Colonel Gaddafi, the trophy corpse

It's good to show the reality of war, but there's something unsettling about our delight in graphic

The blood-soaked face of a still-warm corpse is the enduring image of the past 24 hours. That the face belonged to a vile tyrant is perhaps one reason why we're not as squeamish about this particular death as we have been about others.

Almost all national newspapers today lead with the photo of a dead man's head. Some crop out the smiling militiamen having their photo taken with the body of Muammar Gaddafi; some news channels have opted out of showing the most bloody footage of all. But the likelihood is that most of us with a passing interest in the news will have seen the corpse at some point. I began to feel a little sickened by its near-constant presence on my screens, and I'm not easily shocked.

As I wrote before about the death of Osama Bin Laden, we live in a 'pics or it didn't happen' era, where we don't trust the word of broadcasters and want to see for ourselves. The worldwide web has opened up a place where there aren't the familiar boundaries and standards there used to be, where punters can readily access material that might once have been deemed unsuitable; and the historic importance of the Gaddafi photos and footage could be considered ample justification for the rather shocking nature of the sights we've seen. It is, after all, what happened.

In one sense, it's good to show the reality of war. Our eyes are often shielded by news broadcasters during those times when 'our boys' get involved in scrapes overseas; the inevitable bloodshed doesn't get transmitted at teatime for fear of upsetting children and adults alike. There are countless graphic images of charred corpses, dangling intestines and splintered scarlet skulls that we don't get to see, which might make us shift on our settees a little and possibly bring home the graphic truth of what happens in the theatre of battle.

Maybe we shouldn't be shielded, and maybe we should be shown. This is, after all, what is happening at the behest of our elected politicians. Maybe we should see how our tax pounds are being spent with every shuddering cadaver oozing life by the roadside or twisted carnage of blood and bone that used to be human beings. It could be that we have a rather sanitised picture of war and its consequences, because we see the flag-draped coffins rather than the broken pieces of flesh inside.

Maybe every time politicians bask in the glory of their 'tough decisions' and 'strong leadership' with regards to successful military intervention, their words should play out over scenes of the lost lives - 'our' troops, as well as those killed by 'our' troops - who paid the biggest price of all. No looking away, no changing the channel; this is how things really are.

Are we ready for that? Well, we're less sensitive than we used to be, in the days when other people used to decide what was too graphic to show us and what wasn't, when the nanny broadcasters had to make choices for us. Now we can set our own boundaries of what's acceptable and what isn't. It's all out there, on the net - videos of executions, suicides, car crashes, murders and assorted accidents, all in jerky pixellated shades of crimson; mortuary slab photos of the famous and infamous; ghoulishly detailed descriptions of death and dying to feed our morbid fascination.

But there's another aspect to the Gaddafi story that doesn't sit as easily with me as the other reasons why news outlets have been happy to splash the blood this time around. There's something primeval almost, something rather unsettling, about the trophy-like nature of Gaddafi's corpse, regardless of how horrific a human being he undoubtedly was, and regardless of the suffering and death he unleashed upon his subjects. Perhaps we are in danger of revelling in this violent act, in delighting in the grisly episode a little too much.

In a week when the Sun has been under fire, in parliament and elsewhere, for what it printed in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, today's front page also looks back in time, to 1988. THAT'S FOR LOCKERBIE, it roars, alongside the now familiar grainy still of Gaddafi's bloodied and battered dead face. It wasn't really for Lockerbie, of course; there are many more reasons why Gaddafi was killed by Libyans than that.

But there's a sense in which the Sun, among many others, is enjoying the kill, sensing the bloodlust and tapping the same old jingoistic responses from its readers. You might cynically wonder if the same newspapers happily printing snuff photos will be pretending to clutch the pearls in a few days' time, worried about children being exposed to sex on TV, or putting asterisks in words it doesn't think its readers should see, for fear of the little lambs being corrupted. Ah, but that will be another day, another time.

There's no doubting that the image of lifeless, humiliated Gaddafi is a powerful one - powerful enough to be used to further all kinds of agendas. Maybe it's those agendas we should be more squeamish about. Dead bodies are just facts.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood