By: Aaron Paul Taylor
VBS, an arm of the VICE media group, have a new internet TV series called Syria, Ground Zero, a run of short reportage films shot by the maverick war photographer Robert King. In the lineage of the ‘Bang Bang Club’ of conflict photojournalists of the 1990s, Mr King is one of the few Westerners whose images have made it out of Syrian conflict zones this year. After a couple of months buried in books, articles and case studies, with war and civil conflict becoming ever more abstract concepts, the harrowing first episode served as a wake up call.
I am a student of war, and sometimes I feel slightly uncomfortable with the nature of my studies. Numbers of ‘battle deaths’, ‘civilian casualties’, and ‘IDPs’ can become just figure in a table alongside GINI coefficients and GNP per capita. What these numbers represent becomes lost. It can feel weird to ‘really enjoy’ a lecture on poverty and violence. I am equally uncomfortable listening to the braying wisecracks of a visiting desk warrior glossing over ISAF losses in Afghanistan. In short, there is a risk of conflict becoming an academic puzzle, something to be clever about. Extremes of suffering faced by those involved and affected are not readily conveyed in textbooks and journals.
Of course, organised violence must be analysed objectively, uncoloured by visceral reactions to the horror of what we are examining. A cold gaze can aid a reasoned judgment. Equally, I know that many involved in the study of conflict need no sermon from me about remembering what violence really looks like, sounds like, smells like; I have met many students and academics who have, unlike me, lived through, worked in, or fought in wars.
For those unfamiliar with the brand, Vice is an influential, controversy-courting free lifestyle magazine, chronicling general urban entropy for aspiring hipsters in cities around the world. Though its house style is a studied mix of tastelessness, cynicism and cruelty that I grew to find objectionable many years ago, occasional pieces of its Immersionist correspondence have been groundbreaking and deeply affecting. This is especially true of some of its VBS online video content. The films The Vice Guide to Liberia, Inside Afghanistan, Heavy Metal in Baghdad and North Korean Labor Camps have offered snapshots into places and happenings not available elsewhere in the mainstream media.
Syria, Ground Zero, however, has none of the grim levity of the above films. Its first episode, Assad’s Child Victims is from a Free Syrian Army field hospital in al-Qusayr. It opens with a warning that viewer discretion is advised due to the extreme nature of the footage. They should go further. The gory images of severely injured children and of men dying as the camera rolls left me very upset. You need to be sure why you are watching this, and I am not necessarily recommending that you do. There are moral implications, and as my mother used to say, you can’t unwatch it. Minors and the dead cannot consent to you watching this footage of them. You can read Mr King’s account of his experience in al-Qusayr here.
Granted, uncensored images from any emergency ward in the world would make for distressing viewing, but the constant sound of ordnance and machine gun fire adds to its sense of chaos and tragedy. A rocket attack on the hospital itself injures many as Mr King is filming.
We at times need reminding, when musing on the effects of conflict – on reduced state capacity, retarded economic development and so on – what the immediate consequences of war can look like. You may or may not choose to comply with the entreaty of the bloodied surgeon in this film who, standing over an infant with organs exposed on the operating table, implores: “Please, look at this child.”