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When civilians are caught in crossfire

War is never neat. Civilians have always suffered and died in warfare just as soldiers have, and customs and laws governing how wars are fought have been created to try to minimize that problem — its complexities made starkly clear by current refugee crises around the globe.

As Thomas W. Smith writes in his new book, Human Rights and War Through Civilian Eyes, "Humanitarian law continues to evolve. This shouldn't be surprising. The character of war has changed — and continues to change — in ways that demand more attention to the protection of individuals caught in its path."

Smith will be discussing his book as a featured author at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Nov. 12. He is an associate professor of politics and director of the Honors Program at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. He holds a B.A. in anthropology from the College of William & Mary and a Ph.D. in foreign affairs from the University of Virginia. He has taught at USF St. Petersburg since 2000 and is co-founder of the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs, held annually on the campus of USF St. Petersburg.

Here is an excerpt from a section titled "Human Rights and the New Media" in Human Rights and War Through Civilian Eyes.

— Colette Bancroft, Times book editor

There's no covering up the abuses either. The civilian is a cause tailor-made for the media age. During the Vietnam War, U.S. Army combat photographer Ronald Haeberle published his iconic photographs of the My Lai massacre 20 months after the killings. Released over the Pentagon's objections, the pictures — of women pleading for their lives, and of the contorted bodies of villagers, some belonging to infants, jumbled together on a dirt levee — first appeared in grainy black and white on the front page of Haeberle's home town newspaper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Today, digital images of atrocities circle the planet in seconds. A surge of visuality and viral outrage has been dubbed the "Neda effect," after Neda Agha-Soltan, a 26-year-old student who was shot and killed by a pro-government sniper during a June 2009 street protest in Tehran. Several bystanders recorded her dying minutes on cell phone cameras. One of the videos focuses on Neda's face. Her eyes turn from wide-open alarm to vacant as she bleeds out on the pavement. Within hours, the video was uploaded on YouTube. By the end of the day it had become a "trending topic" on Twitter, and Neda's story was quickly picked up by other media. Time magazine called it "probably the most widely witnessed death in human history." It was one of the sharpest indictments of the ayatollahs in 30 years of Islamic rule. Nicholas Kristof called the Tehran uprising "the quintessential 21st century conflict. On one side are government thugs firing bullets. On the other side are young protestors firing 'tweets.' " The incident led to the quip: "Two mullahs gaze out on a crowd of protestors in Tehran. The one says, 'Arrest the correspondents.' To which the despondent reply is, 'But they're all correspondents!' "

• • •

This democratization of access and exposure has unsettled what had been the carefully managed visual landscape of war. During the Vietnam War, Gen. William Westmoreland decried the unfiltered television coverage of the first living-room war. "Without censorship," he said, "things can get terribly confused in the public mind." When the Abu Ghraib story broke in a flurry of digital photographs, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld lamented the difficulties of operating "in the information age, where people are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photos." Rumsfeld was worried that the Abu Ghraib pictures were being circulated in violation of the Geneva Conventions, which protect prisoners of war against "insults and public curiosity." But he was also watching the official narrative of the war slip away. It was impossible to reconcile a "humanitarian" war with photos of prisoners being humiliated and tortured by American MPs (who were mugging it up for the camera). The pictures revealed what is usually unseen and unknown in wartime.

• • •

With this much information in play, media management teams can't be far behind. Belligerents marshal evidence and tailor information much like public relations firms. In 2007 the U.S. Department of Defense launched its own YouTube channel, MNFIRAQ (Multi-National Force — Iraq) ("the clips are ours, the conclusions are yours"). The site offered what it called "boots on the ground perspective on the war," but the propagandist's hand is also evident in the selective focus on American soldiers engaging in clean combat and aiding local Iraqis. At the low end, combatants organize on Facebook and proselytize on Twitter. With barriers to entry virtually nil, it's a rare insurgent movement that doesn't have a web site.

Meet the author

Thomas W. Smith (Human Rights and War Through Civilian Eyes) will be a featured author at the 24th annual Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Nov. 12 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg; tampabay.com/expos/festival-of-reading.

When civilians are caught in crossfire 10/20/16 [Last modified: Thursday, October 27, 2016 2:52pm]
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