My True/Slant colleague Susannah Breslin yesterday wrote a provocative essay that suggests the leaked video of an American military helicopter mowing down a dozen people in Iraq, including two Reuters news service employees, had made its way around the world not because it’s news but because of our voyeuristic fascination with watching people die.
I couldn’t disagree more strongly.
In her essay, titled “an appetite for snuff,” Breslin writes: “In the 21st century, death is entertainment, and the only thing that can whet our appetite is watching people die. …Porn is so passe, and snuff is the new, new thing.” (Just to prove it, I guess, Breslin posts the video, released by an until-now obscure website called WikiLeaks.org.)
Now I have no interest in picking a fight with Breslin, whom I’ve never met and who has impressive credentials. But this video is no more “snuff” than the disturbing photos of Abu Ghraib prison were porn. What both depict is war, a violent and often dehumanizing construct that more often than not goes on beyond the consciousness of U.S. society even as it shreds the bodies and minds of tens of thousands of combatants and civilians. It’s so off our radar screen most of the time that even as we’re molded more and more into a war culture, desensitized and dehumanized by violent video-games and films subtly shaped by war’s scarring influence, we remain oblivious to the real brutality of life on the two fronts.
It’s an interesting paradox, one that leaves most Americans capable of convincing themselves that Iraq and Aghanistan are merely a passing headline or image even as these wars desensitize our society, erode its civil liberties, and steep us in subtle fears. No, war is not a snuff movie. It’s reality, a horribly harsh one that our government and military carefully shield us from to ensure our continued support.
The WikiLeaks.org video pulls back the curtain on one corner in Iraq in 2007. That is why it is news, not so much news of a three-year-old event, but news of an ongoing war that passes mostly forgotten, even as suicide bombers blow themselves up almost daily. It shows not the boilerplate images of daily TV news — burned out car shells, troops on the move — but instead a kind of Apache helicopter shooting gallery as the pilot and gunner methodically and seemingly flippantly dispatch what they perceive to be the enemy.
And so we, as a country, debate heatedly for awhile. It’s not that this depiction of war as sanctioned and desensitized killing is unusual. That’s what war is. It is that most of us rarely glimpse that reality up close.
I, for one, do not pass judgment on the men behind the voices in this video. Were they justified in shooting? Did they, indeed, see or have reason to believe they had seen weapons that under the rules of engagement would allow them to open fire? I have no way of knowing. Regardless, however, the video forces us to give pause, to think about our own morality, to reflect on twin wars that are sapping not only the U.S. Treasury but also our sense of right and wrong.
If the video is unsettling, our obliviousness most of the time is more so. We know well that more innocents get killed in wars than soldiers of either side. It’s always been that way. Yet how often do we think about, debate, act on whether the cause is worth the cost, not only in flesh-and-blood but in the erosion of the special qualities of reason and compassion that make human beings human?
I grew up during the Vietnam War and then, as a country, we surely debated. That war bitterly divided my generation and, in a way, still does. But at least we were arguing rather than living in denial. And a major reason for that was the images that videographers, photographers and reporters brought back from the field.
Morley Safer was there for CBS as U.S. Marines burned the village of Cam Ne. Eddie Adams shot photos as a South Vietnam officer shot a suspected Viet Cong through the head on a busy street. Nick Ut recorded the moment as a Vietnamese girl ran naked, in agony, after being burned by napalm. These and other images are seared in my brain because they were shown, not hidden. They spurred debate and, ultimately, I suspect, helped end the war.
War is brutal and the images of war are ugly. As I wrote in a Christian Science Monitor essay immediately after the Iraq war began, that is precisely why they are news, why they must be shown. For Americans to take moral responsibility for the wars we fight — and we fight many — they must bear witness. Yet it is precisely because that witness is unsettling that the military and government have restricted and cowed the American media so often to mute what they record. The world sees war’s violence over Aljazeera. Americans see little. Can’t we do a better job of responding to the world if we at least witness what others witness?
Until recently even the coffins of American dead arriving at Dover Air Force base in Delaware were considered off limits. Surely, Ms. Breslin, you don’t consider them snuff, too.
The wikileaks video is below: