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Let War’s Silent Victims Be Heard

I have only ever had one day in a theatre of war. It was June 1998, two years prior to the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, and I was making a story for the ABC documentary series Race Around the World about a Lebanese wheat farmer, Faeez Sahely, who was losing his crop to wild pigs.

Faeez’s land was in the Golan Heights, inside Lebanon but just a kilometre from an Israeli border post. Because he was so close to the Israeli border, he couldn’t shoot the problem pigs, for to produce a rifle was to risk being inadvertently mistaken for Hizbullah. So as the sun set that night, we walked the hillside rattling a tin can, chasing pigs and cursing a conflict that in Faeez’s view, ‘was only benefiting pigs.’

At dusk, my translator Fadi and I sat on the hillside under a full moon and listened as Hizbullah skirmished with border patrols. Machine guns rattled. Occasionally, a shell boomed across the valley. Flashes of fire and puffs of smoke materialised under the military post. At one point, Faeez told me to tuck away my tripod because Hizbullah rockets were launched from similar looking devices. I felt important, like a real war correspondent – ready to crouch for the camera and do that fervent looking-from-side to-side thing. Around midnight, we made the 2 hour walk back to Kfeir with tripod stuffed under shirts, herding cows and soaking up the Golan Heights in moonlight. It was one of the great nights of my life.

A week or so later in Israel, I read that it was the last night of someone else’s life. Apparently, had I descended from the romance of height, I’d have discovered that on the end of one of those pyrotechnic flashes, was a 22 year old Israeli soldier dying in a pool of blood.

This column is not about the legitimacy or otherwise of the 15 year struggle in Lebanon. One side would call it an illegal invasion; the other, a necessary occupation to prevent terrorism. It’s more of a confession. When shells were exploding in the distance, my body tingled with adrenalin and excitement. It was only the subsequent knowledge that while I watched, someone 3 years younger than me was being torn open by machine gun fire that gave the experience some perspective.

In recent wars, television has become the ultimate “distant hill” from which we can watch as events unfold. In the 1991 Iraq War, we cheered from on high as “smart bombs” delivered what Colin Powell described as a “clean win”. It wasn’t that clean. 148 Americans were killed, although we were under no circumstances to see the corpses. And Norman Shwarzkopf reported to Congress that at least 100,000 Iraqi soldiers died. Michael and Edwin Emery, authors of The Press and America confirmed that figure and added 15,000 civilians. The Times on 3 March 1991 reported “in excess of 200,000 civilian deaths.’

Even allowing for Iraqi propaganda (and carnage on the other side is so often passed off as either ‘not independently verified’ or ‘propaganda’) there were more than a football stadium worth of charred, dead bodies. On a corpse by corpse basis, it’s incomprehensible. What we saw on television though was sanitised back slapping as pilots returned from sorties. One American anchor NBC even asked whether it was appropriate for reporters to cover the return of American bodies (Tom Brakow: 22/1/91).

In Yugoslavia, we enjoyed the cushion of distance too. The night vision cameras rolled, and we were treated to surreal, green images of shooting stars. And again in Afghanistan, there was more night vision and the odd grainy Al Qaeda training video but from the media’s perspective, it wasn’t an old style war with old style death. According to one study by Professor Marc Herold, which collated the reports of independent news agencies 3006 Afghani citizens died during the bombing. Yet we barely glimpsed into hospitals or refugee camps, let alone saw bodies being exhumed.

It wasn’t until Four Corners showed the remarkable battle at Mazar-I-Sharif in August 2002, 8 months after the war, that we saw fighters dying at close range. Why wasn’t this footage newsworthy when it was shot? Instead, we suffered journalism by press release. How can it be that as home video cameras threaten to take over the world, they suddenly disappear when war breaks out.

John Keegan says that whilst anti-war sentiment is admirable, “it should be balanced by rational calculation of cost and benefit.’ (Opinion 16/1/03) I would argue that because of the way recent wars have been presented to us, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to calculate human cost. And it should be a calculation that only concerns human cost versus human security. The worry is that Keegan’s economic language reflects the real values being considered in Washington and in Canberra.

In Vietnam, the peace movement eventually gained momentum because people saw close up on television what bullets and napalm and bombs did to the human body. Now as we stand on our distant hill – scared, excited and interested – it might be worth getting out the tapes.