ICE blogs

August 4, 2014

The slaughter of the innocents 1914-2014

Filed under: Blogroll, News, Headlines, journalism, conflict — news_editor @ 10:26 pm

If war is to be reported ethically it must be shown it in all its brutality including the bodies of dead children and traumatised parents, argues Barry Turner

As the centenary of the Great War is now upon us the attention of the world’s press is drawn to the thousands of monuments to the fallen all over Europe and the rest of the world. Towns and villages across the combatant countries are almost without exception home to a war memorial to an event that is often said to have wiped out a generation. Now these monuments will be the solemn focal points for many pieces to camera over the next few months for local, national and international media.

The war memorials are often embellished with words such as ‘Our Glorious Dead’, ‘Pro Patria Mori’ and similar sentiments in all the languages of the combatants. They often feature heroic figures of soldiers and occasionally scenes of the fighting, as if commemorating those was as important as remembering the millions who died.

Apart from the haunting lists of names of people from the towns and villages that speak out from the stones there is often little sense of the loss or the suffering. One notable exception is the work by Kathe Kollwitz at the Roggevelde War Cemetery in Vladslo, Belgium. This has no inscription and shows no ‘heroic’ soldiers: just two figures in abject despair, the father with his arms crossed, shoulders hunched and the mother in total grief with her head held down. There is no ‘glory’ in the statues, no sense of a gallant falling for King and Country. Peter Kollwitz, Kathe’s son, died in the ‘Kindermord bei Ypern’, a reference to the biblical slaughter of the innocents. The parents received no consolation in it being for ‘Gott und Vaterland’.

We are now seeing the tragedy, captured so moving in the statue, played out on our TV screens every night as parents despair at the deaths of their children in a number of wars across the globe (such as Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya). There are now ethical debates about whether the broadcast media should show dead and injured children being dug out of their ruined homes and laid out forlornly in ramshackle hospitals. This is an absurd echo of the Great War censors themselves who thought it ‘improper’ to show the bodies of British soldiers killed in the fighting.

Our press still glorify war, images of tanks racing across the desert and princes in combat gear sell newspapers and draw audiences. The flag-draped coffins of ‘our glorious dead’ men and women are still paraded around our streets. It is quite remarkable that a century after the start of a war that was to ‘end all wars’ and during a 21st century slaughter of the innocents, in the very land where the biblical one took place, we still discuss the ethics of showing the consequences of war while the corporate media too often celebrate it.

The graphic and repeated images of Gazan children is not only ethical but essential. The images of the dead of flight MH17 and the haunting images of the toys of children killed in that horrible consequence of war need to be shown to us. That is what war is: our media is often too keen to show it in terms of what one side says followed by the other side’s version. War is not about TV interviews on who has a ‘right’ to defend themselves; it is about dead children, despairing parents and destroyed homes. We need to see those images far more than we need to hear politicians and the military justifying what they are doing.

As we enter this prolonged period of remembrance of World War One it is the consequences of that war that need to be reflected upon. In the Middle East just about every modern conflict today is a direct consequence of the imperialism that started the Great War. Our media should pause as it enters its period of mourning for the dead of a century ago to consider that tomorrow the slaughter of the innocents will continue there.

Perhaps if we (and, in particular, our leaders) had reflected more on the images of Kathe Kollwitz as a remembrance of war instead of triumphant monuments to militarism and our ‘glorious dead’ the Great War really would have been the war to end all wars.

Barry Turner is senior lecturer in law at the Lincoln School of Journalism, the University of Lincoln

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