Images of Suffering: Calls to Action or Exploitation?

There is a reason the Vietnam War is also known as the “Television War”. It marked the beginning of the media’s wide-spread fascination with broadcasting images of violence and suffering, and was the first time most people in the western world had been faced with the atrocities of war. In 1965 American troops in Vietnam increased to 175 000, and this was a dramatic enough number that TV journalists, who had not been particularly interested in the conflict previously, decided it was a worthy subject for broadcast. So they followed the troops over.

Before Vietnam, media coverage of conflict and war had been heavily controlled and censored. This changed with the exploding popularity of the television, which gave the media unprecedented access to viewers in their own homes. Because it was such a new technology, the government had no idea how to control what was being shown on TV, and journalists used this to their advantage by broadcasting images of the raw brutality and suffering associated with war. Initially these newscasts followed the popular viewpoint of the time, that the war was a just one and America was protecting itself from encroaching communism. This was achieved through the showing of candid and uncensored images of fallen American troops or, as can be seen in the video below, footage of the Vietcong attacking American soldiers and compounds.

In this video, there is a clear distinction being made between the Americans and the Vietnamese who died. The body of an American soldier is shown (at 0.40), but there is no blood and his face cannot be seen. His body is also being looked after by a fellow soldier. This is a direct contrast to the bodies of the fallen Vietnamese shown (at 1.00) who are covered in blood and whose faces are clearly visible. The bodies are shown being carried away in ways that are not at all respectful or mournful of the deaths, and a soldier is even shown pushing a body back onto the gurney using his foot (at 1.12). This lack of respect is made more apparent when the journalist covering the piece says “One by one the VC (Vietcong) are located and killed, their bodies unceremoniously dragged outside and down the street,” over footage of this happening (at 5.13). The images and interviews used throughout this news piece are reflective of the initial standpoint of the media when entering Vietnam- the Americans were the ones worthy of sympathy, whereas the Vietnamese were just animals who deserved what they got.

This standpoint changed dramatically however in January 1968 following a stand-off known as the Tet Offensive. The media at the time labelled it as a massive failure for the American army and said it was indicative that the Americans were fighting an unwinnable war. Following this, coverage of American involvement of the war, and of the soldiers themselves, became largely negative. When the massacre at My Lai was broadcast, the media had completely changed their viewpoint, and depicted the American soldiers as ruthless murderers. This caused an uproar back home which prompted America’s withdrawal from Vietnam. Men who had largely been forced into fighting through conscription and wanting to be patriotic, who had left being patted on the back and being told they were heroes, came home with PTSD to a population who shunned them and made them social pariahs. This shows the sheer power of the media to influence the public into believing whatever is convenient at the time, and also the lack of conscience in exploiting the suffering of others as long as it makes for a good story.

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In the case of the Vietnam War the depiction of suffering and the horrors of war did end up being a call to action that resulted in the ending of it. However it created a precedent of exploitation of suffering that is still prevalent in the media today. And while a lot of it is a way to remind us that we are lucky and there are many people worse off in the world, a large portion of it is not. Shows like “Struggle Street” and “Teen Mom” are created under the guise of documentary but are merely a form of entertainment pedalled to middle-class white folk to make us feel like good people for shaking our heads and feeling sorry for those less fortunate. But at the end of the day rarely do any of us do anything about it.

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