Christian Caryl

Just Show It

The U.S. media continue to tiptoe around the horrors of war. It's time to put more violence on TV.


The United States is about to go to war in Syria. So perhaps it’s a good time to ask the question: Do we really know what we’re getting into?

I’m not talking about punditry here. The Middle East experts in Washington and elsewhere have been working overtime when it comes to considering the policy implications of a possible intervention. We’ve heard about potential spillover in Lebanon and Iraq, the likelihood of a response from Iran and Hezbollah, the fears of the Israelis and Turks, and the challenges involved in bombing chemical weapons depots.

These are all important issues. But to most Americans they’re painfully abstract. For the overwhelming majority of people in this country, the war in Syria is a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing. Shiites? Sunnis? Alawho?

The question I want to ask is more visceral: Do Americans really understand what war is? Do we know what it really looks like? Do Americans understand what it feels like to live in a war — or to enter into one?

The answer, almost certainly, is "no." There’s one exception: the relatively small group of past and present members of the United States military who have participated in conflicts around the world. (Strictly speaking, we’d also have to add the private contractors who were involved in some of the country’s more recent wars.) Altogether, this a group that doesn’t amount to more than a tiny fraction of the American population, meaning that their experiences remain relatively detached from the rest of the citizenry. Most of their compatriots don’t have a clue. It’s worth noting, perhaps, that the U.S. military is still fighting a war in Afghanistan — not that you’d know from scanning a newspaper, these days.

One might argue that history itself is partly to blame. Aside from Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks, the American homeland has had little direct exposure to armed conflict over the past century and a half. That has made war an arms-length phenomenon, something known only at a safe distance. This is something that also distinguishes Americans from people in many other parts of the world that have experienced war more immediately.

This has left it up to the news media to convey some sense of the reality of armed conflict. And the record here — the recent record, at least — has been dismal.

That might seem counterintuitive to some. After all, the past few days have brought some brutally vivid video of recent events in Syria: the chemical attacks that have prompted the recent push to war, the incendiary bombing in a schoolyard, the executions of prisoners captured by the opposition. Surely all of this imagery, taken together, provides a sufficiently accurate picture of the gruesomeness of what’s been happening on the ground.

Yes, these images are out there — but you’ll only be able to find them if you go looking. You almost certainly won’t spot them on network TV news in the United States. NBC News, all too characteristically, ran an item about the schoolyard bombing that didn’t include any of the BBC’s unnerving footage of the attack’s aftermath. While CNN probably went farther than other U.S. outlets by airing video of the chemical attack victims, even its imagery was arguably sanitized, lingering over the neatly arrayed bodies in a Syrian morgue while showing relatively little of the effects of the gas on survivors.

To be sure, most Americans are aware of the carnage in Syria. But it’s striking that some journalists I noticed on one recent U.S. TV broadcast saw fit to bring along an iPad with war footage when polling people on the street about the possibility of U.S. retribution against the regime in Damascus. The reporters apparently couldn’t assume that their interviewees had already seen any images of the war.

Anodyne war reporting has become something of a tradition in this country. As media critics have noted, during the war in Iraq the average American TV viewer could watch the news for days without seeing a dead or wounded U.S. service member. (One study of Iraq War coverage by academic Sean Aday was aptly titled "The Real War Will Never Get Televised.") All too often reporting on the war boiled down to a litany of casualty figures, accounts of Iraqi government intrigues and congressional maneuverings, and the odd video of exploding IEDs (though never with casualties). Largely conspicuous by its absence was any tangible sense of the genuine human costs of the conflict.

This excess of discretion had many causes. From 1991 to 2009, the U.S. government banned coverage of military coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base. U.S. Army rules forbade the release of photos of killed or injured service members prior to the notification of family members (by which time the images had usually lost their news value). And networks were widely accused of engaging in self-censorship, apparently terrified that they might be accused of insensitivity or impugned for a "lack of patriotism."

How well I remember the U.S. Army captain in Baghdad who told me about his experiences collecting evidence from suicide bombings; he’d documented so many of them that the experience had become routine. "My wife thinks I’m a monster," he said jovially. "She’s probably right." He recalled how his team had once found, hundreds of yards away from the center of the blast, the steering wheel of the car that had contained the bomb. The hands of the driver were still attached. "He must have been holding on pretty hard," the captain observed. This was one small detail from one day out of the many he’d spent in the country. But it has stayed with me — though I have yet to see anything like it on the evening news.

Unimaginably horrible things happen to human bodies in war. They are riddled by shrapnel, shredded by blast waves, burned to a crisp. Sometimes the bodies remain comparatively intact while the souls inside are shattered. This individual damage expands exponentially as villages, towns, entire societies pass through the fire. All this has a weight, a smell, an acrid aftertaste.

But you will find shockingly little of that in the U.S. media. Yes, there are many laudable exceptions: one only need recall the amazing Iraq War photos of the late Chris Hondros. By and large, though, when it comes to wars, the U.S. media remain trapped in a culture of euphemism and timidity that makes for a pathetic contrast with the reporting from many of their overseas competitors. Can we really make informed policy under such conditions?

To be fair, I do realize that it’s hard to get journalists into Syria right now — and that it’s not always easy to verify the videos coming from various informal sources on the ground there. Still, I do think that U.S. broadcasters could do far more to show what the conflict is really like. I don’t think this would necessarily generate sympathy for the rebels, automatically prompting a groundswell of support for U.S. intervention. Outrage doesn’t always equal action.

But at least we’d have a sharper picture of what we’re getting into. Most Americans presumably have some awareness of what war is about. They just don’t know what it’s really like. So it’s no surprise that we blithely allow our leaders to rush us along from one adventure to another.

Maybe it’s time for a reality check. A few years ago, two U.S. academics, Shahira Fahmy and Thomas J. Johnson, decided to take a look at Al Jazeera’s notoriously gory war reporting. The authors concluded that nine out of 10 Al Jazeera viewers approved of the network’s graphic imagery on the grounds that it accurately depicted the reality of conflict. Fahmy and Johnson called their article "Show the Truth and Let the Audience Decide."

Show the truth and let the audience decide. Since when did that cease to be the rule of thumb for U.S. journalists? Americans have always prided themselves on their honesty. If the United States is determined to go in fighting wars around the world, perhaps it’s time for Americans to start confronting the reality of what that entails.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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