International Relations

How accounts of conflicts are tied to who has the right to speak. The Iraq war and the Bosnian war as case studies

Cara Atkinson (2016), UCL, MA in Gender, Society and Representation


All accounts of conflict – whether first-hand descriptions of experiences or mediated reports of events – are narratives that make use of pre-existent conventions and systems of thought in order to make sense of the incongruities inherent to conflict situations. Recourse is made to gendered stereotypes of victimhood and heroism, often with racial or nationalist inflections that produce ‘totalizing narrative[s] of victimization’, obscuring the complexities of lived experiences (Simić 2012, 133). Furthermore, forms of violence are emphasised or minimised in ways that chime with political agendas, as well as received cultural notions of humiliation and shame. As such, accounts of conflict push particular kinds of violence and victims to the fore, while others are effectively concealed. However, the (in)visibility of both varies according to who is able to give voice to their accounts of conflict, an problem that is bound to issues of power and therefore varies across contexts and even within individual conflicts.

Despite the proliferation of forms of media in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, including the rise of social media, in the Western world (particularly the UK and USA) the most prominent accounts of any conflict tend to be generated by a relatively limited number of news sources, which are controlled by a small group of ‘media gatekeepers’ who often have close links to the state (Kaempf 2013, 595). The accounts given by these forms of mass media have the ability to influence not only the public perception of conflict but also to shape policy. Largely focusing my analysis on Western accounts of modern conflicts, particularly the Iraq War (2003-2011) and the Bosnian War (1992-1995), I argue that these accounts create and perpetuate gendered topographies of violence and victimisation in relation to conflict. In doing so, I address not only popular media sources, but also academia, as well as the experiences of those who have lived through conflict but cannot (or do not wish to) render their accounts public and thereby ‘visible’.

The American mass media played a key role in the Iraq War, a central component of which involved establishing the conflict as what Pete Hamill, a prominent American journalist and editor, has described as ‘a war without blood’ (2004, 30). Such a conflict would not only be a war without violence, but also without victims, allowing the maintenance of the myth that the war was justifiable as a ‘humanitarian intervention’, as was claimed throughout its course by coalition states, including the UK and the US. Of course, in reality the war was as bloody and destructive as any other – a study aimed to discover the number of Iraqis killed over the course of the war, including those whose deaths were caused by the collapse of infrastructure (something other studies have tended to ignore as not being directly caused by violence, failing to recognise that this is a form of violence in itself) estimated that around half a million Iraqis died of war-related causes (Hagopian et al 2013). Furthermore, over 4,000 members of coalition forces were killed during the conflict ( 2016). Despite these figures, military operations were depicted as clinical and bloodless, a presentation of conflict that had begun in the American media during the Gulf War (Kaempf 2013; Coker 2001).

This was particularly evident in visual depictions of the conflict. During the Gulf War, US television coverage emphasised the precision of US air strikes while downplaying civilian casualties (Paletz 1994). Similarly, during the first months of the Iraq War only ten percent of more than 2,500 images of the war collected by Silcock et al (2008) from American TV news, newspapers, news magazines and online news sources showed injury or death, suggesting that there was a conscious effort to minimise the violence that was displayed and to maintain the pretence of the war as just and emancipatory. In an analysis of early American media coverage of the Iraq War, Griffin (2004, 397) draws attention to a lack of ‘pictures of casualties, whether Iraqi, British or American; pictures of damage done to Iraqi homes and the Iraqi infrastructure by the bombings; [and] pictures from the Iraqi point of view’. The visualisation of the war had little room for violence or victims of any kind, largely because visual representations of events have the ability to become the event for those who view them due to the fundamental belief in Western societies that ‘seeing is believing’ (Zelizer 2001).

As a result, efforts were made to control the kind of images that were associated with the war. The destructive reality of the war was replaced by the simplistic narrative of liberation, in which victims are replaced by those who have been rescued from perpetrators of violence by emancipatory (rather than conquering) forces. The system of ‘embedded journalism’, which has been actively promoted by the Pentagon since the 1980s, enables a relatively high level of control over the way in which the media represents conflicts that the US armed forces are engaged in (Hoskins and O’Loughlin 2010). The visualisation of the war was therefore a military operation and a tool for propaganda – in an effort to gain support from Arabic nations and individuals, coalition forces promoted the use of images in the media that showed Iraqi civilians celebrating the US invasion (Tatham 2006, 129-130). In this way, Iraqis were cast – regardless of their actual experiences – not as victims of the US invasion but as its beneficiaries. The Pentagon also saw the potential to use soldiers themselves as narrators of the conflict – it encouraged soldiers to create and publish videos on YouTube, before backtracking and limiting the troops’ access to social media sites in 2007 (Smith and McDonald 2011, 300). Although this was done ostensibly to limit bandwidth consumption and protect network security, the violent, hyper-masculine nature of the soldiers’ videos analysed by Smith and McDonald (which included close-ups of decapitated heads and footage of explosions and raids) was likely viewed as a threat to official military and media narratives of the war that glossed over the violence involved in order to legitimise the conflict.

