A sanitised presentation of conflict on TV screens, and the use of unmanned drones to carry out attacks, leaves many people unaware of the full horror of war, writes Dan Buckley
THERE is a scene in the TV war sitcom MASH where Hawkeye discusses with the army chaplain, Fr Mulcahy, the famous “war is hell” quote by William T Sherman, union general in the US Civil War.
Their conversation goes something like this:
Hawkeye: “War isn’t hell. War is war and hell is hell. And, of the two, war is a lot worse.”
Fr Mulcahy: “How do you figure, Hawkeye?”
Hawkeye: “Easy, Father. Tell me, who goes to hell?
Fr Mulcahy: “Sinners, I believe.”
Hawkeye: “Exactly. There are no innocent bystanders in hell, but war is choc-full of them — little kids, cripples, old ladies. In fact, except for some of the brass, almost everyone involved is an innocent bystander.”
It is worth recalling Sherman’s full quote: “War is a terrible thing. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is hell.”
He wrote that shortly after coming face to face with the horror of war as a commander in the field of battle. He experienced the brutality of mass combat in a civil war that claimed 650,000 lives from Bull Run to Gettysburg.
These days he would probably be sitting in the Pentagon, watching a satellite image of a drone taking out an Islamic State target in Iraq. Even the language of death has changed — from bombings to “strikes” and “dropping ordnance”, killing to “eliminating the target”.
From a distance war does not look very hellish, except, of course, to the victims on the ground.
But what if there is no witness to war? What if those victims are invisible? In that event, they do not impinge on the consciousness — let alone the conscience — of the outside world.
In most humanitarian crises, there is a critical moment at which the scale of the suffering is encapsulated in a single, searing image and finally reveals itself with an urgency that cannot be suppressed or ignored.
Images, and the emotions they generate, shape our collective response to those crises and play a major role in communicating catastrophic events to distant audiences. In the Mozambique floods of 2007, it was when a video was shown of a woman who had given birth up a tree. In Kosovo, images of Albanian refugees herded on board cattle trucks were the catalyst. In Rwanda, pictures of thousands of emaciated African children fleeing genocidal killings marked a turning point.
As recently as last July, images of children warehoused along the US border with Mexico by the federal government revealed a system overwhelmed by thousands of refugees from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador fleeing poverty and violence.
The shocking pictures caused outrage among ordinary Americans and prompted Barack Obama to act in order to avoid a humanitarian crisis.
The way transmitted images procure a collective willingness to alleviate human suffering is being studied by Roland Bleiker and his colleague Emma Hutchinson of the school of political science and international studies at the University of Queensland in Australia.
Bleiker explains in an online polemic his belief that images leave an indelible mark on the psyche, often shaping how we view and understand political events as well as humanitarian crises.
“We live in a visual age and images shape our understanding of the world.
“One needs only to recall the chilling images of the 9/11 attack on New York’s Twin Towers, Saddam’s statue falling in Baghdad, or the iconic Vietnam war image of Kim Phuc naked, badly burned and fleeing from her South Vietnam village after it was napalmed.”
That single image probably did more to end US involvement in Vietnam than the thousands of ant-war protests.
It is unlikely, though, that we will see such a compelling vision ever again. From embedded journalism to hands-off drone attacks, modern warfare has become sanitised. It has removed some of the most terrifying aspects of war and the danger is that mass destruction cleansed of its horror will go on for longer, perpetuated by combatants acting like teenagers playing video games.
There is also the prospect that, with a cloak of invisibility, even the most compassionate among us will cease to understand that war is still hell for the victims.
This is particularly evident in Iraq and Syria where there is an absence of images of the victims of the war being waged by the US and its allies against the extremist Sunni Islamic State.
US-led forces launch air strikes every week on territory controlled by IS in northern and eastern Syria while the Syrian army continued bombing areas in the west. The US has also been attacking targets in Iraq using a mixture of drones and manned aircraft since early August.
By way of contrast, IS has employed the most shocking images to bring the horror they unleash home to western audiences. Islamic State has become synonymous with viciousness — beheadings, crucifixions, stonings, massacres, burying victims alive, and religious and ethnic cleansing.
According to political scientist, Fawaz A Gerges, while such savagery might seem senseless to the vast majority of civilised human beings, for IS, it is a rational choice and a conscious decision to terrorise enemies and attract new recruits.
A recent example was when IS members put online sickening footage of about 50 soldiers who were beheaded and had their heads stuck on spikes in northern Syria.
“Far from abhorring the group’s brutality, young recruits are attracted by its shock-and-awe tactics against the enemies of Islam,” Gerges told the BBC.
Most broadcasters in the West — as well as YouTube — refuse to transmit such brutal images, believing the oxygen of publicity would encourage more barbarity. Yet, with millions accessing social media and sharing video files, it is almost impossible to halt altogether.
The days when the most powerful media organisations could micro-manage the news are gone, unlike the situation that pertained in both Gulf wars when Fox News channel in the US was the voice of America but, more pertinently, the voice of the CIA.
During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, American liberals turned to the BBC, The Guardian newspaper online, and other international sources for accurate information about the conflict.
As Nicholas Mirzoeff points out in his book, Watching Babylon: The War in Iraq and Global Visual Culture, there were some historical ironies at play.
