The Image of War


What is the iconic image of WWII? It probably depends where you come from. If you are British, it is likely St Paul’s, standing proud, wreathed in smoke and flame. If you are Russian, it is probably a Soviet soldier flying the hammer and sickle from the top of the Reichstag. For an American, it is surely the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima.

The choice of the image reflects the stories those nations choose to tell themselves about the conflict. Britain was a nation which stood alone, stayed defiant and ultimately emerged bloodied but unbowed. Russia won a military victory over Fascism in the Great Patriotic War. American GIs fired up the arsenal of democracy and brought freedom to the world.

To the extent there is an iconic image of the war in Ukraine, it is surely the photograph of Olena Kurilo, a 53 year-old teacher standing, her bloodied face swathed in bandages, outside a bombed apartment block. Whereas images of the great 20th century conflict induce pride, whether in a nation’s defiance or its martial might, the picture of Ms Kurilo evokes pity.

There is, however, nothing explicitly related to military activity in the picture. No weaponry, no soldiers. If you had contrived to be unaware of the war, you could easily assume that it is one of the thousands of images we see of the aftermath of an earthquake, a hurricane or a gas leak. It is an image of a humanitarian disaster.

In this, it is of a tenor with much of the coverage in the media. It is striking how much of the focus has been on the human cost of the war, and how little on the situation on the front line. Reporters have been deployed to the main cities and reported on the impact of the war on civilians, and to the borders to concentrate on the flow of refugees. Engagements which result in losses of civilians are being reported, casualty reports from battles not. At home, attention has centred around sanctions and visas. To the extent that military news is being reported, it is generally coming out through unofficial channels such as Twitter before occasionally making it on to the news bulletins.

Part of this is logistical. Western media are not “embedded” with army units in the way they were in, say, the Gulf Wars. If they were on the battlefield, there is a risk that their broadcasts might reveal information to the enemy, endangering their lives and those of the unit hosting them. It is easier and safer to station them in the big cities. However, reporters can only report on what they see. If they are not on the battlefield, they cannot describe it. By being in populations of civilians, they have to make them the story.

News-gathering standards also play a role. The large media companies try to verify stories before releasing them. This takes time and resources and much of the “information” floating around the internet does not make the cut -footage of  the “ghost of Kyiv”, a fighter pilot, whose activities over the city rapidly went “viral”, turned out to be from a video game.

It might also be that the coverage tells us something about the press itself.

One of the major discoveries in social psychology over the past 15 years has been the realisation that underpinning all the world’s systems of morality, are a small number of universal values. While there are competing explanations for how these came about, and how many there are (five or six according to Jonathan Haidt, the pioneer in the field, seven according to Oxford’s Oliver Scott Curry), there is increasing agreement that all moral systems reflect the same intuitions no matter where they arose.

While that might seem understandable – at the end of the day, we are all human – there is also increasing empirical evidence of a link between politics and how we deal with morality. Those on the left of the spectrum have a deep but narrow understanding of it – of Haidt’s five “foundations”, they care about two – Care/Harm and Fairness while those on the right have a shallower but broader understanding, displaying concern for all of them.

To broadcast is to choose, and while, due to the considerations above, we cannot ascribe the coverage purely to a left-wing tilt in the media, we can say that it currently centres on the aspects of the conflict of most interest to the moral values of that political orientation. If your sentiments are focused on harm done to others, particularly if unmerited, images of civilian suffering will arouse more concern and appear more newsworthy than pictures of tanks firing rounds across a plain.

However, it might also reflect a more general shift. While journalists may wish to see themselves as a priestly caste, removed from ordinary mortals, they are part of society and reflect its attitudes and concerns. Having lived through a long period of peace, where conflict has been a matter of choice, war no longer has a central role in our lives, being undertaken, if at all, by trained professionals.

This is, however, a recent innovation. Even growing up in a decidedly civilian household in the eighties, I had battalions of toy soldiers of different regiments and nations and enough tanks and artillery to fight fully-fledged battles on the play-room floor. I read the stirring tales of martial heroism offered in the regular editions of Commando comic. I knew it was a Bank Holiday because “The Great Escape” was on the television. War was a key part of the cultural landscape.

Trying to buy toy soldiers for my son, by contrast, in the 2010’s necessitated a trip to Harrods. Circulation of Commando has fallen from 750,000 a month at its peak in the ‘70’s to less than 20,000, and the Bank Holiday ritual is another showing of one of the Harry Potter movies.

Society is reflexive. Its concerns dictate what is deemed to be newsworthy and the ensuing coverage in turn reinforces society’s interests and beliefs. The media, treating Ukraine mainly as a humanitarian tragedy, reflects a society which no longer has much interest in war. However, by doing so, they also embed the notion of war as purely harmful in the popular discourse.

Earlier generations have felt the need to take a more nuanced view. Wellington may have said, “Nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won.” but the iconic image of Waterloo is Scotland Forever! Painted decades after the battle, by a lady who was not present, depicting a cavalry charge which did not happen, it shows the Royal Scots Greys sallying toward French lines, sabres drawn. War, to the artist Lady Butler, was not just a tragedy, it was an opportunity to win glory.

While this attitude is no longer common in the West, it has not died out everywhere. While Russia may be in the process of proving it is not a peer competitor, China most assuredly is. Last year saw the release of the country’s most expensive ever film, the three-hour epic, Battle at Lake Changjin, which recasts the Korean War Battle of Chosin Reservoir as a tale of Chinese heroism. The Wolf Warrior franchise tells of the successes of the country’s elite special forces against, generally, dastardly Americans. Chinese television has reporters embedded with Russian forces on the front line, describing their advances and talking to civilians “welcoming” their presence.

For what previous Western generations believed and, it seems, China still does, is that to motivate people to fight, one has to give them an at least partially positive view of war.

Much has been made about the flurry of announcements increasing military spending across the West in response to the invasion. I have previously expressed scepticism about whether, longer term, this will amount to much, but let us assume that the promised funds materialise. If Europe is to become a Great Power, two things need to happen. Firstly, it must increase the size of its military. If, however, society sees war exclusively as a source of misery, which merely creates problems, who will wish to be a soldier? If conflict merely immiserates civilians, who will take part in it? Conscription has been mooted as an answer, but the problems of that approach are being laid clear on the road to Kyiv.

Secondly, how can you use your power? We have seen from Vietnam how the imagery of war can erode popular support for it. The most famous pictures of that conflict are the young girl Phan Thi Kim Phuc naked after a napalm attack and the street execution of Nguyen Van Lem. Together, they had the effect of forcing Americans to question how they were fighting and who they were fighting for. A society which sees war purely through a humanitarian lens and whose media report it mainly through that may find it hard to sustain all but the briefest, most surgical operations.

This is not to celebrate war. It is, as (a fictional) Duke of Wellington said, “a damned, dirty business”. However, it has often been necessary and may be so again. We do our chances of winning no favours by reporting it purely as tragedy. Vitaly Skakun was a Ukrainian combat engineer who sacrificed himself to halt the Russian advance by manually blowing up a bridge, posthumously winning the Order of the Gold Star. We need him on the front pages just as much as Olena Kurilo.

Stewart Slater works in Finance. He invites you to join him at his website.