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We live in a modern world of ever-increasing forms of communication and instant information. This is not all good. The demise of the newspapers and quality news reporting on television has led us into a world of instant clips of a few seconds, from which we are supposed to form opinions of world events. Over the past hundred years or so, the global public accessed the information on their own local environment, country, and global affairs though newspapers, which provided the reader with the opportunity of creating an informed opinion on issues that matter.
The arrival of radio allowed a wider audience to listen to news items and comment, and the advent of television brought to the public for the first time visual support to the news from news bureaus of the major networks around the world. Unfortunately, network news is now no more than a news magazine of mostly irrelevant “fluff.” The viewer therefore finds it increasingly difficult to seek out serious news and comment from around the world. The dumbing down of America continues at a furious pace.
The Vietnam War was perhaps the first conflict that brought the horrors of daily combat into our living room with the true but unpleasant sight of death and destruction. The embedding of reporters into tanks and other army vehicles at the beginning of the Iraq War was less than successful. It failed to give us, the public, a larger view of the conflict or even the damage inflicted as a result of the US “shock and awe” bombing.
As our wars have changed from massed armies in uniforms with tanks and other equipment facing each other, into conflicts involving road-side bombings, suicide bombers, terrorist activities against civilians, and insurgents indistinguishable from the local civilian population, so the rules of war and the reporting thereof are changing. Terrorist groups, insurgents and Jihadists have become ever more sophisticated in the use and manipulation of those few seconds of a TV image.
In the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, we now know that Hamas had deliberately placed their rockets, weaponry and their fighters in congested civilian areas, schools, and hospitals. They invited television news teams – BBC, Al Jazeera, CNN and others – into the conflict arena. We, the viewing public, were shown numerous clips of dead civilians, damaged schools, and terrified children. These images prompted a United Nations investigation into war crimes abuses by the combatants, headed by, one should note, such human rights protectors as Libya and Saudi Arabia. The resulting outcome has created a furor.
While this conflict was filling our television screens every evening and we were told about the fourteen hundred Palestinian deaths, another conflict was developing, which received no television coverage at all. The Sri Lanka government had launched a major offensive to finally eliminate the Tamil insurgency, which had been raging on and off for more than two decades. This major military offensive totally destroyed numerous towns and villages, killing thousands of militants and civilians – men, women, and children – and forced over 150,000 people to flee their homes and hide in the jungles without shelter, food or water. Eventually, the remnants of the rebels and an estimated 100,000 civilians were cornered on a spit of land, forcing the Tamil insurgents finally to surrender. Nearly 100,000 civilians were placed into temporary refugee camps, where most of them are still languishing seven months after the end of the conflict. However, there were no TV crews nor five-second clips of the death and suffering of those civilians. So, no world outrage and no UN war crimes investigation.
But it prompts the question, what should be the rules of war in this new environment? How does a democratic country who values life, – US, European, or the only democracy in the Middle East, Israel – respond to attacks from unidentifiable combatants operating deep in civilian areas? Is it a war crime to respond to those attacks, knowing there will be some civilian casualties, or is the war crime perpetrated by those who use human shields, from behind which they launch their attacks?
The Geneva Convention and protests of proportionality of responses are inadequate in this new world. The format of today’s armed conflicts has changed, and so should the accepted rules of engagement.
Ellis M. Goodman, author of Bear Any Burden: www.bearanyburden.com