Bunting Suspicious of Biased War Coverage
The Missing Victims of War
You cannot go to war without making lots of victims, but mainstream journalists seem to be reporting little or nothing about Afghan civilians. Why might that be? Here we have a few excerpts from a sharp article by Madeleine Bunting, that originally appeared in the Guardian (UK).
by Madeleine Bunting
It's all settled then - this really does seem likely to prove a war that ends before Christmas. Any day now Bin Laden should be blown up in a cave, and then we can settle down to our turkey and Christmas pudding. We can send cards and sing carols about peace and goodwill without a chorus of daisy cutters in the background. We like to feel good about ourselves; we give to charities, we give presents, we offer hospitality and we remember those lonely old relatives. If it works, the objective is to feel expansive, warm-hearted and generous. So all good wars must end before Christmas.
Indeed, this one is shaping up in every respect to having been a jolly good war. It is fitting all the criteria for what a modern war should be - very neatly. It's been short; it's been successful; and we've had right on our side. Not a day is going by without another al-Qaida bomb factory or terror manual being discovered; and now a well-timed Advent goodie, the smoking gun himself, Bin Laden, on video chortling as only an evil genius would do over his handiwork. Even the ascetic Mullah Omar comes in for demonisation as his vast compound in Kandahar allegedly exposes his corrupt egotism while his people suffered in poverty (worst of all, it appears, he had execrable taste in interior decor).
To top it all, feeling really good usually requires some measure of feeling superior; so round off that seasonal glow with some gloating at the idiots who opposed this war.
All so neat, just too neat, and I don't buy it. The coverage of this war raises more questions than any other war I can remember (and I'm not even talking about the video tape). Of much more concern has been the way the coverage has been heavily skewed towards the military conflict: it's been a boys' war. We've followed planes and bombs, we've watched plumes of smoke from distant brown hills, we've seen picturesque Afghan fighters hanging about in mountain hideouts -- and now it has culminated in a grand finale, a mountain shoot-out. It's been as gripping and as plausible as one of the black-and-white westerns we'll watch this Christmas, only fewer dead bodies. Very occasionally, we've glimpsed that people are getting killed -- the images of the castrated Taliban fighter pleading for his life before he was shot, and the massacre at Qala-i-Janghi. But our sympathy for these near-feral wildmen is limited -- they got what they deserved, they were Taliban after all.
What has been strikingly absent is the humanisation of this war. Unlike the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, our screens and newspapers have not been filled with the terrible trauma of recognisable individuals and their families. The cameras haven't hovered on the faces of shocked tearful children, and the impotent anguish of their parents and grandparents. On a few occasions, reporters have reached a bombed village, but it's hard to tell the rubble from the hovels, and estimates of the dead are always circumspect; there has been no sense of outrage about these atrocities. Yet the number of Afghan non-combatants reported killed (how many more do we not know about?) in this war is close to those who died in the World Trade Centres. The latter has provoked global outrage, the former is accepted with an astonishing equanimity as a necessary price to pay for two very uncertain prognostications -- Afghanistan's peaceful future and ridding the world of the evil al-Qaida.
But the even bigger story that has barely surfaced in recent weeks is the huge dislocation the war has caused to the entire population. The World Food Programme estimates that as many as 3m-4m people have fled their homes because of the bombing. Médecins Sans Frontières claims that Maslakh -- a name that should be on every newspaper front page -- is the biggest refugee camp in the world. The few aid workers there haven't even been able to assess its population, which is believed to be somewhere between 200,000 and 800,000 and growing. It is one of five refugee camps around Herat, but the route there is too insecure for western journalists. They are largely sticking to the main cities and Tora Bora.
Part of the explanation for why we are not hearing this is the unprecedented danger of reporting this war, in which as many journalists as western combatants have been killed. Partly it's because journalists always depend for help on local participants in a war who want to use the western media to advance their cause. But the only Afghans helping western journalists are the Northern Alliance, and they have no interest in shocking a western public with the suffering caused by the bombing.
The Americans have unleashed a principle of foreign policy -- "it is legitimate to fight terror with even greater terror" -- that is causing havoc in the Middle East, could cause more havoc in Kashmir and is being used from China to Zimbabwe to warrant brutal repression.
We are not getting anything like the full picture of the suffering this war has caused in this most tragic of countries.
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