. They will carry the very heaviest burden until they are old and they are the true testament to what war will do to our societies.
The gallery accompanying this article features images from Ben Quilty’s War Memorial exhibition After Afghanistan, which is touring the country. Ben Quilty is an Australian artist and the winner of the 2011 Archibald Prize.