Searing young minds
In the three-week 24-hour Western media coverage of the Iraq war, anti-war protests and human suffering hardly found any mention. Endless images of wholesale destruction and the war machines that brought it about blurred the boundary between reality and fiction, the normal and the horrific. MEENA RADHAKRISHNA looks at how the war may have normalised violence and aggression, especially for young viewers.
"We are dealing with pockets of resistance in Baghdad, and in the meanwhile it is business as usual: we will continue to drop bombs on the city through the night... What we dropped last night were normal 3,000 pound bombs".
Officers of the United States Army engaged in fighting in Iraq, interviewed for CNN.
MY nine-year-old daughter had this to say, after impatiently watching in short bouts the coverage of the war: "Why are you watching the same film every day? Any way it is just showing the same thing again and again. Either a city with lots of lights with big burning fires, or fire and smoke in the desert. Sometimes teachers come and explain something on the board or on a map. Otherwise all the time planes, helicopters and tanks. Why don't you put on a film which has normal people in it?"
So the intended "shock and awe campaign" by the coalition forces, so successful in striking terror in the hearts of the adult population of this world, was lost on at least one member of the younger generation. Instead, the normalising of violence and aggression was achieved so successfully that an illusion registered firmly with this young viewer that either it was just another bad and boring film, not live footage of a real war, or that at best it was quite alright to be causing all those big fires, day after day, night after night, reporting and discussing them, and analysing the individual episodes with graphs and charts, without any anger or anxiety or pain. The "normal" people, being mangled behind the fire and the smoke, were missing.
What is perhaps most difficult to register, not just for a child, but even for oneself, is the incredible fact that some people who were alive at the beginning of a particular "live" episode as bombs were being dropped in the dead of night and monstrous, undousable fires were leaping up were actually dead by the time one had finished watching it. And so, one was, perhaps for the first time in history both of warfare and of the media actually watching people being killed amidst periodic declarations by the coalition army that "everything was going as planned". So much for the advances in media technology (not to speak of advances in definition of liberation) that millions of horrified people sat in different parts of the world, watching death and destruction being perpetrated upon a people, without being able to put an end to it. Stunned, the only choice one had was of switching off the television. The respite came in the form of the colourful advertisements showing "normal" people continuing to live the pleasures of life. I particularly remember one which was beamed while my children happened to be around.
It was for a holiday in Thailand, standing out in stark contrast to the grey and black and dirty yellow of a dusty, smoky city, inviting the viewer to join in the celebrations of the festival of Songkran. And then back to the slowly, almost stoically burning city of Baghdad. An incredible sight, and yes, indeed, it was business as usual: why miss the opportunity of earnings from advertisements, when millions have switched on their television sets to watch the war? As expected, it was the fun and music, the pageantry and beauty of Thailand which registered with the children. What is this if not a sinister project of deadening the senses, so that destruction of life goes on as naturally as life itself?
A stock combination in the coverage was evident throughout: the voyeurism of the cameras, recording the latest bouts of destruction, along with chatty details of, say, the precise number of "sorties" which were made the previous night to drop bombs on "legitimate targets" in Baghdad (never mind if the definition of the legitimate targets itself kept steadily expanding). Minute details of the technical sophistication of the weapons accompanied chilling, repeatedly flashed pictures of B-52 bombers taking off from a Royal Air Force (RAF) base for their "mission" to maul Baghdad. An ongoing animated commentary explained their precise "capabilities", thoughtfully provided for the uninformed viewer, with sketches of the weapons, or the map of Iraq.
After all, a bit like the latest cricket score, we should not just be the first to know, but know all: precisely how, where, when. But the unimportant and unanswered questions remained: Who, How Many and Why?
Very occasionally, in the middle of repeated shots of gigantic, hideous weapons made more menacing by close ups one glimpsed a child with an arm or leg blown off, lying in an overcrowded hospital, staring vacantly at the camera. Or a grown man weeping inconsolably in someone's arms, stunned onlookers standing around, in the middle of a bombed out residential building. All we were told about this last event was that the area was reduced to "a crater of 52-metre radius". The "precision bombers" were the pride of the arsenal, but if they killed hundreds of civilians in their hunt for the tyrannical leadership, we never got the details of casualties.
Apparently, the "embedded" journalists were forbidden from divulging precisely the details which were the human aspect of a gruesome war.
The fascination with the technology and mathematics of devastation has heralded a new era of assessing suffering in the last few weeks. It has succeeded in drawing attention away from the ugliness, avoidability, and sheer scale of slaughter caused by machines which are supposed to be not weapons of mass destruction. One frankly fails to understand this artificial line between these two kinds of weapons, especially since the dreaded "other" ones were the main rationale for invading Iraq, and are yet to be unearthed, while the supposedly legitimate ones used by the coalition forces are causing such mayhem. The fact that coalition forces have used particularly wanton pieces of weaponry like cluster bombs in their assaults is forgotten in such distinctions.
And so, witnessing the 24-hour a day orgy that CNN and BBC put on show for the benefit of the world, it was difficult for many of us to cope with the strange mix of feelings the coverage aroused awe, distress, fury, disbelief, frustration, revulsion, terror, horror, outrage, helplessness, tears. Hope, when it came, came only because one had gradually learnt to look for alternative information, however meagre, by switching to local channels, or surfing the internet, or by exchanging information from the print media through informal networks.
It was through these means that one gathered knowledge of huge anti-war, anti-occupation protests by millions around the world. One learnt that fierce fighting was going on, and enormous resistance being offered by the Iraqi forces when proclamations of mere "pockets of resistance" were being reported by the international electronic media. Or that the widely telecast images of the first statue of Saddam Hussein that fell on April 9 and the deliriously cheering crowds were in fact a cynical, staged media event. (One had anyway wondered while watching these on television as to how the few cameramen stationed in Iraq always miraculously managed to reach the site of action, and unfailingly record live the felling of so many statues, or the tearing down of portraits of Saddam Hussain, or the virulent heaping of insults on these by the Iraqi public.) The media doctors and engineers, however, soon became careless, and sometimes old clippings of the same "live" cheering crowds were tagged on to the images of the demolition of different statues of Saddam Hussein.
It had to be in the non-electronic media, then, that one got details of the colossal human tragedy that war meant for the ordinary Iraqi men, women and children. But I go back to the reaction of a nine-year-old to the televised war coverage. I counterchecked her reaction with responses of several children and young people. None of them knew that children just like themselves had got horribly hurt or killed in the war. Nor had they seen any clippings of anti-war protests.
Moreover, war came through to these children not just as a continuous (often fictitious) spectacle of fire and lights, but a celebration of unquestioned, awesome power of scientific application; discussions by "teachers" on the screen never raised issues of human distress, morality, justice or peace. Millions of children all over the world must have watched these images, which would probably constitute for them the enduring memory of this war. Hopefully, an equal number would have witnessed off screen passionate protests or tenacious resistance to the war, and would carry another memory. Hopefully, too, the sheer disgust and anger of so many adults all over the world, inflamed by precisely the same coverage, will also have touched their children.
An objective history of this catastrophic war waits to be written, but what the coalition owned electronic media has fabricated in the meanwhile is a version which is remarkably free of any human content, or the spirit of resistance to brutality. And "teachers" who wrote this grotesque chapter in the history of Iraq have this unambiguous lesson for the children of this world: the bombing and shooting of those you don't like is natural; deliberate killing or maiming is normal; human tears and blood mean business as usual.
Meena Radhakrishna is a sociologist and writer.
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