Media And The Narrativization Of War

BY Subarno Chattarji| IN Media Practice | 28/08/2002
Media And The Narrativization Of War

Media And The Narrativization Of War

By Subarno Chattarji

Department of English, University of Delhi

Mass media and television in particular have altered the ways in which we look at our world and the ways in which politics, wars, and history are projected and reconstructed. The media presents seemingly ¿objective¿ narratives of war.

This is the way it is proclaim the slightly breathless correspondents out in the field. ¿It¿s a minute by minute existence¿ says Nic Robertson, CNN correspondent in Kandahar. The anchors at home intone and repeat the idea that these reporters are conveying the immediacy of war. The warfront is brought home to millions of viewers snugly ensconced in the global village. From Vietnam to Afghanistan the media has grown in sophistication and influence. By ¿the media¿ I refer primarily to US television channels and the BBC since their truth-value and outreach is greater than say Doordarshan or STAR NEWS. I will concentrate on the language of war as well as the ways in which the media determines the parameters of the debate regards a given conflict.

The Vietnam War was televised primarily for an American audience. It was the Gulf War that introduced war to a global television audience and made CNN and its reporter, Peter Arnett famous. Arnett¿s line, ¿the skies are illuminated over Baghdad¿, projected war as spectacle, the transformation of death and destruction into a laser show, computer game, or film. There was no mention on CNN (or any other news channel) of incinerated Iraqi soldiers who were retreating and bombed during the retreat. Photographs of the infamous ¿highway of death¿ surfaced later in selected print media. The increasing technologization of war allows for pride in the mechanics of destruction, which obscures the primary site of war, the human body. TV wars accompanied by military experts pontificating on the virtues of a Stealth Bomber or a cluster bomb, further anaestheticize the horror of war. There are only passing references now to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children who have died or are malnourished due to UN sanctions imposed at the insistence of the US and Britain.

The media coverage of the present crisis is subtler in terms of presenting a seeming plurality of voices. For instance, there are reports on the humanitarian crisis and conditions in refugee camps (although not on the extent or their direct relation to the US bombing). What are excluded are the hundreds of dead civilians from this and other related conflicts. There are no televised candlelit vigils or services for the Palestinian dead, for example. The ¿worthy-unworthy victim¿ dichotomy is neatly sustained even in the midst of media pluralities.

My analysis of these narratives and representations will perforce be impressionistic and tentative since the crisis is still unfolding before us. Also at this point I want to highlight an obvious fact about the September 11 attacks. Nothing can mitigate the evil of the premeditated actions or the loss of innocent lives and trauma of survivors on that day. It was an act of absolute terror and just as innocent Iraqi children or Afghans ought not to suffer for the sins of their leaders, so too American citizens cannot be held responsible for all acts of US foreign policy. There can be no doubt, as Robert Fisk, John Pilger, and Martin Amis, among others have pointed out, that US policy in Palestine, Iraq, and the Middle East has been reprehensible and overtly biased toward Israel. This policy might explain the hatred that sections of the Islamic world feel toward the US, but it does not justify acts of terror against civilians. A State Department official stated in an American studies conference in September that it made his blood boil to hear people make connections between US policy vis-à-vis Palestine and September 11. My position is not so extreme or dehistoricized, but I do believe that in the process of presenting a critique of the media coverage of the conflict we need to keep in mind the utter desolation of the human tragedy visited on New York and Washington.

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