Monday 14 April 2003

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 defence 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.

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