“The world is in a mess and the only thing that will sort it out is another world war”.
So said my father-in-law recently. He has some right to say such a thing; he was born in 1937. And as his contemporaries inexorably pass away, fewer and fewer people alive today will have lived through World War II, fewer and fewer people will know what it is like to have dragged the bodies of family members from the rubble of their blitzed houses, and fewer and fewer people will know what it is like to shove a bayonet through another man’s stomach.
The only taste of war for the vast majority of the population is on a video screen. Battlefield V has just been released. Its strapline is “World War 2 as You’ve Never Seen It Before”. It will, doubtless, enable players to slaughter pixelated combatants in ever more graphically gruesome ways. It will satiate a lust for violence without anyone involved ever experiencing the physical impact of such violence.
A PNAS study into the impact of violent video games upon participants concluded that, “violent video game play is associated with increases in measures of serious aggressive behaviour… most strongly observed among White participants”. So, as we play sanitised versions of war, we become more aggressive.
To be fair, when I have discussed playing Call of Duty with my sons, they have shown an utterly clear understanding that what they are engaged in is just a game. And, in 1986, when XXX strode through Hungerford slaughtering 16 people dressed as Rambo, he hadn’t just been on his PS4. Video games might, perhaps, have a negative effect upon our children’s perception of the aftermath of battle, but it probably isn’t going to harm them too badly.
And it is in that sense of my sons that playing a video war game is not real that lies the problem. How do we enable people to understand what it is like to be in a war, so that they never choose to engender global conflict? Well, Peter Jackson’s remarkable film, They Shall Not Grow Old is powerful beyond words. And the teaching of the history of world conflicts in our schools is another important contribution to keeping alive the impact of war.
But re-presenting the impact of war is incredibly difficult. One man who has been in the thick of battle as a reporter is Don McCullin. The film, McCullin includes the most graphic descriptions and images of war. Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “War Photographer” is essentially about McCullin, and how he laments the fact that his work has so little impact upon its audience.
In his dark room he is finally alone
with spools of suffering set out in ordered rows.
The only light is red and softly glows,
as though this were a church and he
a priest preparing to intone a Mass.
Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass.
He has a job to do. Solutions slop in trays
beneath his hands, which did not tremble then
though seem to now. Rural England. Home again
to ordinary pain which simple weather can dispel,
to fields which don’t explode beneath the feet
of running children in a nightmare heat.
Something is happening. A stranger’s features
faintly start to twist before his eyes,
a half-formed ghost. He remembers the cries
of this man’s wife, how he sought approval
without words to do what someone must
and how the blood stained into foreign dust.
A hundred agonies in black and white
from which his editor will pick out five or six
for Sunday’s supplement. The reader’s eyeballs prick
with tears between the bath and pre-lunch beers.
From the aeroplane he stares impassively at where
he earns his living and they do not care.
“Between the bath and pre-lunch beers”… On 26 February 1991, at the end of the first Iraqi War, the Americans obliterated the retreating Iraqi Army, as it moved north on the Basra road towards the Kuwaiti-Iraq border. It was a massacre. The following Sunday, the Observer and the Sunday Times both covered the bombing. In order to show “the truth of war”, the Observer picture editor decided to publish Ken Jarecke’s famous image of the charred Iraqi frozen in death at the wheel of his jeep.
His counterpart at The Sunday Times, did not want “to upset our readers at their breakfast table” and consequently published this image, claiming that readers “could imagine what had happened on the ground”.
No representation of reality is a “truth”. We are merely re-presenting a moment or an event, not the thing itself. But if those of us who have the responsibility to re-present the gruesome reality of war do not take that responsibility seriously, if we shy away from showing upsetting images or challenging our young people to wrestle with disturbing issues, then my father-in-law might be proved prophetic and his grandsons may well become combatants in our third World War.
Written by Oliver Joseph