The war pundits

The right-wing press denies dignity to our enemies and trivialises the horror of war.

The American media mogul and philanthropist Ted Turner once said: "Sport is like a war without the killing." The bellicose right-wingers among the British press seem to have inverted the idea, presenting military conflict as a crude, point-scoring game.

"Hotshot sniper in one-and-a-half-mile double kill", said a Times headline on 2 May. The cavalryman Craig Harrison had "set a new sharp-shooting distance record by killing two Taliban machine-gunners in Afghanistan from more than a mile away". The Daily Star marvelled at the "amazing shots", which hit one Taliban soldier in the stomach and the other in the side. Both died immediately.

In April, Wikileaks published decrypted footage of a dozen Iraqis -- including two employees of Reuters -- being killed in Baghdad by a US air crew that falsely claimed to have encountered a firefight. The website's director, Julian Assange, compared the American soldiers' behaviour to that of people playing a "computer game". One laughs and boasts, "I hit 'em"; another responds, "Look at those dead bastards."

This kind of abstraction, which strips our military enemies of their humanity, is dangerous and shameful. The Jeffersonian notion that war is a great evil necessary to ward off a greater evil seems to have been phased out in favour of an insistence on the valour of our troops, set against the incomprehensible malice of our enemies.

Hence the Daily Mail's glee in reporting how Harrison had "killed 12 more rebels and wounded seven others", and that "scores of Taliban gunmen have fallen to the gun which has been nicknamed the Silent Assassin".

The papers' preoccupation with Harrison's "kills", which, "from a distance of 8,120ft, beat the previous record by 150ft", only serves to trivialise the reality that soldiers continue to lose their lives on both sides of the conflict.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.