the road to Basra, ITV was filming wild dogs as they tore at the
corpses of the Iraqi dead. Every few seconds a ravenous beast would
rip off a decaying arm and make off with it over the desert in front
of us, dead fingers trailing through the sand, the remains of the
burned military sleeve flapping in the wind.
for the record,’’ the camera-person said to me. Of course.
Because ITV would never show such footage. The things we see cannot
be shown. First because it is not ”appropriate" to depict
such reality on breakfast-time TV. Second because, if what we saw
was shown on television, no one would ever again agree to support
of course was in 1991. The “highway of death,” they called
it—there was actually a parallel and much worse “highway
of death” 10 miles to the east, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force
and the RAF, but no one turned up to film it and the only picture
of the horrors we saw was the photograph of the shriveled, carbonized
Iraqi soldier in his truck. This was an iconic illustration of a
kind because it did represent what we had seen, when it was eventually
Iraqi casualties to appear on television during that Gulf War—
there was another one between 1980 and 1988, and a third is in the
offing—it was necessary for them to have died with care, to
have fallen romantically on their backs, one hand over a ruined
face. Like those World War I paintings of the British dead on the
Somme, Iraqis had to die benignly and without obvious wounds, without
any kind of squalor, without a trace of shit or mucus or congealed
blood, if they wanted to make it on to the morning news programs.
rage at this contrivance. At Qaa in 1996, when the Israelis shelled
Lebanese refugees at the UN compound for 17 minutes, killing 106
civilians, more than half of them children, I came across a young
woman holding a middle-aged man in her arms. He was dead. “My
father, my father,” she kept crying, cradling his face. One
of his arms and one of his legs was missing—the Israelis used
proximity shells, which cause amputation wounds. When that scene
reached television screens in Europe and America, the camera was
close up on the girl and the dead man’s face. The amputations
were not to be seen. The cause of death had been erased in the interests
of good taste. It was as if the old man had died of tiredness, just
turned his head upon his daughter’s shoulder to die in peace.
when I listen to the threats of George Bush against Iraq and the
shrill moralistic warnings of Tony Blair, I wonder what they know
of this reality. Does George, who declined to serve his country
in Vietnam, have any idea what these corpses smell like? Does Tony
have the slightest conception of what the flies are like, the big
bluebottles that feed on the dead of the Middle East and then come
to settle on our faces and our notepads?
know. I remember one British officer asking to use the BBC’s
satellite phone just after the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. He
was talking to his family in England and I watched him carefully.
“I have seen some terrible things,” he said. Then he broke
down, weeping and shaking and holding the phone dangling in his
hand over the transmission set. Did his family have the slightest
idea what he was talking about? They would not have understood by
we face the prospect of war. Our glorious, patriotic population—albeit
only about 20 percent in support of this particular Iraqi folly—has
been protected from the realities of violent death. But I am much
struck by the number of letters I get from veterans of World War
II, men and women, all against this new Iraqi war, with an inalienable
memory of torn limbs and suffering.
remember once a wounded man in Iran, a piece of steel in his forehead,
howling like an animal—which is, of course, what we all are—before
he died; and the Palestinian boy who collapsed in front of me when
an Israeli soldier shot him dead, quite deliberately, coldly, murderously,
for throwing a stone; and the Israeli with a chair leg sticking
out of her stomach outside the Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem after
a Palestinian bomber had decided to execute the families inside;
and the heaps of Iraqi dead at the Battle of Dezful in the Iran-Iraq
war—the stench of their bodies wafted through our helicopter
until the mullahs aboard were sickened; and the young man showing
me the thick black trail of his daughter’s blood outside Algiers
where armed “Islamists” had cut her throat.
George Bush and Tony Blair and Dick Cheney and all the other warriors
who are bamboozling us into war will not have to think of these
images. For them it’s about surgical strikes, collateral damage,
and all the other examples of war’s linguistic mendacity. We
are going to have a “just” war; we are going to “liberate”
the people of Iraq— some of whom we will obviously kill—and
we are going to give them democracy and protect their oil wealth
and stage war crimes trials and we are going to be ever so moral
and we are going to watch our defense “experts” on TV
with their bloodless sandpits and their awesome knowledge of weapons
that rip off heads.
to think of it, I recall the head of an Albanian refugee, chopped
neatly off when the Americans, ever so accidentally, bombed a refugee
convoy in Kosovo in 1999, which they thought was a Serb military
unit. His head lay in the long grass, bearded, eyes open, severed
as if by a Tudor executioner. Months later, I learned his name and
talked to the girl who was hit by the severed head during the U.S.
air strike and who laid the head reverently in the grass where I
found it. NATO, of course, did not apologize to the family. Or to
the girl. No one says sorry after war. No one acknowledges the truth
of it. No one shows you what we see. Which is how our leaders and
our betters persuade us still to go to war.