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  • The war and I

    Posted On April 7, 2003

    By Karan Thapar

    Are you hooked to the war? Has it become compulsive viewing? Do you sit in front of the box waiting for Rageh Omaar to crop up with the latest from Baghdad or for Paul Adams to decipher and demystify the miasma of battle analysis? I must admit I do.

    I lie in bed till the wee hours allowing the flood of coverage to sweep over me. Sometimes I feel I am drowning in details that do not add up to a comprehensible picture. On other occasions I’m left with a crystal clear view and everything seems to fall into place. But my curiosity is neither satisfied nor exhausted. I always seem to want more and if I nod off it’s only because sleep has overtaken me.

    So you can imagine my horror when I heard the following question addressed by an eighteen year old to a panel of politicians. It was towards the end of a rather quarrelsome episode of The Big Question and the arguments had been mainly about the war in Iraq.

    “The war in Iraq seems to have become a reality show on TV” Paushika Ghosh began. “CNN and BBC have brought the battlefield of Baghdad straight into the comfort of our living rooms. Do you consider this fascination with death, blood, destruction and misery morally degrading?”

    It wasn’t just a clever question, it was far more than that. It was telling. Even though it wasn’t, I felt it was directed at me. Was I guilty of taking a morbid delight in other people’s misery? Was this schadenfreude? And was it degrading to entice me with a diet of destruction and gruesome death?

    Each of these are in fact two questions. Is it right for television to treat war and massacre as spectacle? And was I diminishing myself by attentively watching? But neither is easy to answer.

    In fact it’s not just the television coverage of war that these questions can be asked of. You could argue that they apply equally – perhaps even equally compellingly – to the way we cover riots or terrorist strikes like those on Parliament and the Akshardham temple. But I suspect the broader you make the focus the more you diffuse the point. Limited to war it seems sharpest of all.

    It’s inevitable that the more you emphasise something the more you draw attention to it. But does that mean television is making a spectacle of war? Before you answer you need to recall that the war is happening – and will continue – regardless of television. Also, war is a lot worse than what you see or ‘feel’ through TV.

    Yet if television has a role to play it is to inform beyond conveying facts. The extra is the feel of what is happening. The audio and the image capture a truth about battle that we non-soldiers can otherwise only guess at. This is where reality starts to compete with Spielberg. Perhaps that’s why it feels spectacular. But it’s only what’s actually happening.

    Of course, it is not the whole truth and often it’s just a small fraction of it. What you see is what the camera shows or is permitted to film. That’s all. There’s a lot that remains uncovered because it is unseen. The big picture – or rather the full picture – is known only to the generals and usually they are reluctant to share it. Yet whilst this is an important corrective it doesn’t detract from the television coverage. It only puts it in perspective.

    However, I’m not so confident of defending my own interest in the war. Why do I watch? Is it only to be informed? Or to be up to the minute? Or am I also attracted by the horror of it all? The blood and gore? The shock and awe? The truth, I suspect, is that I’m glued to the screen because this is Saving Private Ryan for real. It’s not make-belief. It’s actually happening.

    I am, I’m afraid, a voyeur. I’m watching the killing of human beings even though I cannot actually see them being hit or witness their dying. I may curse or swear at the Allies but I’m reluctant to switch off. In fact, I stay up half the night waiting for the bombs, for the big orange flares and the echoing night sky.

    Even though I may empathise with the Iraqis, I’m also captivated by what is happening to them. Because I can see I feel involved. But I cannot experience and I am not a part of it. The truth is I’m safe at home and they are not. And it’s their suffering I’m watching.

    What an odd conclusion : it’s right for television to show the war but I’m not sure I should watch that much!

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