John Peacock: Why al-Jazeera was right to show those terrible pictures

Saturday 29 March 2003 01:00
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It is a truism to say that war brutalises. Yet do we discern and comprehend the full range of that brutalisation? For war not only brutalises those directly participating but affects all of us, both pro- and anti-war. When we say that the first casualty of war is truth, that does not just cover military facts; from a Buddhist point of view, it corrupts a truth about what it means to be fully human.

Of course propaganda is an issue. Both sides in any war generate "disinformation", a euphemism that obscures the reality of governmental dishonesty. That can mean a deliberate attempt to mislead the other side to place it at a tactical disadvantage, but it can also be about generating a genuine collective enmity towards the "other" engaged in the conflict. Fuelling this process is the ever-present, but selective, attention of the media which itself distorts what is happening. Whilst media coverage may not in itself represent governmental propaganda, it inevitably distorts, not least when it imposes upon itself selective self-censorship.

Politicians, soldiers and journalists have agreed this week that certain images are not for public consumption because they depict the barbaric consequences of war. Under this category have come gruesome shots of civilians killed and maimed by Allied bombs, but also shots of dead British soldiers and US troops taken prisoner by the Iraqis.

The problem is that barbarism is one of the realities or "truths" of war. Such images may be harrowing or stomach-churning but they tell a truth about what occurs when violent warfare is engaged in. There is an "honesty" in the Arab television station al-Jazeera's televising the consequences of war in the form of a young child with the back of its head blown off. It reminds us of what lies behind anodyne talk of "collateral damage" or "civilian casualties". War is ugly and part of the task of the war reporter is to reveal that ugliness.

Being "truthful" does not, it should be stressed, mean putting troops in jeopardy by revealing their strategic disposition. It does, however, mean presenting a true picture of tragic human consequences of war. There is another key consideration. It is that of intention or motivation. If horrifying images are being broadcast, by an Arab station, with the intention of engendering of hatred for coalition forces, then that would be deeply flawed and, from a Buddhist viewpoint, "unwholesome". On the other hand, if the intention was to reveal the pity of war, and bring about a revulsion for this form of conflict, then the motivation would be considered "wholesome". Buddhism is firmly wedded to non-violence as a humanising process.

Yet, no matter how well-intentioned, the frequent broadcasting of the brutal images of war may bring about a progressive desensitisation and brutalisation of those viewing them. There is a particular danger that such images may be viewed as entertainment in a culture that is increasingly addicted to violent forms of entertainment and sport. Television coverage from the Middle East has so far borne an uncanny resemblance to sports reporting with emphasis being placed on techniques, skills and a totting-up of "goals", or casualty figures, both for and against. The very real danger of trivialisation is another refracting lens that can lead to the distortion of the truth.

There is an argument against all this which some will deploy. The broadcasting or publishing of horrific images, particularly involving innocent civilians and coalition casualties, they say, will lead to a progressive deterioration in the morale of the combatants. It may, and the will to wage war may be seriously diminished. This may particularly true of a war like the present one which was not supported by a large proportion of the population before the fighting began. True, public opinion has since shifted – under the influence of overwhelming media involvement and coverage which can deflect us from the truth rather than bringing us face to face with issues involving truth, brutalisation and our humanity. But that only suggests that it is of overwhelming importance to show the "truth" of war – and confront those who support conflict with the "unglamorous" reality of warfare, no matter how "high-tech". From a Buddhist standpoint there is no ultimate rationale for violence, therefore such a deterioration in the morale, or will to wage war, of the populace, particularly in the case of non-combatants who support the war, may even be welcome.

This is why the "intention" behind all of the media coverage of the conflict needs to be under constant examination. In addition the "truthfulness" of what is presented needs to be acutely analysed. There has been a certain mendaciousness with regard to the "real" causes of this conflict with both the governments of the United States and Britain altering tack according to which "cause" they could sell best to the general populace. Since however we are now engaged in conflict there should at least be a perspicuity to what is occurring – affecting, as it does, our very humanity. Even so, the truth is that none of us will escape being brutalised in some way by this conflict.

John Peacock is Director of Sharpham College for Buddhist Studies and Contemporary Enquiry

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