Images of War

When the Gulf War escalated on 16 January, we were deluged by images. Through television we watch events in Baghdad, Washington, and Tel Aviv as they happen. We can watch bombs dropping and politicians preaching. There are things that the media cannot show us but, because humanity is no stranger to war, we know that they are there. Images, both old and new, form a crazy-quilt with a message that must not be ignored.

  • The sky lights with fire as a city is shaken by the sound of powerful weapons; children run screaming to their parents. Those parents, feeling as helpless as we would, try to comfort their children. The children’s cries change to terrified whimpers.
  • At a basketball game in the Southern U.S., play is interrupted by the announcement that the ‘Liberation of Kuwait’ has begun. Both the players and the audience cheer and dance.
  • An incoming missile is intercepted by an antiaircraft battery and crashes into a home. Children scream and a mother looks in unbelieving horror at her dead child.
  • At the Tokyo stock market speculators seem to be climbing over each other as they try to profit from the market’s wild swings.
  • People wander confusedly through the streets trying to find a member of their family from whom they have been separated. There is only a crater where his place of work once stood.
  • A reporter says ‘Good Morning’ to a Kuwaiti citizen in Saudi Arabia. ‘Yes’, he says, pointing at aircraft heading towards his country, ‘A very good morning.’
  • In his home country, poor people, people who were not able to leave, cower in fear as they hear aircraft and bombs exploding. They have heard that the ‘liberation’ of their land has begun but, never having been free, they can’t imagine what it means. They just wish that the frightening noises would stop.
  • Near the U.S. airfield a Kuwaiti points at the bombers as they take off, and describes the roar of the jets as ‘a beautiful symphony’.
  • A young boy lies buried in rubble and screams for his parents who lie dead in the next room.
  • The fans at the basketball game cheer wildly.
  • An Iraqi missile hits a residential area of Tel Aviv destroying homes and ruining lives. In a bombed out home, an old couple sit in their living room, staring at a wall that is no longer there.
  • A business reporter smiles as he tells us that the markets are soaring and the war has given new confidence to investors.
  • Thousands of tons of munitions explode on Kuwait and Iraq. People wait and try to live normally, knowing that they have absolutely no voice in what happens to them. Nobody ever asked THEM what they wanted.
  • The arms industry breathes a sigh of relief, as they anticipate orders for more Cruise Missiles. Engineers smile when they learn that some deficiencies have been demonstrated during these ‘tests’ with live targets. Soon there will be new contracts and money to correct those problems.
  • Israeli citizens die because they have not used their gas masks properly. There was no gas, but the terror caused by the war has killed without it.
  • TV viewers switch channels, complaining about the boring pictures of the war. They stare at the screen with rapt attention when the football scores are reported.
  • A pilot smiles broadly as he describes Baghdad ‘lit up like a Christmas tree’ and likens the scene to the Fourth of July. ‘We really did it’ he says with pride.
  • A three-year-old cries when taken out of bed to go down to the bomb shelter yet another time.
  • A Canadian reports that people in Florida are very frightened. She responds with silence when asked how the residents of Iraq feel.
  • The stock of Raytheon corporation soars because, sometimes, the Patriot missile is able to destroy a SCUD rocket, a simple weapon first deployed 20 years before the Patriot was ready for use.
  • In Kuwait and Iraq, parents survey the damage and wonder if they will be able to find bread for their children.
  • President Bush says that he will not compromise with Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein says that he will not compromise with the Satan in the White House. Both men eat a good dinner in safe surroundings.
  • The Kuwaitis go to bed wondering what will happen to their neighbourhoods while they sleep. While they sleep, a small house turns into dust. It happened to be near a communications center, which survived.
  • President Bush spends the weekend in Camp David and John Major goes to Chequers. both claim the war is going as planned.
  • Thousands of refugees try to escape with nothing more than they can carry. The refugee camps have no more room, little food, and even less hope.
  • A local religious leader appeals to his congregation to ‘live with normalcy’ thereby denying victory to the enemy.
  • In Palestinian camps, parents who have never known normalcy hope that a heroic saviour will let their children live normal lives. We who have ignored their suffering for 40 years shake our heads in disbelief and disapproval.

For the human computers who live in Washington and Baghdad, the war is going well. For the human beings who live where the missiles strike, the war is like all other wars — a terrifying and bloody horror, a crime against humanity.

I once hoped that modern electronic communications would make us aware that people all over the world shared our fears, desires, hopes and pain. I hoped that we would learn that ‘they’ are as human, and as important as ‘us’. I hoped that we would learn to imagine ourselves in their position and think about how we would react if our positions were reversed. That does not seem to be happening.

We now treat war as a video game. It can be started by throwing money down a slot and pushing some buttons. The game is played as if people far away are cartoon characters who can rise and walk after they are blown up. We have so forgotten the humanity of our fellows that we believe that we have the right to make millions of innocents suffer for the sins of their unelected leaders.

Our marvelous technology is bringing us the images of war without the fear and suffering that used to be the price of such information. Because we have seen so many fake images, we forget that these are real people with real wounds and real pain. When we understand that we are assisting in the bombing of our kin, we will rise up and demand that the war be stopped. We will demand that the energy now going into war be used to bring normalcy to the lives of those who have never known it. We can never know true peace and normalcy until everyone has it.

January 26, 1991.

David Lorge Parnas is President of ‘Science for Peace’ and Deputy Chairman of the Canadian Pug-wash Group. He is a Professor in the Department of Computing and Information Science at Queen’s University.