Death and the media: the twisted ethics over displaying victims of war

How bizarre it is that they are so gung-ho about sending men into battle, and then so sentimental about their deaths
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Walking into the newsagent in the morning is like walking into an obscenely competitive paper collage rendition of a charnel house. The papers energetically battling for hearts and minds at home scream their headlines about the deaths of Iraqi civilians, if they are against the war, or the deaths of British soldiers if they are for it. Iraqi soldiers, dropping in their thousands, don't seem to be of much use to anybody. It's their own silly fault, presumably, for not paying attention to the leaflets and not surrendering to the joys of a US occupation. Their corpses are pictured occasionally, the faces obscured. But they're rarely the main event.

Walking into the newsagent in the morning is like walking into an obscenely competitive paper collage rendition of a charnel house. The papers energetically battling for hearts and minds at home scream their headlines about the deaths of Iraqi civilians, if they are against the war, or the deaths of British soldiers if they are for it. Iraqi soldiers, dropping in their thousands, don't seem to be of much use to anybody. It's their own silly fault, presumably, for not paying attention to the leaflets and not surrendering to the joys of a US occupation. Their corpses are pictured occasionally, the faces obscured. But they're rarely the main event.

This failure to see too much propaganda value in the deaths of Iraqi combatants, apparently, is very much to the credit of the West. Bombing markets, depriving large populations of clean water, flattening homes, destroying infrastructure, maiming and killing the vulnerable, these are all, depending on which side you're on, unfortunate consequences of a war of liberation, or up for grabs in the effort to place the desired spin on unspeakable events.

Pictures of dead civilians – one, not named, in yesterday's papers actually being covered up as the photographer pressed his button – they're fine too. But dead soldiers? The display of their recognisable faces appears to be so much worse than the fact of their deaths. Only Iraq would stoop to such horrors. This is the very acme of barbarism.

It's an odd attitude, this, that declares a war against a regime because it is barbaric, then is outraged when it responds to invasion in a barbaric manner; that invades a country because it flouts international law, then swoons when international law is flouted. The coalition went into this war with some astonishingly unrealistic expectations. But surely even they could see this stuff coming.

For whatever else you might think about the parading of dead soldiers, anyone can see that for the Iraqi regime, it is too effective a tool to be resisted. They may not have B52s or cruise missiles. But they do, amazingly, still have a media network. By displaying the enemy's dead via that network, they are turning the technology they do have into weapons that wage psychological war against their invaders every bit as powerful as the shock and awe that they are being subjected to themselves.

Men who do not flinch at sending young men into battle, perhaps to kill, perhaps to die, flinch when confronted with this easy tactic. And men who have been warned that the coalition troops are invincible can see for themselves that they are far from being so. How could a cur of an underdog – Saddam – resist such an appalling coup?

And who are we in the West to criticise, when we engage in similar propaganda ourselves? Are we being barbaric, too, when we consider that it is perfectly all right to publish pictures of dead Iraqi civilians, but a much bigger deal to publish pictures of dead Iraqi soldiers (even though sometimes we do that, too), and completely wrong to publish pictures of dead coalition soldiers (how refreshing it is to discover, though, that the British media does have standards)?

There is an underlying judgement here, about the different value of different deaths, that is just as troubling as the fact that we weep over the handful of deaths the coalition has suffered, wring our hands over the hundreds of civilian deaths we are informed of, yet remain unable even to say how many Iraqis have died in battle.

Further, there is an inversion of what the aims of modern warfare are supposed to be. Civilians are supposed to be protected from this war, liberated by it even. It should be more, rather than less, outrageous to publish pictures of "innocent" civilians than "guilty" soldiers, just as it is more outrageous to kill and main them. The fact that it isn't is just one of the many contradictions of the propaganda war.

The attitude of the right-leaning media, which glorifies war, is contradictory enough. How bizarre it is that they are so gung-ho about sending men into battle zones, and then so sentimental about their deaths.

The anti-war papers tend to want to wallow more in gore. It is mainly the more liberal media which has pushed the agenda when it comes to deciding what aspects of war the public can see. Barbaric images have been shown in this country, and continue to be shown, with the intention of illustrating the horror of war, of suffering and of death. Saddam does not show pictures of war with that intention, which is what makes us feel that his actions are so much less defensible than our own.

But the funny thing is that, for all the good intentions of the picture editors who are making groundbreaking choices in publishing uncompromising images, their own lack of respect for the privacy and the dignity of the dead and their families is not much different to Saddam's.

Whatever our motivations for publishing graphic images of suffering and death, we don't have any right to do it, unless that right has been obtained from the dead themselves or from their loved ones. The anti-war movement speaks against imperialism. But it is imperialistic in the extreme to decide that the image of a person can be taken and used in contexts that the person may, if alive, have bitterly resented or found upsetting or manipulative.

I believe in the power of images. I would not flinch myself from publishing any image of war, however grotesque, simply on the grounds of taste. As far as I'm concerned, the more disturbing and thought-provoking the image, the better. But I do believe that the people in the images, or their families, must be involved in such enormous decisions. Instead, we do not even establish the names they answered to in life.

Not long ago, the British media was divided over whether a young girl's parents had been right or wrong to publish pictures of her after she had died of a heroin overdose. Their response was that if showing her image saved just one person from their daughter's fate, then their decision would have been vindicated. The hope is that these pictures of innocent Iraqi death will save lives in the future. Maybe they will. Or maybe, their overuse will rob them of that power. Either way, it is up to the Iraqis to decide if that's what they want to do in honour of their dead.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

Comments