Something I’ve been interested in for a long time is the way war reports describe the deaths that happen in war. War deaths are mentioned in some capacity in almost every day’s newspaper and television newscast and I would argue that the way reporters describe those deaths significantly impacts the way we think about the war being described.

In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry points to how peripheral death, injury, and the destruction of homes can seem in published accounts of war: “one can read many pages of a historic or strategic account of a particular military campaign, or listen to many successive installments in a newscast narrative of events in a contemporary war, without encountering the acknowledgment that the purpose of the event described is to alter (to burn, to blast, to shell, to cut) human tissue, as well as to alter the surface, shape, and deep entirety of the objects that human beings recognize as extensions of themselves.”

I find that even when death is mentioned—even when it is central to a news story about, for example, the current U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—it is described in ways that obscure its terrible physical realities. (And I just want to mention that I don’t believe that journalists set out to obscure this reality, and I recognize that there are dozens of legitimate reasons for writing brief, succinct accounts of this particular kind of violence. What interests me, though—and what I think is more relevant to the ethical value of the story—is the effect of these descriptions on the reader’s understanding of events.)

In “Is Nothing Sacred? The Ethics of Television,” (I keep mentioning this essay, but only because it’s great), Michael Ignatieff, speaking of television, says that “in a culture overwhelmed by the volume of promiscuous representation, there must be some practice by which the real—the instant when a real body is struck, abused, or violated—is given a place of special attention, a demarcation that insists that it be seen.

Of course, the “instant when a real body is struck, abused, or violated” would be unbearable to a reader if language could perfectly communicate its physical violence and “make real” its terror. No representation could. But physically graphic language, like graphic television images, can force us to experience—in some real but infinitely and necessarily circumscribed way—the physical horror of war.

I collected all the discussions of Iraq war deaths that I could find from New York Times stories (including Reuters and AP stories that appeared on the New York Times website) dated April 10th. I found eight articles that referred to injury and several articles, like this one, that discussed war strategy but didn’t mention injury. The descriptions of death tended to use stereotyped language like “The U.S. military says an American soldier has been killed by a roadside bomb in central Baghdad.” and “U.S. air strikes killed 10 people in a Baghdad slum where dozens of people died in clashes this week,” phrases that communicate the fact of death but don’t evoke its physical reality.

One article that listed soldiers who had died recently twice referred to soldiers dying of wounds sustained during a particular event: “Army Staff Sgt. Jeffery L. Hartley, 25, Hempstead, Texas; died Tuesday in Kharguliah, Iraq, of wounds suffered when his vehicle struck an explosive” and “Army Sgt. Shaun P. Tousha, 30, Hull, Texas; died Wednesday in Baghdad of wounds when his vehicle struck an explosive.” This description was the only one I could find that mentioned any physical aspect of deadly injuries (wounds).

Here are links to the articles that mentioned death or injury in Iraq:

Roadside Bomb Kills US Soldier in Iraq

Family Honors Son’s Memory With Iraq Aid

Bush to Halt Iraq Troop Cuts

U.S. Military Deaths in Iraq at 4,030

A Dozen Iraqis Die in Continuing Fighting in Sadr City, and Bombs Kill Three Americans

Colonel is 9th of Rank to Die in Iraq

Bush Suspends Summer Troop Pullouts in Iraq

Letters: The Iraq Hearings, and the Skeptics

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