University of Southern California

War Worries

Vibeke Sorensen, Professor
Division of Animation and Digital Arts
School of Cinema-Television, USC

Usually when two countries are at war with each other, news media in both are controlled. It is more often propaganda meant to dis-inform and manipulate public opinion, serving as a not-so-subtle weapon of war – not only against the “enemy” who may be watching or listening, but against those inside the country who disagree. It is meant to convince internal populations of the morality of a government’s decision, since the killing of people, inevitable in war, is almost universally considered immoral. Media are often used to justify a government’s decisions as a form of national defense necessary for its continued existence.

Countries that do not allow their people to voice disagreement, or dissent, are usually called “dictatorships.” In a democracy, however, the strength of the dissent is a measure of the strength of its democratic institutions and ideals. Free speech, open discussion and disagreement is a right, and considered just as much a part of the democratic process as is voting. It is necessary so that complex moral problems can be discussed and decided upon as intelligently and ethically as possible, representing the will of the majority of the people.

The question of whether or not to go to war in Iraq was one such problem. It resulted from an international political process, and therefore, one possible outcome was not to go to war. It was a problem affecting many countries, and those involved in the decision making process overwhelmingly disagreed with the US-UK stance. As beacons of democracy, they showed hypocrisy in disrespecting the will of the majority. This can only deteriorate their moral authority as advocates for democracy around the world. It will likely also weaken international political institutions and law, and could adversely affect relationships with many other countries around the world.

When I watched the news during this war, I looked for sources from many countries in addition to the US, UK, and Iraq so I could be as informed as possible about different points of view. As I was born in Denmark and speak Danish, I watched news on-line from Danmarks Radio ( several times a day. Although Denmark officially supported the US led invasion, the news was very different than what I observed in the mainstream US press. There were hour-long, in depth programs 3 times every day on Danish TV, and each was different from the other and included many views:

There was the Danish military spokesman who commented on the US-UK strategy, discussing numbers of bombs dropped each day, the numbers and character of the sorties, and movement of troops and resistance. There were several Danish reporters in the US and UK analyzing on the news coverage of the war in those countries. There were reports from Danish correspondents embedded with US and UK military personnel in Iraq, others were on the ground in several parts of the region, speaking with resistance as well as different religious and political groups, including the Kurds and Turks. Many spoke with humanitarian aid workers both inside and outside Iraq, others with Iraqi doctors and patients in hospitals in Bhagdad, with Iraqis on the streets and in small towns and larger cities, including families whose homes were bombed and who lost relatives and friends, or who were hurt and could not receive medical care due to the scale of the destruction. There were reporters talking with Iraqi doctors worried about what to do with all of the dead bodies, who agonized over not being able to help all of the dying people. I heard the speech by the Pope, who was against the war, and frequent reports from numerous cities around the world where massive anti-war protests took place, also reports on smaller pro-war rallies in the US, discussions with Iraqi exiles in Denmark, interviews with experts on the government and history of Iraq, with business and government officials across Europe and the USA who were planning to help with various forms of aid and reconstruction. There were also interviews with business people about the rise in stock values of the weapons industry now that so many expensive bombs have been exploded and new orders were coming in. Etc, etc.

It was very different from what I saw in the mainstream US news then. It was so diverse and deep that when I looked at US news in this context, I was extremely disturbed. What I saw was not only propaganda, but a form of censorship by omission, excluding among many other things reports about the huge anti-war demonstrations all over the world. It was overtly hypocritical towards the very ideals that were being used to rationalize the war. It was so extremely one sided and narrow, so fundamentally anti-democratic in its disrespect for dissent and debate, and more than anything else, so completely lacking in humanity and empathy for the suffering of the people of Iraq, that it led me to question even more, the fundamental rationale for the war. If the reasons were sound, why was there no meaningful analysis and debate in the media, no open discussion? If there was concern about the violation of human rights under Saddam Hussein as a dictator -and no-one liked him-, then why was there not more concern for the suffering of the Iraqi people in this war?

I was disturbed that the US news media almost always referred to the Iraqis as “the enemy” and not as human beings, which dehumanized them. I also found the images to be extremely problematic, highly sanitized, showing the war abstractly and using the visual language of computer games to further dehumanize people. When we did see actual camera images, they were always shown from the point of view of the US military “winning.” Explosions were always shown from a distance, far away, apparently targets without actual people being hurt or killed. Because we were embedded, we only saw what happened if US or UK military people were involved, and when they were hurt or killed of course it was a terrible tragedy. But why shouldn’t we be just as sad if Iraqis were hurt and killed? Or are we to pretend that they weren’t? They were understandably defending their country from invasion, as the Pope said, just as Americans would have done if Iraq had attacked the US instead. They suffered the same pain that all human beings suffer in war. It is a profound ethical problem made all the worse by the clean computer graphics being used. It seemed obscene to me that, instead of showing the real images of war, the real news, we were being fed a diet of fiction, a mythical construction using 3D computer graphics that looked like a sophisticated on-line catalog of the latest and greatest hardware ever made by the military industrial complex. This imagery tantalizes the eyes like a kind of advertising or pornography, conflating seductive artificial images with events that would normally be abhorrent, or at least seriously debated. It is a cynical misuse of the very same media that artists and scientists have been developing and teaching for many years, including here at USC. We wanted to foster humanistic communication and understanding between cultures, and solve common problems with our technology, instead of exacerbating them. We wanted to celebrate the human spirit with our digital media, not destroy it.

When I went to an anti-war demonstration at CNN here in Los Angeles in March, I was surprised that only about 3000 people appeared. In a city this size! Is that because the war wasn't here? If it had happened here, would the reaction have been different? The internet seems to be isolating rather than connecting us, making us feel safely far away from other people. It may make us more aware of what is going on, faster, and provide access to some important alternative news sources, but it doesn't make us compassionate or care enough about others. It has humanistic potential, but it hasn’t been realized. The humanistic point of view needs to be prioritized, because it’s just not good enough now.

If this war is the ultimate expression of the fundamental values of the culture I choose to live and believe in, using the most advanced technology it can produce, then it makes me question not only my assumptions about the culture, but every decision I made about my career, too. Perhaps I was wrong and it is impossible to humanize technology. Perhaps I was wrong, and ultimately what we develop will be used to kill and destroy, and separate us from each other.

What should I say to my students who wonder what to do with their lives in the field of new media, when so much more money is in military-industrial applications than humanistic ones? Should I tell them to be idealistic, work for harmony and humanity, for the United Nations, UNESCO, or UNICEF? How can they believe in the UN when the US doesn’t even respect it? Is it realistic to try to make the world a better place by working peacefully for change? How will they respond when the delicate feelings towards the world around them, necessary to study in order to develop their artistic sensibilities and skills, have to be subverted or suppressed so they can make images of people dying for use in computer war games? What will the students decide when they are called upon by the news media to use their knowledge to create visual filters between the human beings who are dying in a war, and the people who are supporting it?

Where is the humanity? Where is the empathy? People are dying and suffering in Iraq as a result of this war. It is the worst thing that can happen to them. Death and destruction is not liberation, it is a nightmare, an injustice perpetrated on helpless and innocent people for no reason. That is what the people suffering from war, victims, think. As victors, the US and UK can write the history from their point of view. But those who died cannot speak, they are silenced forever and their stories are being erased. They need to be remembered now by others, because they do not come back to life as they do in computer games.

April 30, 2003

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