The War You Don't See

The War You Don't See


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

What really happened to prompt the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? This is still subject to much debate, of course, but in this documentary the veteran journalist John Pilger assumes his viewers are all pretty much on the same side - the wars were about oil, politics, or profiteering within the military industrial complex. It's a fair starting point - the chances are that if you disagree you wouldn't be watching this film in the first place.

It is also somewhat beside the point, as what Pilger is really interested in is how, once those decisions were made, the wars were sold to the public. How did their marketing campaigns develop? What made so many people so certain they were the right thing to do? And to what extent were journalists, supposed guardians of the truth, a part of that?

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"Never believe anything until it's officially denied" the narrator advises us, paraphrasing Edward Cheyfitz. It's a healthy approach to journalism at a certain level, but ironic in the context of nobody having bothered to counter many of the arguments on display here. Does that hint at a subtler type of information control? Perhaps, but if so it's too subtle for Pilger. This isn't a film that looks for the devil in the details. Pilger clearly feels passionately about his subject and, consequently, wants to frame it in the strongest terms possible. The problem is that this comes to resemble propaganda in itself.

It also means that, contrary to the title, what you'll see here is material you'll very likely have seen before. Pilger's argument is all about mass media and ignores the fact that already concerned individuals like most of his viewers, will get much of their news over the internet. As such, it seems curiously old fashioned and also out of step with more pressing questions about censorship which are only just reaching mass attention now.

That said, Pilger's film does briefly brush up against current debate in its interview with Julian Assange, surely one of the segments that will make it most interesting to viewers at the point of its release. Though it barely touches on the allegations that have developed since, it's a remarkably candid piece. Assange is quick to dismiss traditional-style conspiracy theorists and speaks, instead, of a web of self-interested parties working for and against each other with journalists caught in the middle.

There's other strong material as well, notably the testimony of the US soldier who rescued dying children from a truck after a now-famous US bombing of civilians. Here, the film does a good job of showing that the manipulations of the aforementioned parties are balanced somewhat by well-intentioned individuals. Soldiers, whistleblowers, journalists prepared to risk their lives to venture into conflict zones without the protecting of embedding, they play a vital role. It's a shame that Pilger goes on to undermine this with a lot of sweeping statements about how all journalists, or all of the public, are somehow complicit in the wars. It's a dislocated argument and one which will rightly offend people he ought to be getting on side.

There is undoubtedly a case to be made about the extent to which good journalism has been sacrificed, by many organisations, in favour of closeness to the story. A number of leading figures, including longstanding anchorman Dan Rather, give lengthy speeches about how they had the wool pulled over their eyes in the run-up to the wars, though Pilger neglects to ask the important question of why they thought they should be journalists in the first place if they weren't a bit more savvy than that.

We hear a lot about the smoothness and brilliance of the pro-war propaganda machine and those voices which did speak out from the start as elided here just as they have been in documentaries taking a pro-war perspective. This is made up for in part by a revealing interview with a BBC spokesperson who persistently argues that her corporation exists primarily "to report what respected leaders say", an interesting admission at a time when the BBC is finding its reputation for neutrality increasingly contested.

The War You Don't See, then, has a lot of good things going for it but doesn't make very effective use of its material. It's unclear whom it will really surprise or why it should sway anyone who doesn't agree to begin with. It's a shame to see the once insightful Pilger reduced to this. He seems to have been overwhelmed somewhat by the vociferousness of his subject. One can only hope that he will later return to the subject with a cooler head, making more, not less, emotional impact as a result.

Reviewed on: 18 Dec 2010
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A documentary about the media's relationship to war, with particular focus on the 21st century conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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Director: John Pilger, Alan Lowery

Starring: John Pilger, Alan Lowery, Rageh Omaar, Dan Rather, Julian Assange

Year: 2010

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: UK


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