Democracy Lab

Just Show It

The U.S. media continue to tiptoe around the horrors of war. It's time to put more violence on TV.

The United States is about to go to war in Syria. So perhaps it's a good time to ask the question: Do we really know what we're getting into?

I'm not talking about punditry here. The Middle East experts in Washington and elsewhere have been working overtime when it comes to considering the policy implications of a possible intervention. We've heard about potential spillover in Lebanon and Iraq, the likelihood of a response from Iran and Hezbollah, the fears of the Israelis and Turks, and the challenges involved in bombing chemical weapons depots.

These are all important issues. But to most Americans they're painfully abstract. For the overwhelming majority of people in this country, the war in Syria is a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing. Shiites? Sunnis? Alawho?

The question I want to ask is more visceral: Do Americans really understand what war is? Do we know what it really looks like? Do Americans understand what it feels like to live in a war -- or to enter into one?

The answer, almost certainly, is "no." There's one exception: the relatively small group of past and present members of the United States military who have participated in conflicts around the world. (Strictly speaking, we'd also have to add the private contractors who were involved in some of the country's more recent wars.) Altogether, this a group that doesn't amount to more than a tiny fraction of the American population, meaning that their experiences remain relatively detached from the rest of the citizenry. Most of their compatriots don't have a clue. It's worth noting, perhaps, that the U.S. military is still fighting a war in Afghanistan -- not that you'd know from scanning a newspaper, these days.

One might argue that history itself is partly to blame. Aside from Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks, the American homeland has had little direct exposure to armed conflict over the past century and a half. That has made war an arms-length phenomenon, something known only at a safe distance. This is something that also distinguishes Americans from people in many other parts of the world that have experienced war more immediately.

This has left it up to the news media to convey some sense of the reality of armed conflict. And the record here -- the recent record, at least -- has been dismal.

That might seem counterintuitive to some. After all, the past few days have brought some brutally vivid video of recent events in Syria: the chemical attacks that have prompted the recent push to war, the incendiary bombing in a schoolyard, the executions of prisoners captured by the opposition. Surely all of this imagery, taken together, provides a sufficiently accurate picture of the gruesomeness of what's been happening on the ground.

Yes, these images are out there -- but you'll only be able to find them if you go looking. You almost certainly won't spot them on network TV news in the United States. NBC News, all too characteristically, ran an item about the schoolyard bombing that didn't include any of the BBC's unnerving footage of the attack's aftermath. While CNN probably went farther than other U.S. outlets by airing video of the chemical attack victims, even its imagery was arguably sanitized, lingering over the neatly arrayed bodies in a Syrian morgue while showing relatively little of the effects of the gas on survivors.

To be sure, most Americans are aware of the carnage in Syria. But it's striking that some journalists I noticed on one recent U.S. TV broadcast saw fit to bring along an iPad with war footage when polling people on the street about the possibility of U.S. retribution against the regime in Damascus. The reporters apparently couldn't assume that their interviewees had already seen any images of the war.

Anodyne war reporting has become something of a tradition in this country. As media critics have noted, during the war in Iraq the average American TV viewer could watch the news for days without seeing a dead or wounded U.S. service member. (One study of Iraq War coverage by academic Sean Aday was aptly titled "The Real War Will Never Get Televised.") All too often reporting on the war boiled down to a litany of casualty figures, accounts of Iraqi government intrigues and congressional maneuverings, and the odd video of exploding IEDs (though never with casualties). Largely conspicuous by its absence was any tangible sense of the genuine human costs of the conflict.

This excess of discretion had many causes. From 1991 to 2009, the U.S. government banned coverage of military coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base. U.S. Army rules forbade the release of photos of killed or injured service members prior to the notification of family members (by which time the images had usually lost their news value). And networks were widely accused of engaging in self-censorship, apparently terrified that they might be accused of insensitivity or impugned for a "lack of patriotism."

How well I remember the U.S. Army captain in Baghdad who told me about his experiences collecting evidence from suicide bombings; he'd documented so many of them that the experience had become routine. "My wife thinks I'm a monster," he said jovially. "She's probably right." He recalled how his team had once found, hundreds of yards away from the center of the blast, the steering wheel of the car that had contained the bomb. The hands of the driver were still attached. "He must have been holding on pretty hard," the captain observed. This was one small detail from one day out of the many he'd spent in the country. But it has stayed with me -- though I have yet to see anything like it on the evening news.

