Monday, March 24, 2008

Off-message pictures - Battlespace

From the site:
"Counter insurgency theory, once again fashionable, holds that the prize of modern warfare is not the territory but the minds of the population within. The battlespace is not solely defined by map lines or grid squares, but also in the areas of perception and illusion. In this shifting, human terrain, there are no facts or truths, only competing agendas. Messages are shaped and transmitted.... Unpleasant, complex, or off-message images are filtered by both sides, and war stories are recycled through the echo chamber..."

Warning: some of the images at Battlespace are very gruesome!

Approximately five years ago I wrote how it was incumbent on those who either did not stop, or supported, this war take a clear look at what was happening on their behalf, as a reminder will repost below:

Sunday 03/23 Iraqi TV showed the bodies of a few dead American troops and then 5 American POWs, both part of a maintenance detail that apparently went off course and was ambushed and captured. This footage was rebroadcast by the Al Jazeera television station. The reaction to this development, by various administration officials and by the press, brought about ruminations on two topics:

  1. The Ugly Face (Truth) of War: The footage of the dead was uniformly denounced as 'disgusting.' On ABC Charlie Gibson said "showing dead bodies is disrespectful." This author would disagree... While showing dead bodies is unsettling and difficult (most especially for those that have loved ones at risk in the area of conflict), this is precisely why it is important to not hide this aspect of war. Death, especially before one's time and through violence, is ugly. But since death is an integral part and unavoidable consequence of every war, those who have the responsibility for making the decision to go to war as well as those who support them and the decision, must know and understand the consequences of what they call for. War is not antiseptic and showing it as such, like a 'shoot-em-up' computer game with nifty diagrams, cool equipment, great technology, etc. is to show disrespect to those who have to slog (and occasionally die) in the mud and the dirt.
    Initially, at the start of the war many network correspondents seemed annoyed that the "shock and awe" they had been awaiting had not happened, and then when the heavier bombardment started the reaction was almost universally one of 'hey, cool, check out those big explosions'... From their hotel rooms they beamed pictures of bright flashes into our living rooms, studiously ignoring the fact that the result of those flashes was death for those on the receiving end. While unfortunate and necessary to free Iraq of Saddam Hussein and his regime, ignoring the reality of those deaths is doing no one any favors....

    The pictures above have been 'borrowed'. The first is a recent, horrible, photo of a small girl killed in her home in Basra (in the southern no-fly zone) by an errant missile. This is what is swept under the rug, antisepticised as "collateral damage." The second picture is from the first Gulf War. Every one who supports the war needs to go to The Unseen Gulf War by Peter Turnley to view the reality of war. While it may not change one's mind about the need for the present action (e.g. as with this author) at least one knows more directly some of the true costs....

  2. The Role of the Media: Many TV anchors and war correspondents have not distinguished themselves by their reporting or understanding of the war, content to regurgitate official communiques and listen in awe to the retired generals they have lined up as experts, rather than do real reporting... Some examples:

    • With reference to the above-mentioned Iraqi / Al Jazeera footage of U.S. prisoners, the very showing of pictures was denounced by the administration as a violation of the Geneva conventions.
    • SecDef Rumsfeld said that showing photographs of prisoners of war is against the Geneva Convention and termed it as "..a grotesque and sick display..", General Myers termed it "..just one more crime by the Iraqi regime.."
    • The TV anchors went beyond reporting the news to vying with each other to express their outrage - a Fox commentator said that "..this proves this is an evil regime..", another said "... what can you do about the Geneva Convention, Iraq doesn't follow it...", Tony Snow denounced it as ".. a grotesque violation of the Geneva Convention..", ABC's Charlie Gibson expressed his shock, etc.

Their 'shock', 'shock' was curious, given that these same channels had broadcast footage of Iraqi POWs. While following coverage on ABC, MSNBC, Fox, CNN, etc. this author had seen at least four TV reports dealing with Iraqi POWs. In one the embedded reporter showed four Iraqi POWs - they were on the ground approximately six feet apart and the reporter and camera went from one to the next filming them. A running commentary from the reporter pointed out that the first had a bottle of water he had been given, that the second had taken off his shoes and put them on the ground behind him as he attempted to sleep, that the third was seated under a blanket, etc. As the reporter squatted and pointed out a packet of MREs that the third POW had been given (even picking it up for the camera to show) the POW's face was clearly visible. In another the embedded reporter showed a number of POWs being processed - a line of them were lying face down on the ground, the reporter pointed out their arms restrained behind them, tied at the wrists with plastic restraints.. They were being processed, searched, and then put on a truck to be taken to a holding area. While clearly the motivations were different - the Iraqis cynically seeking propaganda value in the Arab "street," the embedded reporters just reporting how things are going with 'their' units - if merely showing the POWs is a violation of the Geneva Convention then the "outrage," "shock," and "disgust" expressed by the TV anchors is strange given the film they have shown. Less excited than the TV anchors, when asked about this President Bush was on the money, insisting that any POWs should be humanely treated.

With many in the United States and across the world seemingly unconvinced of the evil of the Saddam Hussein regime and the need to end it, ABC's Charlie Gibson felt compelled to say ".. in the pantheon of dreadful things done by this regime, showing the faces of American dead ranks right up there..." With this fatuous statement he successfully trivialized Saddam's evil - as if some TV footage is as bad as Saddam impoverishing his country through a decade of war, using chemical weapons against the Iranians and the Kurds, having tens or hundreds of thousands of his countrymen killed, invading his neighbors, having the southern marshes drained, having people tortured with electric shocks and vats of acids, supporting international terrorism, and seeking to develop chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons!!
A reporter in Baghdad breathlessly marveled at the fact that the power was still on and the city lit up... While OPED30 had called for the civilian infrastructure to be spared as much as possible, the electricity could be left on at the moment not just out of a concern with the civilians, but also because it can help with ongoing bomb damage assessment...

One reporter who has done a great job of reporting has been ABC's Ted Koppel... Besides his insightful reporting, when Charlie Gibson was in the midst of his paroxysm of horror at the showing of dead bodies, Koppel felt compelled to remind him that ABC had shown dead (both American and foreign....) on multiple occasions. Later in the evening Koppel interviewed an officer about an engagement in which U.S. troops had evaded an ambush and destroyed the attacking force. At the end of this reportage Koppel showed a close up of two of the dead Iraqi soldiers, close enough to see the flies on the body..... No sugar-coating or pap here...

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