In my lifetime, war reporting has moved into real time. The Vietnam War brought war to the television screens in our homes and some of the most vivid and widely-known images of war and the pain and suffering it brings are from that period.
Another significant development came with the First Gulf War. I remember hearing a conversation at work in early 1991 when one person asked another what they’d done the previous evening. “Went home, had supper, watched a bit of war,” came the reply. This was war that people knew they could watch, trailed in the press and in the previous news reports, a sofa-seat as Scud missiles were destroyed.
And then came the internet, allowing for a steady stream of reports and analysis and by a wider constituency than has previously been the case. Social media allow anyone on the ground – and with connectivity – to post messages and images of what’s happening. Assuming, of course, that they don’t have more pressing matters to attend to – like staying alive.
War reporters risk their lives to tell us the events, to obtain the information that allows for analysis and lets us see the wider picture, illustrated with details and examples that provide colour to the story.
But an item on Saturday’s edition of From Our Own Correspondent called that into question in the case of the civil war in Syria. (For those who don’t know FOOC, it’s a BBC radio programme that allows foreign correspondents around the world to file the stories that don’t fit the regular news cycle.)
According to John Sweeney’s item* (which I’d recommend; it’s on the BBC website), it’s now so dangerous for reporters to get into Syria and be on the ground there that almost no reporters are on the spot.
Instead, eye-witness accounts are coming from the medical staff who’ve remained to treat the wounded. They treat – and assess – the damage caused by ball-bearings contained in cluster bombs and which are now lodged in vital organs. And they can also see what’s written on the remains of the shell and the language it’s written in.
In addition to treating the wounded, these doctors are providing scarce and much-needed eye-witness accounts of what’s happening. Even with those, full analysis is hard. Without them, it’s well-nigh impossible.
And without seeing the full picture, we can’t pick up the all-important nuances of the conflict in Syria. We see it as black/white, good/bad. We see it as a choice between the current regime and ISIS. I doubt the reality is anything like as simple as that.
It shows how important it is to take account of what doctors, other medical staff and charities in Syria are saying. They aren’t “only” doctors, medics and aid workers whose heroism should be applauded. They provide some of the few eye-witness reports we have.
* John Sweeney’s piece also contains a fascinating and moving account of how doctors in Syria were talked through an operation by a doctor in the UK over a stuttering link. It isn’t directly relevant to this post, but I couldn’t publish without mentioning it.