Ignorance Isn’t Bliss

We’ve become desensitised to war – and frightened of it. Katy Bennett argues that this is a dangerous combination.


The famous “Napalm girl” photo, taken during the Vietnam War. (Photo: Nick Ut)

The famous “Napalm girl” photo, taken during the Vietnam War. (Photo: Nick Ut)

Britain has almost been constantly at war for the past 100 years, but since World War II these conflicts have been overseas and pass largely unnoticed by most. This means that while war is rarely out of the news cycle, it has become unpleasant but avoidable background noise. This must change in order for us to truly understand the weight of the decisions we are making; at the very least we owe it to the world to take full responsibility for what comes.

Ideology aside, the reality is that any war – justified or otherwise – will have lasting effects on the lives of countless people. The moment when a photographer captured the body of Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach is rightly seen as a turning point in public attitudes towards refugees, and war photography is one of the few ways in which these realities are brought home. However, the flood of public shock demonstrates how rarely we are exposed to these realities.

The “Afghan Girl” became a famous symbol of the plight of refugees. (Photo: Steve McCurry)

The “Afghan Girl” became a famous symbol of the plight of refugees. (Photo: Steve McCurry)

The media often chooses to present a sanitised version of the world, a stance which has increasingly replaced critical and honest journalism. “Blissful ignorance” has its advantages: the fact that we can read about people dying one minute, and return to “the pleasures of life” the next, is effective for advertising and therefore benefits major newspapers. More generally, experiencing every global tragedy in horrific detail is more than most people could take, especially as most of us have complicated lives of our own. Therefore to go the other way is in many ways an even less attractive option.

This does not excuse the direction the media has taken, by shying away from conflicts to the point of hypocrisy: willing to support war but increasingly preoccupied with the political and economic factors, rather than the human ones. This is a far cry from desensitisation, but these two things come hand in hand. War is presented as something which is, although not ideal, at least simple – right vs wrong, win vs lose. It is comforting to face an “evil”; less so to deal with the practically complicated and morally grey aspects of military intervention. We are left with an uneasy balance: we know we should care, but we have our everyday lives to distract us and it’s really depressing anyway.

Syrian children illegally cross a border into Turkish territory near Akcakale. (Photo: CNN)

Syrian children illegally cross a border into Turkish territory near Akcakale. (Photo: CNN)

Emotional reactions are criticised on both sides of the debate, but arguments driven by emotion can be among the most honest. These responses do not have to be bigoted or fear-provoking, nor are emotions and rationality mutually exclusive. A society which completely desensitises itself to the pain and sadness that comes with war misses out on some of the most compelling arguments. To take into account the individual suffering that might be caused by going to war, instead of simply focusing on the bigger picture, is a vital part of the decision making process that we are increasingly choosing to forego.

This leaves us with the worst of both worlds, and when it comes to decisions as significant as whether or not to go to war with so-called Islamic State, this is the opposite of what we need. Desensitisation hides the true weight of these decisions, and as the consequences become increasingly apparent, public opinion overwhelmingly turns against military action, as it did with the Iraq War and is beginning to with Syria.

I don’t know what the answer is when it comes to Syria – and if you’re being honest, neither do you. There is no certainty in life, and therefore no use in pursuing hypotheticals. While the Iraq War is generally thought of as one of the worst decisions in recent political history, desensitising ourselves to its consequences, and the consequences of other wars like it, will only lead to more of these mistakes. We must therefore confront what war really means: the lives lost, the homes destroyed and the reverberations that will be felt for years to come. War is a terrible thing. We must go into it with our eyes wide open.

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