By Lethbridge Herald on January 24, 2024.
TREVOR W. HARRISON
Responding to a complaint by a retired professor, Jeff Winch, about its coverage of the current Middle East conflict, the CBC has defended its editorial decision to describe differently the Hamas attack of October 7 and Israel’s military response since. In the first case, says the CBC, the Hamas gunmen attacked “Israelis directly with firearms, knives and explosives…. chased down festival goers, assaulted kibbutzniks then shot them, fought hand to hand, and threw grenades. The attack was brutal, often vicious, and certainly murderous.”
From published accounts, this description is accurate. In the second case, the CBC describes Israel’s actions as follows:
“Bombs dropped from thousands of feet and artillery shells lofted into Gaza from kilometers away result in death and destruction on a massive scale, but it is carried out remotely. The deadly results are unseen by those who caused them and the source unseen by those [who] suffer and die.”
Again, the description is accurate, but feels somehow empty – as lifeless as the bodies we can only imagine beneath the rubble.
If unintentionally, the CBC’s editorial response provides an entry point for considering how modern warfare has changed and how it has changed us.
Historically, war was fought mainly at close quarters – knives, clubs, spears; eye to eye. The first gun was invented around 1300 AD, but was largely ineffective even at close range until the late 1900s. Despite the invention of rapid-fire guns and long-range cannons then, fighting remained very much hand-to-hand.
The First World War saw death now capably delivered from still greater distances, either by even larger cannons or by bombs hand-dropped from the air. Still, much of the conflict involved futile charges over short distances followed, if one survived, by hand-to-hand combat. So personal was the slaughter that many soldiers who returning from the war suffered what we now understand to have been post-traumatic stress.
We should think about that for a moment. Killing another human being is not something that comes naturally to people. Those who suffered PTSD then, as now, were experiencing a genuinely human reaction. They were not dissociating but remained wholly aware of their own, human actions, and the carnage around them. War, as Ulysses S. Grant accurately said, is Hell.
Although the subsequent Second World War still involved close combat, the airplane made it easier to kill – and easier to ignore the faces of those killed. Germany’s invention of the V1 and V2 rockets, precursors of today’s cruise missiles hastened the delivery of death, in the CBC’s words, “remotely.”
And so it goes. Today, if given the order, a military technician can hit a target with a drone or missile from thousands of miles away without getting up from his or her desk. The blip on the screen might as well be an alien from Space Invaders.
Such technology is not the exclusive domain of the US. India, Pakistan, Russia, Iran, and Israel all have this capability. In years to come, military and para-military actors everywhere will acquire the same dispassionate ability to kill with dampened emotional affect.
To be clear, the elimination of human feeling is not the military’s direct intention. It is simply a by-product of the machinery that permits killing from a safe distance.
But there’s no excuse for the media sanitizing what is going on. The CBC’s response unwittingly states the problem when talking about remote deaths: “The deadly results are unseen by those who caused them and the source unseen by those [who] suffer and die.”
But the dead should be seen. As Winch has said, “I don’t think the language should have to do with the comfort of the person delivering death. It’s about the devastation and destruction and violence that’s happening to the victims.”
This is what the reality of war looks like in the twenty-first century. Jack Nicholson, in A Few Good Men, scowled, “You can’t handle the truth.” But, as citizens, we need to be tough enough to handle the truth about what war is. Our media should not get in truth’s way.
Trevor W. Harrison is a retired political sociologist at the University of Lethbridge.