By Keith Lehwald and Miguel Chua
Point (Keith Lehwald): Sometimes, war is necessary. But all too often, there is no clear way to tell when those times come. When our government sends us down the warpath, we are often left with only politically spun stories and statistics with which to decide if the cause is just. It is for this reason I am arguing that the media should be allowed to depict the full horrors of war. That is, with the exception of strategically sensitive information that could directly jeopardize the mission, the media should not be subject to government censorship in images and text nor censor itself in the name of common decency.
Counterpoint (Miguel Chua): While there may be an interesting and compelling case that media outlets should showcase the full horrors of war, the proposal has adverse effects both at home and on the battlefield. On these grounds, I’ll be rebutting the case based on two planks. The first plank is based on a moral and rational rebuttal of the case presented, while the second plank highlights how this policy greatly reduces the capacity of states to fight in just wars as well as reduces states’ abilities to fight in wars.
Point: Under the status quo, the only way by which we can imagine the state of war is through statistics. Numbers and general categories of the dead, such as “soldiers” and “civilians”, dehumanize the tragedies and isolate us from true understanding. As Stalin allegedly once said, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” Giving the media more free reign in what it can publish would go a long way toward combating this issue. Graphic images produce a visceral and intense emotion in those who view them that numbers never can. An image highlights the death of one so that the millions may no longer be a statistic. As an example, the genocide in Darfur seems like just another faraway conflict until you see the photograph of a lone gunman looking out across a swath of partially dismembered bodies, left lying in the desert to be buried by the drifting sand.
Counterpoint: Proponents present two mutually contradictory effects that come about through this policy. On the one hand they say people will be rational enough to discuss policy and “just war theory”, while on the other they also say that people will be so emotional that they will be compelled to intervene. Therefore the question has to be: Which of these two effects would come about? Furthermore, the fact that these images will be showcased daily and nothing will be left for the imagination is extremely damaging. The risk exists that people will become desensitized by these images. It’s for this similar reason that we as a society refuse to showcase all the images of rape and murder scenes.
Point: The notion of the wider public being exposed to such gruesome images on a regular basis during wartime is not a pleasant concept, but neither is the concept of war itself. This closer and more personal understanding of the horrors of war forces us to think long and hard about whether the objective is worth the sacrificed soldiers and the collateral damage. Increased media access would also ensure that the worst atrocities come to light, even if the military might prefer they did not – an issue particularly pertinent in the case of civilian casualties.
Counterpoint: The second plank that I would like to discuss is how this policy actually hampers the capacity of states to enter into and to fight wars in general, and especially just wars. The capacity of soldiers to fight wars on the ground is also extremely hamstrung, primarily because for this policy to work reporters would have to be inserted into every unit in a warzone. Therefore soldiers are not only responsible for their own personal safety but also for the safety and security of civilians that have become closely linked to the conflict. Beyond that, soldiers must now also think twice when presented with an order from their commanding officers because every action that they take in the battlefield will be under an intense media spotlight.
Point: As I mentioned earlier, some wars do need to be fought. This plan still allows for the wars that are necessary to be waged, and even encourages public support for them. When photographs of bodies lining the streets of Rwanda reached the media after the war had ended, people across the Western world wondered why our militaries did not step in. If they had seen those pictures while the war was in progress, perhaps it could have ended sooner and with less bloodshed.
Counterpoint: By showing the full horrors of war, the capacity of states to exercise judgment when entering conflicts is severely hampered because wars are no longer judged on the basis of “just war theory” but are instead compared to the last conflict that a state found itself in. An example of this would be the United States and its refusal to aid in Rwanda during the genocide in 1994. “Just war principles” would have stated that it would have been necessary to intervene in Rwanda; however the images of a U.S. pilot being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia just a year prior on CNN were still fresh in the public’s minds and therefore prompted inaction from the U.S. state.
Point: Ultimately, a democracy works best when we make decisions in collaboration with our leaders rather than blindly trusting them to always do the right thing. However, this system cannot exist if the public is insufficiently informed. That is why the media, our primary source of information, should always show us the whole truth, even when it hurts.
Counterpoint: This idea hampers the effective use of just war and ties down the capacity of soldiers on the ground. In addition, this policy would actually fail to bring about discussion on issues of war and would only make the violence associated with war more gratuitous.
Keith Lehwald and Miguel Chua are members of Sodales, the Dalhousie Debating Society. Debaters are notorious for arguing things they don’t actually believe. Positions taken by the authors aren’t necessarily the authors’ personal beliefs. Vote for the side of the debate you agree with at www.sodales.ca, or find out more about Sodales by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.