On War Porn

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I put off completing this post for several months, while wars raged around the globe, and war photographers and journalists were taken hostage in countries like Syria, held for ransom and a few decapitated live on camera. One reason is I felt torn that perhaps I was being too facetious about a matter of life and death. I’ve thought long and hard about it and returned to my original feelings on the matter, which are as follows:

 

Well, there I go again on that P word and concept. But if you think about it, it most definitely concerns images, so I need to give it my best shot. A disclaimer is that I was singularly unsuccessful in my brief stint in the said profession. I did make a few memorable images in the Natal war, and promptly had a moral crises when realizing that I along with other unsavoury characters was benefiting from the death of many innocents, and worse feeding a culture of fear.

 

War is big business, and this includes media’s role in it. Wars have been photographed since the Crimean war. Of course the most famous of these in terms of imaging was the Vietnam war, in which imaging, through it being beamed into the living rooms of U.S.A. citizens, is supposed to have lessened their appetite for involvement in that conflict. I’m yet to be convinced of this fact, believing rather that it was the rising number of returning body bags that turned public opinion. Perhaps this is why, in our contemporary conflicts of Afghanistan and Iraq, the US put a ban on reporting and imaging the spectacle of U.S. soldiers returning in body bags.

 

And this brings me to my unease with images reflecting armed conflict. Firstly, journalists, including photographers and cameras are highly suspect as enemy intelligence in such arenas. This institution has been abused sufficiently to compromise the profession in this regard. So, combatants are naturally leery of correspondents in war zones. Then, correspondents who maintain neutrality in their reporting of conflict are few and far between, with an easy resort to imbalanced and downright biased coverage of conflict becoming the order for most mainstream western media. Also, without war, were would war photographers be? So they end up being the beneficiaries along with a slew of other dubious characters. Finally, if the often stated intent of war photography was to bring public attention to this dastardly deed, and end our appetite for it, why has it had so little success?

 

It seems that the dictum of truth being the first casualty of war holds true, and here, read Phillip Knightley’s excellent history of media in war ‘The First Casualty’. Analysis of media coverage of wars after the fact reveals this sad state of affairs. The reason for this is that it has long been recognized by Generals and politicians that managing media, and public opinion is crucial to winning the war. This has been done with increasing effectiveness over the last two hundred years or so, including Vietnam, the various military involvements in South America such as Guatamala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile, Panama, Cuba, Colombo and the rest, ditto Israel and Palestine, Sudan, the DRC, Rwanda, Uganda, Afghanistan (both during the soviet occupation and the current US fiasco), Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Iraq, Libya and the present Syrian conflict.

 

So considering this context one asks, how effective is reporting wars? What value does it bring to us the public? A casual perusal of the overall winners of image making contests such as World Press Photo show that invariably a conflict image is a probable winner, so aspirant photographers risk life and limb to achieve this goal. But have any of these images enhanced our understanding of the nature of these conflicts? Or better yet, blunted our appetite for war? It is telling that outstanding photographers such as Susan Meiselas had to produce their own publications to faithfully render their experience and perspective of the wars they covered, it having been excised from the mainstream discourse. Needless to say, these often excellent publications by the likes of Meiselas and Philip Jones-Griffiths, seldom reach a broader audience, remaining niche reading for a select few.

 

It is becoming increasingly recognized that mainstream media has vested interests in many conflicts, in that the host countries (as in the invading forces) commercial interests, on which the media are reliant and complicit, are vested in these conflicts which are invariably about the access to and control of resources as well as the supply of arms. Hence their quick resort to beating the drums of war and jingoist press. The dominant Western economies   (including South Africa) are heavily reliant and invested in arms manufacture and conflict. (South Africa, through parastatal Denel is slated to increase its profits dramically supplying drones to the rest of Africa, and Saudi Arabia is rumoured to be a major buyer of armed drones).

 

Just as porn is addictive, so does it seem that fossil fuels, consumerism, hegemony and conflict are too. A nation with 5% of the global population consumes 25% of the globes resources. Such an untenable imbalance can only be achieved and maintained through violent means. Whilst conflict has always been a feature of empire, the current conflicts carry terrifying capacity to rapidly devolve into nuclear conflagrations. Witness the current tensions as the USA pivots to Asia and Africa in its attempts to contain that rapidly rising economic giant, which seems to be, in its alliance with Russia and India, threatening the hegemonic aspirations of the USA.

 

Recently, such a standoff occurred in relation to the Syrian proxy war, when both Russia and China sent warships to the Meditteranean off the coast of Syria to successfully thwart US intentions to bomb the sovereign state of Syria into submission. The possible use of nuclear missiles in this standoff was very real.

Both Syria and Libya saw the use of embedded press with the so-called rebels, conveniently portraying sympathetic press of the uprising. Spectacular images came out of that orgy of violence, until the lie could no longer be contained, and they themselves began to fall victim to this so-called opposition, as ransom in kidnaps and as suspected infidels to the jihadis.

 

It’s instructive to see that the Libyan uprising arose in the region of Bhengazi, long the location of royalist factions, and that this very site was the downfall of the US ambassador to Libya. It was these very reactionary monarchist tendencies that Gaddafi had risen up against in his coup, and who theoretically have returned to power supported by monarchies such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. What hope of democracy being genuinely developed by such alliances who do everything to suppress it in their home countries?

 

Indeed, countries such as Libya, Syria and Iran have long been a thorn in the imperialist aspirations of current empire. Having managed to elude the tentacles of control over the last half a dozen decades or so. They had to go. So for the last century or so, Imperialist forces have resorted to every measure to sow discontent and rebellion in the region, with coups being the order of the day. Many other Middle Eastern and African countries fell to this onslaught, such as Iraq, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Morocco, Jordan, Yemen and indeed Saudi Arabia. The ones that resisted had to face this constant attack with force, succumbing to the accusations of being dictatorial and violent themselves.

 

Similarly such geo-political forces have been at play in most other theatres of conflict, such as Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and in eastern Europe with the balkanization of the USSR into the thoroughly unwieldy but divided and submissive states. Arguably two of the main architects of this scenario, Zbigniew Brzesinski and Kissinger, whose theories on sowing chaos, controlling and benefiting from it seem to hold to this day. None of the chaos, which has been grist for the media mills of the west, both feeding and nurturing our addiction for violence, and keeping us suitably ignorant of the true nature of a world in mayhem. It has been left to a few brave alternate media journalists to record and publish in their marginal outlets the real nature of the crimes being committed. To do so successfully is to incur the wrath of the war machine, as is evident in Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and Chris Webb to name a few.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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