Violent war images are news, not 'snuff'

Eyes Wide Open: The Human Cost of the Iraq War...

Image by soundfromwayout via Flickr

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:

[youtubevid id=”5rXPrfnU3G0″]

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About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at www.jerrylanson.com. My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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8 Responses to Violent war images are news, not 'snuff'

  1. Coates Bateman says:

    I found George Packer’s post today interesting… especially when addressing the lack of context video and photography provide.

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      Thanks Coates. Packer is, as always, one of the very best in the business, and I’m sorry I didn’t read this before I wrote. His words here are important to take into account:

      “By their nature images strip events of context: their powerful impact in part depends on narrowness, immediacy, and purity of form. And there’s a great deal that this video leaves out. It doesn’t tell you about the circumstances of the attack, how a few days earlier this neighborhood in eastern Baghdad had exploded in combat between American soldiers and Sadrist militiamen detonating hidden bombs and staging ambushes.”

      In the link I provided to Eddie Adams picture he speaks of his regrets of ruining the life of the Vietnamese general who executed his foe.

      That said, I’ll stick by my overarching point: In the 21st century, we spend too much time sanitizing war. And by doing so, I believe we prolong it by distancing the public from its brutal reality.

    • kramer says:

      I agree it’s interesting, although I found David Finkel’s Q&A [http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2010/04/06/DI2010040600750.html] similarly enlightening without Packer’s rather disingenuous commentary [yes, he’s right that some of the victims were armed, but he leaves out the fact that Bagdad residents were, at the time, allowed to own AK47s (one per household, I believe) and that walking around with them was common. If one is criticizing the video for lack of context, intentionally omitting context is a rather foolish way to go about it].

  2. kramer says:

    “If the video is unsettling, our obliviousness most of the time is more so.”

    Agreed. I found the assumptions underlying Breslin’s piece a bit disturbing; bizarrely, she pretty much omits the entire war from her analysis. As a meditation on the media’s failure to contextualize much of anything for the past decade, she has produced a wonderfully illustrative example. But not intentionally.

    Speaking of said media failures, George Packer has done plenty of good work, but whenever I read his writing on Iraq, I feel like I’m reading George Packer doing damage control for George Packer. He’s never properly owned up to his gigantic failures at the start of the war, and until he does, his work is going to remain hopelessly compromised, his latest piece certainly included. After six years of egomaniacal posturing by a mainstream media that seems happy to run PR for this little military adventure, am I justified in feeling a little sick after reading yet more of Packer’s rationalization? Especially regarding video so indisputably damming?

    • Jerry Lanson says:

      Again, you raise good points. Although I’m among those who strongly opposed the war from well before the invasion, I admire Packer’s book, “The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq,” for its ability to look at the war from multiple perspectives. In that book, I believe he does acknowledge his initial support but also does an excellent job of documenting the overt failure of U.S. policies as a ground war moved more into a war for hearts and minds.

  3. I couldn’t agree more. “…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”

    This is particularly true for journalists, many of whom have become increasingly lax in their own standards since 9/11, obedient of government demands when the opposite should have been taking place. The material was certainly there.

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