On December 24, the Independent on Sunday‘s front page featured a portrait of a British soldier gazing pensively into the distance. A banner headline filled the page: “An ‘IoS’ Christmas special with the troops – Letters home from the front, pages 8-15.” (Front page shown to the left, click on it to get a larger version)
The editors explained on page 2:
“Today’s paper is a celebratory one, and not just because it’s Christmas Eve. This edition contains a special section dedicated to our forces, especially those in Afghanistan and Iraq… As a present from this paper and its readers, we have sent to their families, courtesy of Harvey Nicholls, a hamper, or made a donation to charity of their choice.”
Page 9 had another banner headline: “Christmas on the front line: ‘Daddy would love to come home – but I’ve got a job to do.‘”
On the BBC website, Martin Bell made a similar point in his report on British troops in Basra:
“The troops just get on with it. They always have. They always will.” (Bell, ‘An army Christmas in Iraq,’ BBC online, December 23, 2006; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/ from_our_own_correspondent/6200511.stm)
The whole of the Independent on Sunday’s page 10 was taken up by a series of pictures: a British soldier reading on his bed, a soldier chatting to a group of Iraqi children, a group of three soldiers with a female soldier smiling, and a British soldier playing football with smiling Iraqi adults and children. (Page 10 shown to the left, click on it to get a larger version)
The pages surrounding these images were filled with moving letters home from British troops, some of whom have been killed in action.
In one sense, this is a valid, even admirable, focus. The British troops are human beings and it is right that we should feel compassion for their suffering and loss. But this is not the whole story. Although our media are supposed to be neutral reporters of world events, their compassion is overwhelmingly reserved for “our” troops, whereas the troops and civilians of “the enemy” are treated with indifference and even contempt.
As we will see in Part 2, the media emphasis on the humanity and benevolence of British troops dove-tails well with the presentation of US-UK leaders as noble and compassionate. Both generate a kind of psychological force-field against recognising the ugly realities of our actions.
On January 4, the press reported that nine British soldiers accused of beating “Iraqis” – in fact, children or youths – in violence caught on video would not face charges. The BBC commented:
“The footage showed Iraqis allegedly being kicked, punched and head-butted.” (‘No charges over Iraq video riots,’ January 4, 2007; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6230711.stm)
Our dictionary definition of “allege” is: “declare to be the case, especially without proof”. Readers can decide for themselves if there is proof that British troops kicked, punched and head-butted the Iraqis here:
An earlier BBC website article reported:
“The Labour Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, has punched a protester who threw an egg at him during a visit to Rhyl in north Wales.”
But why was Prescott’s punch not an “alleged” punch? What is the difference in terms of proof?
The Times online similarly reported:
“An investigation into the alleged beatings was made after clips from the video, apparently taken by a soldier serving at the British base at al-Amarah in southern Iraq, were published by the News of the World last February.”
(Michael Evans, ‘Soldiers avoid courts martial,’ January 5, 2007; http://www.timesonline.co.uk/ article/0,,200-2532369.html)
A further problem with the media’s patriotic focus is that it points away from serious thought and honest discussion. After all, is it enough to say of British armed forces, as Martin Bell did: “The troops just get on with it. They always have. They always will.”?
Is it right to implicitly celebrate this stoic, military commitment to doing what one is told? In truth, we are discussing participation in one of the most shockingly cynical and violent criminal acts of modern times. More than 655,000 Iraqis have paid with their lives for this criminality. The New York Times reminds us of the reality of the occupation:
“The foot was balanced on a shopping bag after being scooped up off the dirty street by a man in a track suit. There was no person to go with the limb. Nearby a charred body was still smoldering, smoke coming off the black corpse 45 minutes after the attack.
“For 50 yards, the dead were scattered about, some in pieces, some whole but badly burned… Thirteen people were killed and 22 wounded, just a small fraction of the civilians killed across the country this week.”
(Marc Santora and John Spanner, ‘Deadly blasts in Baghdad leave gruesome traces,’ New York Times, January 5, 2007)
Alongside the Independent on Sunday’s patriotic focus on December 24, an honest newspaper would surely have made space for the argument that honour, courage and moral responsibility mean refusing to participate in our government’s illegal actions. An honest newspaper would also have celebrated the men and women who have refused to fight, and allow readers to decide for themselves who has taken the most reasonable course of action.
In fact, according to the Pentagon, some 6,000 members of the US armed forces have refused to remain at their posts since the war began (during the Vietnam war, some 170,000 draftees refused to fight by registering as conscientious objectors).
One of them is US Naval Petty Officer Pablo Paredes, who refused to join his ship to Iraq in December 2004. In an interview, Paredes explained his position:
“I don’t see what we’re doing there or why we’re there. I don’t believe for one minute that it’s about spreading democracy. I don’t believe for one minute that it was about weapons of mass destruction. Oil sounds like the number one, you know.” (Andrea Peters, ‘US sailor refuses deployment to Iraq in protest against war,’ World Socialist Web Site, December 10, 2004; www.wsws.org/articles/2004/dec2004/navy-d10.shtml)
Paredes has made an excellent point that applies equally to journalists and presidents:
“Unfortunately, our president continues to hide behind the bravery of the troops, and it disgusts me because it’s absolutely possible to say, you know, ‘These guys are great. They’re doing their job.’ But what you’re sending them to do doesn’t make sense. And it’s a fundamental thing that has to happen in this country. Everyone’s almost afraid to say something against the war because it’s unpatriotic, and I don’t understand why you have to trade humanity for patriotism. I don’t know when that happened.”
In April 2006, a British court martial sentenced Royal Air Force doctor Flight Lieutenant Malcolm Kendall-Smith to eight months imprisonment after he refused to cooperate in training and deployment for a third tour of Iraq. Dr. Kendall-Smith has said:
“I believe the occupation of Iraq is illegal… and for me to comply… would put me in conflict with both domestic and international law…. I would, in fact, refuse the orders as a duty under international law, the Nuremberg principles and the law of armed conflict.” (Harvey Thompson, ‘British military doctor court martialed for refusing to serve in Iraq,’ World Socialist Web Site, April 22, 2006; www.wsws.org/articles/2006/apr2006/raf-a22.shtml)
In sentencing Kendall-Smith, Judge advocate Jack Bayliss was unimpressed:
“Obedience of orders is at the heart of any disciplined force. Refusal to obey orders means that the force is not a disciplined force but a rabble.” (Ibid)
We are not arguing that the media always fail to report the views and actions of conscientious objectors – occasional, superficial coverage is granted. The point is that the media essentially never endorse the actions of these objectors. They would never send hampers from Harvey Nicholls to their families, or devote pages of photographs and newsprint celebrating their courage, suffering and service to their country as they regularly do for troops who fight.
Instead, our newspapers invariably report as though accepting employment as a professional soldier absolves a human being of moral responsibility.
And this is how even our best media keep the public mind marinaded in ideas that lead away from critical thought, from a sense of personal responsibility and, most importantly, from a sense of compassion for our victims abroad.
Part Two will follow