Unimaginably horrible things happen to human bodies in war. They are riddled by shrapnel, shredded by blast waves, burned to a crisp. Sometimes the bodies remain comparatively intact while the souls inside are shattered. This individual damage expands exponentially as villages, towns, entire societies pass through the fire. All this has a weight, a smell, an acrid aftertaste.

But you will find shockingly little of that in the U.S. media. Yes, there are many laudable exceptions: one only need recall the amazing Iraq War photos of the late Chris Hondros. By and large, though, when it comes to wars, the U.S. media remain trapped in a culture of euphemism and timidity that makes for a pathetic contrast with the reporting from many of their overseas competitors. Can we really make informed policy under such conditions?

To be fair, I do realize that it's hard to get journalists into Syria right now -- and that it's not always easy to verify the videos coming from various informal sources on the ground there. Still, I do think that U.S. broadcasters could do far more to show what the conflict is really like. I don't think this would necessarily generate sympathy for the rebels, automatically prompting a groundswell of support for U.S. intervention. Outrage doesn't always equal action.

But at least we'd have a sharper picture of what we're getting into. Most Americans presumably have some awareness of what war is about. They just don't know what it's really like. So it's no surprise that we blithely allow our leaders to rush us along from one adventure to another.

Maybe it's time for a reality check. A few years ago, two U.S. academics, Shahira Fahmy and Thomas J. Johnson, decided to take a look at Al Jazeera's notoriously gory war reporting. The authors concluded that nine out of 10 Al Jazeera viewers approved of the network's graphic imagery on the grounds that it accurately depicted the reality of conflict. Fahmy and Johnson called their article "Show the Truth and Let the Audience Decide."

Show the truth and let the audience decide. Since when did that cease to be the rule of thumb for U.S. journalists? Americans have always prided themselves on their honesty. If the United States is determined to go in fighting wars around the world, perhaps it's time for Americans to start confronting the reality of what that entails.

ABU AMAR AL-TAFTANAZ/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Islands in the Desert

The problem, and the promise, of Libya's new city-states.

MISRATA, Libya — By all rights, Misrata, Libya's third-largest city, ought to be a mess. The late Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi considered the place to be a hotbed of resistance during the 2011 revolution, and his troops pounded it with everything they had (including Scud missiles). The resulting levels of destruction prompted some foreign reporters to evoke the battle of Stalingrad. Two years later, Libya as a whole is still trying to recover from the chaos of the civil war. A stuttering economy, fractious militias, and a weak central government certainly aren't helping.

Yet today's Misrata offers a remarkable study in resilience. Much of the wartime devastation has already been cleaned up -- and even where it hasn't, spiffy new shops thrive on the ground floors of buildings whose upper stories are still burnt-out facades. The downtown area is humming with commerce. Traffic jams are frequent. And the militias that earned the city so much fame during the war are nowhere to be seen. Checkpoints are non-existent; the only armed men to be seen on the streets wear the uniforms of the Libyan police. (The eagle in the photo above stands in front of Misrata's war museum, which commemorates the fighting of 2011.)

Before the revolution, Misratans say, their affairs were micro-managed by the central government in Tripoli. The collapse of the Qaddafi regime put an end to that. Today, Misrata boasts an elected government that emerged directly from the 2011 turmoil and now manages the city's affairs with a substantial degree of independence. Ismael Shaklawon, the head of the Local Council, takes care to stress that Misrata's municipal government still recognizes the primacy of Tripoli. Nonetheless, he spends much of his time railing about the fecklessness of the capital's politicians and officials. It's been months, he says, since Tripoli sent any of the funds allocated to the city budget -- the city's only official source of funding. "Give us the power to get things done," he says. "Without independence in finance you can't get anything done."

Still, one can hardly accuse Misratans of waiting for a green light from Tripoli before pushing ahead with revitalizing their city. On many fronts, they are exploiting their newfound freedoms to the full -- and the results offer an object lesson in both the opportunities and the risks of the wide-ranging autonomy that Libya's revolution has ended up bequeathing to many of its communities.

