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Censoring the Dead: We Can See Corpses in TV Dramas, But Not the Real Casualties of War
Published on Monday, April 14, 2003 by the Guardian/UK
Censoring the Dead: We Can See Corpses in TV Dramas, But Not the Real Casualties of War
by Peter Preston
 

There is one thing missing as the cliches of conflict shrink back into their pockets of least resistance. No, not those fabled weapons of mass destruction. (Though they better start to turn up pretty damn quick.) The missing link, for those of us watching far away, is death: the bodies of the men and women who have died.

Now that, in a way, is understandable. It is difficult to talk about bodies, or their bags, without straying into emotional quicksand. As the defense editor of the Daily Telegraph dryly observes: "The anti-war party seeks to inflate the number of those [killed in battle] by adding civilian deaths, which it also inflates." Statistics aren't neutral, here; they come bearing their unhidden agendas.

But trading figures isn't beginning at the beginning. The real beginning is a much simpler observation. When you go to war, when you walk the battlefields, when you're there, you see the bodies of the fallen all around you. Part of the scenery.

I remember the first (small) war I ever covered for the Guardian and arriving, one beautiful Cyprus morning, in a tiny northern village where Greek and Turkish Cypriots were still firing at each other, as they had been through the night. There was a house with a garden and a porch, and women standing outside wailing. Just below the porch was a pit, a trench, with loose earth scattered round its rim. And when you looked into the pit, there were four bodies there: twisted, bloodied, inert. The wailing fell into place.

I remember, equally, the first larger war I covered, Indian against Pakistani, and driving one day across the flatness of the Punjab in the wake of a battle that had moved on. Burnt-out tanks, rotting cattle caught in the crossfire, bloated stomachs turned to the sky; and a scattering of jeeps combing the ditches, collecting the last of the dead. It was matter of fact, cause and effect. It was what happened after what had happened. Again, though, the corpses weren't incidental. They were an indelible part of the picture.

But not of the pictures that have come into our homes these past four weeks. There we've maybe glimpsed a few unidentified bodies under a Baghdad overpass, and a couple of mortally wounded Reuters cameramen wrapped in sheets in the back of a car as it sped away. More? Perhaps. It's difficult to monitor six 24-hour TV channels round the clock.

Nevertheless: this televised war, with all its access and actuality and for all the uniqueness of the seats in the stalls it delivers, has largely turned away at the moment of final reality. "Some of the scenes here in Basra are just too gruesome for us to show you," one correspondent confessed, unblinking. And nobody stopped to ask: why?

If you work in television, of course, you know why. Consider the relevant BBC producers' guidelines. "We should be circumspect about pictures of and accounts of injured, dying and dead combatants. Consideration must be given to the dignity of the individuals regardless of national origin. Pictures should not normally be close up and should not linger too long. Remember too that pictures may identify individuals, even at a distance, before next-of-kin know."

"We should not sanitize the awful realities of war," these guidelines say, "but especially harrowing actuality and pictures have to be justified by the context. Warnings should be given beforehand if a report will cause unusual distress. Particular care is required for reports during daytime or early evening."

And so on and so forth, through the valleys of sense and sensitivity, taste, decency, propriety. Most broadcasters operate under similar rules (and are furiously berated by politicians and generals if they forget them). Most newspaper editors follow the throng. The dead become undead for photographic purposes; the hills and deserts are swept clean. Of course you can see why. Of course you wouldn't want, inadvertently, to tell some mother back home that her son is dead. Of course outrage, in its various manifestations, would inevitably follow.

But can we also - at last - be a touch more honest about the effect of these human evasions and excisions? They mean that we can see men ducking for cover, shells exploding on distant ridges, but not what happens next. They mean we can watch the bombs falling and the night sky turned to livid day, but not the death amongst the debris.

Somehow, now, that isn't a fit. Technology has suddenly left it, and its thinking processes, far behind. If we can be there, embedded with our soldiers on a riverbank at Umm Qasr or crossing the Euphrates with the marines, why can't we see everything they see? What relevant guideline means we must watch guns blazing into a void of tactfully averted eyes?

It isn't as though television - guidelines and all - is exactly corpse-averse. On the contrary, America and Channel 5's most popular show, Crime Scene Investigation, delivers vanloads of corpses every week. Tune in tomorrow at 9pm to watch our heroes "discover a hand in a consignment of meat at a processing plant and swiftly discover that the rest of the body has been turned into hamburgers." Great! That's entertainment. But when it comes to real people killing other real people in our name, then "awful" and "harrowing" considerations - plus their relevant sub-clauses - come to bear. Our viewing sensibilities, real or assumed, come first.

And that, seriously, somberly, doesn't work any longer, practically or morally. It is self-censorship of the most self-serving kind. We can cover our screens and front pages with pictures of little Ali Ismail Abbas, with his missing limbs and longing eyes, because - for all his agonies - he's alive. But we can't show other 12-year-old playmates and friends, because they're dead. What kind of sanitized reality, pray, is that?

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003

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