Saturday, September 05, 2009

Matters of Life and Death

Warning: This image contains graphic or objectionable content. Click here to view it.

Would you click?

A question that poses itself so often. Will I look? I remember it being discussed after Saddam was killed and it became known that the execution could be watched on-line. Did you look?

When I was confronted with this question as I looked through an on-line photo exhibition (’s Big Picture) recommended to me by The American, I took a deep breath...

...and looked.

The pictures were of the recent Afghan elections and the explanation of the graphic content was as follows...

Afghan police carry the bodies of three suspected insurgents in the back of a truck after they were killed in a gunfight in Kabul, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2009. Gunfire and explosions reverberated through the heart of the Afghan capital Wednesday on the eve of the presidential election after three militants with AK-47s rifles and hand grenades overran a bank. Police stormed the building and killed the three insurgents, officials said.

The picture itself wasn't didn't feel too hard for me to see. Perhaps, I wondered, this was the effect of being of a generation which is arguably the first to be so ‘raised’ on scenes of an explicitly violent nature, from Die Hard to The Last King of Scotland to The Passion of the Christ(I am deliberately referencing films that are deemed to have a perfectly ‘acceptable’ level of death and violence rather than the ‘video nasties’ only watched by a relatively small number of people). The same processes which saw so many of us watch the live unfolding of 9/11 like we were watching a movie quickly kick in. In 2001 it took me a few days to get what had happened. Not really until the stories of survivors and the families of victims began to make their way across the Atlantic, shaking reality into the motion picture, did I actually realise the horror. The language of war also keeps us at arms length from the truth. The dead are insurgents and militants, to some extent denying their humanity and giving their death a sense of justice. This idea was brought out in the very first philosophy class I had at Queens when our Professor showed us the Ride of the Valkyries scene from Apocalypse Now and began our discussion by commenting on the dehumanizing language of ‘dinks’. When they’re ‘dinks’ you can do what you want to them. When they are insurgents they deserve whatever they get. (They may well have been evil men who were killed in the process of doing evil things. I cannot comment on this specific incident.)

What this picture initially did in me however was spark a memory...

The pig’s name was Wilbur. The truth is that wasn’t his name but since I can’t remember his actual name that is the one I have just given him. He had been named to poke fun at the more squeamish amongst our group who were being teased about his pending slaughter. When the fateful morning came we made our way down to the farm with at least a hint of the kind of apprehensive excitement that compels perfectly rational individuals to watch films like Saw. There was a commotion in the pig pen as farmhands tried to get to grips with Wilbur, whose impressive size and strength were being bolstered by life’s ferocious desire to remain. Eventually superior numbers and opposable thumbs won out as Wilbur was tied up like a chicken and bundled out the door. As he writhed on the wet grass, a farmer stood on his large pink body as another kneeled on the back of his neck. The man with the knife moved forward and with one swift movement snuffed out Wilbur’s life.

Except that isn’t how it happened.

In actual fact, a somewhat blunt knife was hacked in behind Wilbur’s throat and, with a sawing action, wrestled forward. His throat having now been ripped from his neck, Wilbur lay there and fought for the life which was draining away. Blood of a surprisingly bright crimson oozed all around him and spluttered and gargled from the gap where his jugular once ran life to his lungs as his body heaved and gasped for air. Somehow, for an incredible length of time, life quite impossibly remained. But slowly and painfully, one deep pointless breath after another, Wilbur died. A farm hand had begun shaving his skin for butchering long before his final breath. We made our way back home thinking about life and death and dinner.

Two days later Uncle Q talked war and played us scenes from a documentary film called Cry Freetown. We watched the grainy footage of real conflict. A scene of post-shooting chaos as blood and terror ran on screen, bundling death and injury in to the backs of trucks. Another scene cut in. What looked like soldiers lined up a group of young men against a backdrop of green bush. This was an execution and those about to die were given a last cigarette to enjoy. Aim was taken. Shots were fired. The bodies fell down. Initially the details of the story were unknown. Were these RUF rebels being killed? Were they ‘insurgents’, ‘dinks’? Was justice being done? Either someone asked him or Uncle Q offered the information that those killed were students who had protested the AFRC coup in their city, young men who had made too much noise about the removal of democracy and the rule of law, or at the very least imperfect attempts at those concepts. As I tried to process that thought the cameraman had moved on to a close up shot of one of those who had just fallen. Grainy blood of a dark crimson oozed all around him and spluttered and gargled from the gap where his jugular once ran life to his lungs as his body heaved and gasped for air. Somehow, for an incredible length of time, life quite impossibly remained. But slowly and painfully, one deeply pointless breath after another, a young man would die.

The deaths of Wilbur and this young Sierra Leonean man cut together in my mind like those of Kurtz and the water buffalo in another scene from Apocalypse Now. And I was struck by how strong our will to survive is, how that instinct is imprinted on our every cell. I often noted the human body’s resilience in Sierra Leone when tiny, desperately malnourished babies and kids would find their way to our clinic. All too often these little lives faded away but I was regularly struck by how much our bodies can take and how little they can survive with, even if that life is left hanging by a thread. It is only one side of the coin of course with on other occasions the utter fragility of life shocking its way to the fore. And of course what the young student and Wilbur were up against were people whose desire to kill them was as strong as their bodies’ attempts to survive and I am left thinking of another picture from It is a view of Hiroshima taken shortly after The Bomb was dropped, one mile from the sight of the actual explosion. This blast is believed to have killed about 70,000 people immediately with perhaps another 70,000 dying from resulting injuries and effects in the years that followed. Utter, inhuman destruction wielded not on behalf of a psychotic despot but rather the American people. The land of the free. The tolerant. The democratic. The rational. A time of war when the end far outweighed the means in the minds of decision makers. A time when the language and logic and hate of war had dehumanised the civilians of whole cities all over the world. An incredible time, yes, but comments of ‘Never Again’ make liars of us.

(U.S. National Archives)

Afghanistan has been ripped from seam to seam by war and oppression and I just can’t imagine. This goes a hundred fold for Afghan nationals but I am regularly bowled over by the thought of American and British troops there fighting the questions that must surely haunt – How did we get here? Why are we dying for this chaos? Is it going to get better? And I think about the language they use, and the things they cling to, to make sense of the horror or to simply survive it. And I think of the young men whose dead legs hung out of the back of a pickup truck which was photographed as it rolled along and the hows and whys and whos and ifs of the ‘graphic content’ that is their death. And I think of the utter humanity of an Afghan girl in another picture, holding a small puppy with the same innocent pleasure of any child of her age anywhere in the world, the way I had seen our children in Sierra Leone hold their puppies a hundred times. For me she was the equivalent of the 9/11 relatives’ stories that filtered through as the days went by. She shook the scene and allowed what was real to feel like it, to burst into tragic life and death.

(AP Photo/Dima Gavrysh)


“Smell that? Do you smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know one time we had a hill bombed…for twelve hours. And when it was all over I walked up. We didn’t find one of ‘em. Not one stinkin’ dink body. The smell. You know that gasoline smell. The whole hill. It smelled like…victory.”

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