In addition to carefully controlling the visualisation of the Iraq War, limiting the extent to which any kinds of victims or violence could be made visible, gender stereotypes were deployed as propaganda tools in order to legitimise the ‘War on Terror’, which encompassed the War in Afghanistan (2001-2014) and, later, the War in Iraq. The humanitarian justifications for these conflicts cohered in the imagined figure of the veiled and oppressed Muslim woman, who desired (and required) liberation at the hands of American and other Western forces. As Lila Abu-Lughod (2002) points out, Laura Bush stated this explicitly in a speech given in late 2001, claiming that, ‘“Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women”’ (784). Bush’s uncritical use of the general term ‘women’ effectively designates all Afghan women as passive victims, who were waiting – like Rapunzel in her tower – to be rescued by the heroic (and implicitly masculine) forces of the US military. In addition, Afghan men are simultaneously present as oppressors and curiously absent – the focus is on the emancipation, both spatially and culturally, of women, not on the violence presumably meted out on Afghan men in order to achieve this. Casting all women as victims obscures the ways in which men were victimised, both by the Taliban and by coalition forces, and putting forward a narrative of emancipation elides the very real violence of the invasion.

Furthermore, as Abu-Lughod (2002) argues, it establishes the conflict as one rooted in culture, enabling accounts of the conflict that are removed from the complexities of individual lives and are instead concerned with violence perpetuated by particular cultural ideologies (in this case, fundamentalist Islam). As a result, the conflict becomes a conflict between cultures rather than between individuals who are parts of larger political groupings. Framing the conflict in such a way obscures the reality of suffering as well as the ways in which various groups of individuals both suffer and have agency, acting beyond the constraints of the victim/oppressor/hero paradigm.

The deployment and exploitation of similar gendered stereotypes can also be identified in American media coverage of the Gulf War, which focused on narratives of liberation. These narratives no doubt provided the basis for the subsequent narrativisation of the ‘War on Terror’, as they cast Saudi women as oppressed, lacking formal rights and as being physically confined. However, the role of female American soldiers – who comprised 11% of US forces – was also stressed, as Francine D’Amico (1998) outlines. US public officials were keen to emphasise women’s engagement in what they cast as a civilising mission by referring to ‘our men and women in the Gulf’ during public addresses, as they believed that the sight of women soldiers would encourage Saudi women to cast off their veils and become ideal liberal Western subjects (D’Amico, 122). However, as Abu-Lughod points out in her article, what may be perceived by Western observers as the trappings of oppression and victimhood may actually confer significant advantages to women – for example, the burqa and other forms of modest religious dress can allow women to move in public spaces and to participate in society (785). Violence can therefore be seen where none necessarily exists – it, and women’s status as victims, can be a projection that overrides how women experience their own situation. In many ways, the status of female soldiers is similar – although not classed as victims of violence, female soldiers are similarly labelled in media and military accounts of the Gulf War. Their own voices are not heard, except, perhaps, when they are willing to echo popular narratives of their role in conflict.

In effect, women are forced to follow a script that delimits how they are able to experience conflict and how they are able to narrate their own experiences. American female soldiers were effectively not ‘allowed’ to be victims, but nor were they ‘allowed’ to be agents who were equal with men. Their role was cast in media coverage, and in military discourses and practice, as one of ‘nurturant socialisation’ – their presence was designed in part to temper the hyper-masculine atmosphere of the US army through a stereotypically feminised provision of care. In addition to this, female soldiers were thought to boost morale among male troops by providing sexual titillation and experiences (D’Amico, 128). Unsurprisingly, female soldiers are vulnerable to sexual violence by other military personnel. Women who fought for the US during the Iraq War described constant harassment, including being offered money to perform sex acts – there were even allegations that several female soldiers had died from dehydration after refusing to drink water late in the day in order to avoid using badly lit latrines at night (Benedict 2007).

Although systems were put in place to facilitate the reporting of sexual assaults, Helen Benedict discloses that women who reported sexual assaults were viewed as ‘incapable traitors’ and dismissed as such. In this way, women were discouraged from reporting sexual harassment and assaults, forcing them into a position where they were expected to cope with the violence directed towards them on their own. It appears that sexual violence was not viewed as a form of violence – instead it was normalised as an extension of the presumed sexual role of female soldiers, and regarded as a lapse of discipline rather than an act of violence (Copelon 1998, 63). This normalisation, along with the effective silencing of female soldiers who wanted to report incidents of sexual violence, served to protect the united, liberatory front military officials wanted to project. The targeting and victimisation of female soldiers raised questions about the cultural superiority of American forces, threatening the arguments used to justify the conflict, and therefore had to be hidden from view.

