MEDIA WATCH

The predictable costs of war

Visible evidence of devastation became essential to the antiwar case: when people protest against war, the war should be ugly

GEORGE BAIN February 25 1991
MEDIA WATCH

The predictable costs of war

Visible evidence of devastation became essential to the antiwar case: when people protest against war, the war should be ugly

GEORGE BAIN February 25 1991

The predictable costs of war

Visible evidence of devastation became essential to the antiwar case: when people protest against war, the war should be ugly

MEDIA WATCH

GEORGE BAIN

Never in the field of human combat had Hiram Johnson been so authoritatively misquoted by so many. Johnson is the U.S. senator who in 1917 gave the world the aphorism that “the first casualty when war comes is truth.” Already in the first few weeks as well it had come to be politically correct to say that the world was not getting the full picture, that vital information was being withheld, that access to the action and those engaged in it was available only subject to supervision and censorship. Commentators with an ear for an emerging cliché were quick to call the war in the Gulf the Nintendo war, all technology, no people, especially dead ones.

That was a view of events fostered, for their different reasons, by much of the media, and particularly television, and by the people who uphold unquestioningly the pacifist side in the debate over the war itself. What the complaint boiled down to, strangely in the case of the pacifist faction, less so in the case of television, was that there were almost no bodies to be seen, very little gore, very little demonstrable human suffering. Atrocity there had been, but when the viewer had seen for the fifth time on several networks the same oil-drenched cormorant trying to lift itself out of the sea and onto the jetty, it had lost most of its power to generate strong emotions.

Visually, the war was a bust. This was to have been the made-for-television war, but so long as it remained an air war, yielding only grainy pictures of vaguely glimpsed targets, it wasn’t, not rivettingly. Action film was not available in quantities equal to the on-air time allotted to the war. True, courtesy of the other side, a few shots were coming through from Baghdad of buildings with the fronts knocked down, but there was no way of knowing whether they had contained living quarters, carrepair shops or bottling plants for the anthrax bacillus. Degraded buildings, so called, had scarcely more entertainment value than owleyed military theorists and recycled generals

sitting around a table trading speculations.

With the war in danger of becoming a bore, it could be asked, cynically, if complaints that some undefined truth was being kept from the public were not colored by a degree of selfinterest. Certainly the eagerly anticipated land war would be better, which is to say worse, therefore more productive of dramatic pictures, which is to say viewership. But if the desire for a war that looked like a war underlay media discontent, what caused the down-withall-war crowd to insist that there was more death and destruction than was being seen?

During the Feb. 10 edition of CBC Radio’s Sunday Morning, Tom Harpur, a writer on ethical and religious questions, debated aspects of war with Michael Walzer, author of the 1977 book Just and Unjust Wars. Harpur, who had already characterized “just” and “war” as contradictory, said, “Thousands are being killed in Iraq right now.” Walzer replied that not even the Iraqis said that, at which Mary Lou Finlay, around whom the program revolves, quickly intervened to say, “We just don’t know, do we?” To that, Harpur replied that Ramsey Clark, a former U.S. attorney general and pacifist just back from Iraq, had seen destruction testifying to more civilian

casualties than the world at large yet knew.

But, to the point at which they spoke, Walzer was right. Iraq, while not speaking of military casualties or damage at all, had been publishing small numbers of civilian casualties. The coalition forces had said from the beginning that all attacks would be directed only at military targets, acknowledging at the same time that where targets were located near residential areas, some “collateral damage” might occur. No reason appeared on the Iraqi side to minimize the number of civilian casualties, unless pride, early on, was allowed to prevail over considerations of useful propaganda. On the coalition side, it is altogether possible, notwithstanding the enthusiasm for Hiram Johnson’s cynical observation on war and truth, that the reticence about estimates reflected simply genuine ignorance. Air wars do not lend themselves to body counts.

It does not automatically follow from peace being preferable to war that the high moral ground in the debate over the war in the Gulf belongs entirely to the people who call themselves peace activists. Once support had been professed for the United Nations resolution demanding that Iraq relent in its annexation of Kuwait, the options available were three: sanctions, force or sanctions followed by force if they failed. What was discreetly left out of the antiwar argument was that a determined and authoritarian leader would be unlikely to see his troops starve before his civilian population, and that the relative merits of starvation or death by collateral damage are hard to sort out. But what is easy to suggest is why, once the decision had been taken for force, visible evidence of devastation became essential to the antiwar case: when protesting against war, the war should be ugly.

At about 4.30 in the morning Baghdad time, Feb. 13, all this sort of speculation became irrelevant. The Nintendo war became just plain war. What happened then could prove as consequential to the course of this war as the sinking in 1915 of the liner Lusitania, with the loss of 128 American lives, was to the eventual entry of the United States into the First World War. It is scarcely believable that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein caused civilians to be herded into the shelter knowing it might be attacked as a military communications bunker, which the U.S. military claims it had been. But it is flatly impossible that it was knowingly attacked as a shelter. Leaving aside any humanitarian consideration, such a thing would be contrary to every interest of an already tenuous coalition. That is evident in the demonstrations that have occurred elsewhere in the Arab world since.

Certainly, the balance in the propaganda war has shifted to the Iraqi side, and perhaps to a degree in the physical war. If there are still military targets in Baghdad, as is likely, they probably will have to be forgone for fear of the same happening again. That in turn may necessitate bringing on sooner than planned the more costly land war. The irony is that whatever bad consequences flow from that disastrous mistake will themselves be classifiable under that heading the war’s jargon-makers devised to sound innocuous: collateral damage.