Australians at war

Australia is a nation with the rare privilege of having never fought a war on its own soil (either as a result of invasion or civil war), but it does have a long military history. Australians at War is a collection of personal recollections from a century of service in other countries - from the Boer War to Peacekeeping in East Timor.

Companion to an eight-hour documentary series that aired in Australia's centennial year of 2001, Australians at War is a co-creation of the Department of Veterans' Affairs, The Australian War Memorial (the nation's military museum), and the production company, Beyond International. The Web presence (executed by Brainwave Interactive, as long as we're handing out credits) takes the material and achieves the unusual feat of serving up a sampling of the series through a site with the feel of a museum and the content of a documentary.

The main component of the site is Through My Eyes which uses first-hand recollections rather than the words of eminent historians to tell the stories of Australia's wars. The Flash introduction (content is also available in an HTML version) opens with some moving chords from what I assume to be the theme from the TV series, and a random quote from one of the seven periods covered in the site. (The Boer War quote has an extra relevance in the current atmosphere of 'it's all about the oil.') After the introduction, content is accessible through a succession of scrolling Timeline interfaces that track Australia's military history from the Boer War, through the two World Wars and Korea, to Vietnam (50,000 Australians served in Vietnam between 1962 and 1971) and finally, East Timor.

The museum 'feel' of the site comes from the Timelines, which are decorated with period images that have been given the high contrast, duotoned treatment common in mural-sized museum installations. The first Timeline breaks Australia's military history into seven historical periods, the next introduces recurring themes within each period (eg. "Mates," "Getting Through It," and "Thoughts Of Home"). The final destination of each exploration will be a series of streaming audio and/or video clips from interviews with Australian veterans - both military and civilian.

Available in QuickTime and MediaPlayer formats (and in high- and low-bandwidth versions) these clips carry all the impact that comes with the first-person, eyewitness account - and are not limited to battlefield recollections. (While World War I subjects include the disastrous campaign in Gallipoli, there is also a look back at the shaming tactic of sending a white feather -an accusation of cowardice- to any men who had not enlisted.)

Period media is also included, as with recording of radio traffic during a 'dustoff' of wounded troops under fire in Vietnam - an operation which dragged on for 90 minutes. (The sound quality of this recording is frequently marginal, but interested visitors can find transcripts of the radio exchanges through the HTML version of the site.) While the veterans voice pride in the jobs they did, there is, at first, a surprising lack of militarism and jingoism in their comments - but the surprise only lasts until the visitor remembers that these people have been through the consequences that militarism and jingoism tend to create.

Navigation options within Through My Eyes are plentiful, and potentially confusing at first. (Extras include a variety of orange buttons that lead to additional pieces of military background, historical information, or multimedia files). Once you know the ropes though, it's quite efficient, and a "Help" link can spell things out for those who'd rather not learn by trial and error.

After viewing the main exhibit, The Great Search continues the first-person approach - but in this case through a collection of observations in diaries, letters, sketches and photographs created during the conflicts rather than recalled during more recent interviews. Other parts of the site include a synopsis of the television series, help in researching family military histories, and -considering the tone of the rest of the site- the odd inclusion of a trio of military arcade games.

While the first-person technique shouldn't be the only one taken in the study of history (it's too easy to miss the larger factors behind an event), the 'big picture' approach is just as likely to forget the human equation. As wars appear to become more sterile with each new conflict, sites like Australians at War remind us that now as always, it's human beings on both sides of the line that ultimately pay whatever price is demanded.

Australians at War can be found at http://www.australiansatwar.gov.au/.

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