In other contexts, sexual assault of women has not been hidden, but rather rendered hyper-visible. This was particularly the case in media coverage and Western imaginings of the Bosnian War, in which sexual violence (particularly towards Bosnian Muslim women by Bosnian Serbs) was central. However, as Rhonda Copelon (1998) notes, the hyper-visibility of rape in the Bosnian War was largely a product of the invisibility of sexual violence in coverage of other conflicts and contexts. In this case, rape was worthy of widespread attention because it was ‘a vehicle of genocide’, rather than a common or garden variety of rape (64). As a result, it was implied that sexual violence (inflicted upon and experienced by individual women) was only worthy of attention when it was associated with forms of mass violence directed at entire ethnic groups. The suffering of the individual was therefore less important than the way in which it signified the suffering of the group. Rape has long been used as a metaphor for violence directed towards nation states or other political entities due to the common metaphor of nation as woman (Pettman 1996). In Bosnia, the metaphor was both reversed (in that violence against woman became a synecdoche for violence against Bosnian Muslims as a whole) and rendered literal. It can therefore be argued that the visibility of rapes in the Bosnian context actually serves to obscure forms of sexual violence directed towards women and girls (and also towards men and boys) that do not have an identifiable political agenda.

Furthermore, the hyper-visibility of sexual violence in Bosnia served to equate Bosnian Muslim women with victims of rape. Olivera Simić (2012), an academic with personal experience of the Bosnian War who has conducted extensive research into sexuality and gender in conflict, has described the response at feminist academic conference to a paper she had written on consensual sexual relationships between Bosnian women and UN peacekeepers. Simić writes that her paper ‘seemed to disappoint my audience because it did not reinforce the prevailing image of Bosnian woman in wartime – the image of her as a victim’ (131). By demonstrating that agency and pleasure constituted important parts of some women’s experiences of the Bosnian conflict, Simić disrupted the homogeneous construction of Bosnian women as powerless victims of sexual violence. The ‘discontent’ and ‘quiet anger’ that met her findings appeared to reflect a sense that to talk of sexual pleasure in wartime was not only disrespectful to the women who had suffered, but was also incomprehensible (134). However, as Simić notes, while rape certainly occurred during the Bosnian War (and did so on a large, systematic scale) it was not the only thing that did (132). The academic denial of women’s accounts of conflict that do not focus on sexual violence amounts to an act of silencing that reduces women’s complex, multifaceted identities to the effects of a single form of violence. Viewing women as one-dimensional victims who require (often external and masculine) protection from sexual violence has very real implications for post-conflict reconstruction, as it limits the roles women are seen as qualified to perform and also diverts attention and resources away from other human rights issues (Scully 2009).

In addition, labelling women as victims of rape ignores the ways in which women present themselves and wish to be seen in their own accounts of conflict. Due to the stigma surrounding rape, as well as the way in which the label of ‘rape victim’ elides other forms of identity, many women deliberately hide their experiences of sexual violence in their accounts of conflict. This can be hugely problematic, as it prevents perpetrators of sexual violence from being brought to justice and also means that women do not have access to specialist care, both physical and psychological. However, there is a sense in which this invisibility is highly strategic. During the running of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission following the end of apartheid, South African women, many of whom held senior positions in organisations and institutions, reported feeling that they could not testify that they had been raped as it would change the way people viewed them, interfering with their ability to do their job (Krog 2001, 205). Giving an honest account of their experiences would be not only to share details they viewed as extremely private, effectively reliving the violence they experienced again, but also to label and thus paradoxically silence themselves.

Accounts of conflict must therefore be seen to be tied to the right and the choice to speak – the kind of violence that is voiced, and the ways in which victimhood is claimed or projected, is determined by who is able to freely narrate conflicts. In media, academic and personal narratives of conflict, the (in)visibility of different forms of violence and thus different kinds of victims varies according to political and social positions and aims. Across the various and apparently disparate contexts I have addressed in this essay, scripts of violence and victimhood emerge that echo broader systems of power. Ideas about cultural supremacy, nationality and gender shape the ways in which conflicts are made sense of and transformed into narratives, as well as the ways in which individuals who have experienced conflict can understand their own experiences. Dominant narratives of conflicts are created and often carefully maintained by reinforcing ideas about what and who a victim is – to speak outside these narratives, as, for example, Olivera Simić did, is to invite scepticism, hostility and even total disbelief. But it is important to voice the intimate truths of individuals in times of conflict, as it is only by doing so that obscured experiences can be brought to light, examined and addressed, thereby altering the recognised reality of each conflict.



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