In Misrata, a big part of the story turns on the city's remarkable sense of self-reliance -- fueled, perhaps, by local pride in its status as Libya's unofficial commercial capital. The revolution was still under way when a group of businesspeople got together to plan the refurbishment of Misrata Airport, which was heavily damaged during the war. Thanks to private funding, though, the airport re-opened for business in December 2011, just two months after Qaddafi's death. Where only domestic airlines operated before, now there are regular flights by Tunisian, Turkish, and Jordanian airlines. Local business assistance has also boosted Misrata's port, which recently reached 90 percent of its prewar capacity. When Misrata's local TV station fell behind in payments to the satellite broadcasting company that carries its signal, Misrata tycoons stepped in and paid off the arrears.

The Local Council has shown its share of initiative. One of its achievements is the establishment of a one-stop shop for Misratans wishing to start new businesses. In Qaddafi's day, registering a new commercial enterprise required days of red tape (and attendant bribes). Now you can do it all in a morning (and local businessmen say that most of the graft has fallen away as a result). Despite its vows of compliance with national law, the local government has also dramatically simplified procedures for all goods passing through the port. "We're trying to make it easier for people to get approvals for export and import," says Shaklawon. "It used to be you had to go all the way to Tripoli. Now we're making it possible to get the papers here." Misrata even sends its own trade delegations on trips abroad -- just the sort of thing that has other Libyans understandably wondering whether the city is contemplating breaking away from the rest of the country.

The business environment also enjoys another advantage: Security in the city is comparatively good. The reason seems to be that the myriad of local militias spawned by the revolution have largely fused with the local administration. Shaklawon says that there are still some 250 qatiba ("brigades," as they're euphemistically known) in Misrata, but he insists that they're all seamlessly integrated into the municipal security plan, which assigns them specific tasks under the auspices of Libya Shield, the central government's initiative for re-integrating the revolutionary fighters into an internal security force. Shaklawon hastens to reassure the skeptical outsider that the brigades know their limits: "No qatiba in the city can move a tank from one base to another without the Local Council's permission." Getting the fighters to give up their tanks in the first place, though, seems to be out of the question.

As that detail suggests, the militias are showing little inclination to vanish from the scene. The young men of Misrata still happily tout their membership in their neighborhood qatiba in much the same way that their equivalents elsewhere would identify with sports teams.. The qatiba still provide a much-needed source of cohesion and identity in a chaotic world. (Some of the militias even have social centers where their members can while away their spare time.)

Yet even Misratans are aware that keeping the militias around isn't a viable long-term solution. "Security is starting to get bad," says Abdal Gadar Fasuk, a local journalist. Many Misratans blame the troubles on sabotage by Qaddafi loyalists, but the real reason is simpler. People, he says, "don't respect the laws. They're using guns to solve their personal problems."

It's not much of a stretch to say that the same principle applies to some of Misrata's dealings with the rest of Libya. If Misrata is starting to look something like a quasi-autonomous city-state, then it's the Misratan militias stationed in other parts of the country that are the primary tools of its foreign policy. Last year Misratan militias staged a punitive attack on the city of Bani Walid, which they regarded as a stronghold of unrepentant Qaddafi supporters. Misrata's qatiba are also responsible for preventing the return of some 35,000 people from the city of Tawergha who were expelled from their homes for their presumed loyalty to the old regime back in 2011.

There are still even some Misratan militia detachments in Tripoli -- a holdover from revolutionary days that probably best exemplifies Libya's continuing fragmentation. Many Libyans don't see the elected interim legislature, the General National Council (GNC), as truly representing their interests. For a city like Misrata, whose inhabitants view themselves as the victims of decades of neglect under Qaddafi's rule, having their own armed contingents in the capital is a way of making sure that their demands get heard -- a kind of political insurance policy. Other cities (like the desert stronghold of Zintan) keep their own armed contingents in the city out of similar motives.

As the militias maneuver for advantage, the chance of devastating flare-ups always looms. Within just the past few days the government in Tripoli has seen fit to deploy Libya Shield forces loyal to it throughout the capital in order to prevent a possible "coup" against the GNC. (Some sources say it's the largest mobilization since the end of the revolution.) Perhaps ironically, most of the Libya Shield forces involved are from Misrata -- and so is their commander. Tripoli remains, to a certain degree, at the mercy of the outsiders, and there's little reason to presume that this will change anytime soon. Amid the current turmoil, some Libyan cities are definitely more equal than others.

Christian Caryl/FP