Whether we realize it or not, we, as a society and country, have never been so far removed from war as we are now in the 21st century. Before the 20th century, war was understood in Platonic terms: two luxurious states fighting for land and resources (ex: France and Germany fighting for Alsace and Lorraine). Civil war was understood as revolution and if a luxurious state was to seek the land and resourced of a (more) humble state, it was called colonization. Every person whom the conflict concerned was involved and knew as much as they could, for it was a matter of survival. Today, we do not see war, unless we seek it out in the news (if we could get past the Rodman steroids scandal). We do not feel it- who can name one dead US soldier fallen in Iraq? We do not taste it- my grandmother knew that war tasted like a bag of bread collected over a week in exchange for supper. We do not hear it and we do not smell it.
And this is wonderful. It is truly a gift to be given the opportunity to be objective.
We do however experience the echo of war in our news, photos, videos, blogs and books. While some of these are produced by private citizens with knowledge and experience to share, their distribution and prevalence cannot be compared to that of the media controlled by the government or other actors with ulterior motives. In either case, we cannot always trust our own discretion.
Therefore, our perception of war is molded by roughly 25% truth and 75% propaganda. Truth being fact in context. Propaganda as fact out of context. Lets take the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
On Friday, September 29, 2000, a photograph was sent to the Associated Press in Jerusalem showing an Israeli soldier in the background waving a club and a bloodied guy in profile in the foreground. It was published the next day in the New York Times article,"Battle at Jerusalem Holy Site Leaves 4 Dead and 200 Hurt", with the caption: "An Israeli Policeman and a Wounded Palestinian Yesterday".
A letter was later sent to the New York Times by the victim's father identifying him at Tuvia Grossman, a jewish student from Chicago. Tuvia and his friends had been on their way to the Western Wall when their cab was attacked. Tuvia was pulled out, stabbed twice, beaten with rocks but managed to break free and was saved by a Israeli officer. Not only was the identity incorrect but the assumption that the picture was taken at the Temple Mount was also false, as it was taken in Wadi al Hoz.
The photograph marked the start of the fight to ensure that Israel received fair media. Tuvia Grossman was in paid 4,500 euros in reparations by a french newspaper and the Associated Press.
The nature of this mistake lies in the circumstances of that day. It marked the start of the 2nd Intifada at the eve of Rosh Hashana. In response to the riots in the Old City of Jerusalem, Israeli officers were reported to have entered the area to regain order after Muslim Officials' attempts failed. Officers first shot bullets into the air, then at the rioter's feet and then directly at the crowd when previous measures failed. Therefore, even though Tuvia Grossman was not a victim of Israeli aggression, there were many Palestinians hurt that day.
A mistake such as this is easy to understand. It was not done maliciously to discredit Israel but was later taken out of context in both the Egyptian Government website as well as the Palestinian Information Center to forward initiatives against Israel and so remained propaganda.
Something like this is much harder to understand:
Hamas has been accused of teaching children to aspire to be martyrs for Palestine in the name of Allah and after watching the video, the accusation is impossible to discredit. In the linked video, Palestinian children are told, by a Mickey Mouse look alike (the irony), named Farfour that the Zionist Occupiers are murderers, that Islam is meant to rule the world and that there should be no surrender. In a subsequent episode, Farfour is murdered by an Israeli officer after trying to protect legal documents to his grandfather's land. In later episodes, Hamas introduces the Jew-eating rabbit, Nahool the bee, and Nassur the bear- both Jihadist warriors.
The effect of the video is two-fold. First it acts as propaganda against Israel and Jews, from Hamas to the people it governs. Second, it acts as a propaganda against Hamas for Israel and other Western audiences. The issues presented by these videos go beyond our religious convictions and even beyond our support of Israel or our support of Palestine. What is morally repulsive is not that Hamas is teaching hatred of jews, but that it is teaching hatred and death to children. These videos are facts, but the context is less clear. The question is: what drives a society to such extremes? Specifically, what drives a society to freely elect a fundamentalist government?
Let us consider the conditions in Gaza prior to the election of Hamas. In 2005, after Israel withdrew both troops and settlements from the Gaza strip, it still maintained control of borders and sea and air space around the region. This made it impossible for the region to engage in trade, build capital and thus engage with it's physical and political environment effectively. Most Gazans lived in one of the eight refugee camps established since the '48 war and many lacked proper sewage. Under these conditions, Hamas, which engaged in both social projects, such as building hospitals, schools, as well as military operations, was elected. Consequently, Israel blocked humanitarian aid to Gaza in hopes of stopping militant activities, making living conditions even more dire.
The point here isn't to blame Israel for the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, although the Dec. 27th 2008 attacks have left the region beyond devastated. Nor is it to accuse Hamas of putting political and religious agendas before the welfare of its people, although recent reports show that Hamas has intercepted trucks of food and sold the contents for profit. It is simply to say that it is not religion or backwards culture that drives a mother to let a fuzzy rabbit teach her children to aspire to die and live in hate, but complete and utter despair.
Its not easy to give a context to what we see in the media and impossible to understand war without consulting it. It's a lot to take in: Civil War in Somalia, Genocide in Darfur, Crisis in the Middle East, Iraq War, War on Terror (which is or isn't like the Cold War?), War on Drugs, etc... Its no wonder Lord of the Rings swept the Oscars- its a vision of war in its simplest form, with good and evil clearly defined.
Yet, as Tuvia concludes in his firsthand account: "If truth is to prevail, we can't just "read" the newspaper. Be discerning and become part of the process. Otherwise, you're just a passive object of someone else's agenda."