Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Peace through the Understanding of War

In his convocation address at Carleton University in June 2004, Robert Fisk made a few points relevant to our theme of peace through understanding. He spoke of the responsibilities of a war correspondent, and he spoke very movingly about the horrors of war that he had experienced. Here are some excerpts from his speech:

The direct physical results of all these conflicts will remain — and should remain — in my memory until I die. I don't need to read through my mountain of reporters' notebooks to remember the Iranian soldiers on the troop train north to Tehran, holding towels to their faces and coughing up Saddam's gas as they read the Koran. I need none of my newspaper clippings to recall the father — after an American cluster bomb attack on Iraq in 2003 — who held out to me what looked like half a crushed loaf of bread but which turned out to be half a crushed baby.... Soldier and civilian, they died in their tens of thousands because death had been concocted for them, morality hitched like a halter round the warhorse so that we could talk about 'target rich environments' and 'collateral damage' — that most infantile of attempts to shake off the crime of killing — and report the victory parades, the tearing down of statues and the importance of peace.

Governments like it that way. They want their people to see war as a drama of opposites, good and evil, 'them' and 'us', victory or defeat. But war is primarily not about victory or defeat but about death and the infliction of death. It represents the total failure of the human spirit....

I used to think our job as journalists was to be the first witnesses to history. But the brilliant Israeli journalist Amira Haas told me that I was wrong. Our job, she said, was "to monitor the centres of power". And I must admit that I have never heard a better definition of our job. To monitor the centres of power, especially when our countries go to war or are persuaded to help occupy someone else's country....

So the job of journalism, it seems to me, is to go on 'telling it as it is' but to set the narrative of history, to make sure we do not forget what happened before yesterday, before last week, before last year.

He seems to imply that if his readers did not forget the narrative of history, and if they understood that war is about killing and destruction rather than a contest between good guys and their enemies, then they would not allow it. Public opinion could be moved to oppose war if war correspondents were able to convey an accurate understanding of what war really is. For this to be feasible, the appropriate understanding of war has to take hold in a significant portion of the society, a politically critical mass. So, Fisk also harbors a vision of peace through understanding.

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