“During the Second World War,” writes Mirzoeff, “many resisters in Nazi-occupied Europe came to rely on the BBC to find out what was happening in the war. Now this was being reversed. In a war that we were assured had all the moral authority of the war against Hitler, citizens of the ‘liberating’ nation [the US] relied on their ally to inform them of what was happening.”
At the same time, commentators in Britain were criticising the BBC for less than objective coverage. After the second Gulf War, the BBC journalist Mark Damazer wrote that the corporation’s coverage had been too sanitised of death and destruction compared with other international coverage.
His view was backed by an analysis that showed it largely presented a pro-coalition viewpoint. Television reports produced by “embedded” correspondents in the Iraq conflict gave a sanitised picture of war, according to the academic study published by the BBC.
Researchers found that although reporters who accompanied the British and US military were able to be objective, they avoided images that would be too graphic or violent for television viewers at home.
The BBC-commissioned research showed the corporation, like most other British broadcasters, tended towards “pro-war assumptions”. The least pro-war broadcaster was Channel 4.
British broadcasters tended to assume the truth of what they had been told by military leaders, politicians at home and what they were given at official media briefings. In nine out of 10 references to weapons of mass destruction during the war, there was an assumption that Iraq possessed them.
Speaking in the light of those findings, Damazer said: “For reasons that are laudable and honourable, we have got to a situation where our coverage has become sanitised. We are running the risk of double standards, and it is not a service to democracy.”
British viewers had not seen images of dead or injured British soldiers since the Falklands war, he told The Guardian. “The culture has become more and not less sanitised over the years.”
The military use of modern technology is aiding and enhancing this sanitation process, according to Noel Sharkey, an Irish computer scientist who believes we are witnessing the beginning of “the industrial revolution of war”.
He is particularly horrified by the growing use of drones approved by President Obama and forecasts that they will lead to what he describes as a ‘sanitised factory of slaughter.’
Both the US and the UK military insist that autonomous weapons will always be subject to human control, but Sharkey is sceptical. “What does this mean? They say there will always be a person to make the appropriate judgement but that could mean just having 10 seconds to veto what the robot has decided to do. The problem with autonomous weapons is that a war could start and end without hardly anyone knowing about it.
“As well as that, in robotics it is getting easier to get off the shelf components and it might not be long before some tin-pot dictator gets his hand on this technology.”
The military argument is that the pace of war is getting so fast that humans can no longer be involved. His response: “What is the big rush to kill more victims?”
Sharkey, from Belfast, chairs the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, an NGO that is seeking an international treaty to prohibit the development and use of autonomous robot weapons — weapons that once launched can select human targets and kill them without human intervention.
He fears that humanity is sleepwalking into a brave new world where robots decide who, where and when to kill.
“Already, South Korea and Israel are deploying armed robot border guards and China, Singapore and the UK are among those making increasing use of military robots.
“The biggest player yet is the US: Robots are integral to its $230bn (€185bn) future combat systems project, a massive plan to develop unmanned vehicles that can strike from the air, under the sea and on land. Congress has set a goal of having one-third of ground combat vehicles unmanned by 2015.”
ICRAC’s work has helped galvanise the United Nations into a growing awareness of the ethical issues surrounding the use of robots on the battlefield. It led to a decision by the UN to hold a special session on robotics.
In his report issued last November, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said important questions had been raised as to the ability of robotic systems to operate in accordance with international humanitarian and human rights law.
“Is it morally acceptable to delegate decisions about the use of lethal force to such systems? If their use results in a war crime or serious human rights violation, who would be legally responsible? If responsibility cannot be determined as required by international law, is it legal or ethical to deploy such systems?” he asked.
At the UN in Geneva, parties to the Convention on Conventional Weapons met in May to discuss questions related to “lethal autonomous weapons systems” or, as Sharkey prefers to call them, “killer robots”.
Sharkey gave the opening address at the conference and will again be in Geneva in November.
Michael Moeller, acting director-general of the UN office in Geneva, urged members to take pre-emptive action and ensure the ultimate decision to end life remains under human control.
At the formal conference on conventional weapons later this month, states will discuss possible next steps on autonomous weapons. The purpose of the convention is to ban or restrict the use of specific types of weapons that are considered to affect civilians indiscriminately or cause unnecessary or unjustifiable suffering to combatants.
Speaking to the Irish Examiner, Sharkey said he was hopeful that meeting in Geneva will consolidate the growing number of countries opposed to the proliferation of these weapons.
Progress so far has delighted Sharkey and his colleagues at ICRAC, which was formed in 2009 to initiate international discussion on autonomous weapons systems. It is a co-founder of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.
The campaign arrived in Ireland last December at Trinity College, with Sharkey as keynote speaker. He was pleased with the response and equally pleased with the Irish presence at the UN.
According to Sharkey, “we are now on the first rung of the international ladder to fulfil our goal of stopping these morally obnoxious weapons from ever being deployed”.
William T Sherman would, in all likelihood, have supported such a goal. Among his quotable quotes is this one: “It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation.”
His civil war adversary and Confederate army leader Robert E Lee echoed those sentiments when he remarked at the Battle of Fredericksburg on December 13, 1862: “It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”
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