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The hell of war is non-Western

It was the U.S. civil war hero General William T. Sherman who wrote in 1862 that “War is hell.” Yet, Western press coverage of conflicts around the world leaves the overall impression that this applies only to wars prosecuted by people who lack Western values.

There is no better illustration than the contrast in the coverage of Aleppo in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. It just happens that both cities have much in common besides experiencing major bombardment in the respective countries’ civil wars. As the second most important cities in the respective countries, Aleppo is to Syria what Mosul is to Iraq. Moreover, both are ancient cities that played major roles in world history and human civilization. And they continued to be custodians of notable artifacts from long-gone eras.

Then there are the parallel circumstances that led to their respective bombardments. Aleppo was taken over by a rebel movement in Syria, and Mosul was seized by an Islamist group in Iraq. And their retaking by government forces took place back to back. Therefore, how the two campaigns were covered says much about how comparable experiences are interpreted as the “hell of war” or the absence of “Western values.”

When in 2012, anti-government protests and repression escalated into a civil war in Syria, the government of President Bashar al-Assad found itself in a tenuous situation. The rebels occupied Aleppo, the country’s second largest city, and retaking it became a preoccupation. Assad’s allies Russia, Iran, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah joined in the effort. Jointly, they pummeled Aleppo by artillery and aerial attack. By December 2016, they had taken over much of the city, after much damage and casualty.

The reporting and commentary conveyed the sense of horror, leaving little doubt that Assad’s forces and their allies were the villain. “Aleppo, one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world, has been all but

The hell of war is non- Western 39 obliterated by barrel bombs, bullets, chemical attacks and air strikes in the war,” states a story by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in an online post on December 16, 2016. “While Syrians fight for their lives to escape the city once known as the cradle of civilisation, many photographers have stayed to ensure the world [bears] witness to the razing of Aleppo.” The story draws considerably from dispatches by the French News Agency (AFP) and was illustrated with dramatic photos, including those showing severely injured children.

In a blog for on December 12, 2016, Zack Beauchamp was even more evocative. He acknowledged that “there are not, and never were, easy answers to the Syrian civil war,” then added this:

But that has no bearing on the suffering of people in Aleppo. Men, women, and children are being slaughtered and forced from their homes by a regime that has demonstrated zero compassion for its own citizens. Iran and Russia are aiding in this atrocity. And everyone responsible appears to be getting away with it.

The blog included a video insert that provided even more visceral support for the written words. It showed several bloody scenes, including of severely injured children. The video also included heart-wrenching accounts by civilians caught up in the war.

At another front in October 2016, Iraqi government forces, backed by the United States and other allies, began the forbidding task of liberating Mosul from the Islamic State. ISIS had seized Mosul in June 2014 as part of its blitzing campaign to establish a caliphate that would stretch from eastern Syria to much of northern and western Iraq. By October 2016, the group had lost much of the territory, but retained its most prized possession, its proclaimed capital city of Mosul. So, they resorted to every technique to fortify and defend it.

Still, the recapture of the eastern half of Mosul was relatively easy. Progress got bogged down when ISIS fighters amassed at the already dense Western side of the city across the Tigris. There, they dug tunnels and booby-trapped homes and vehicles along the routes of Iraqi forces’ advancement. The battle became very difficult and protracted. It involved bombardment by artillery, drones, and jetfighters. By the time the U.S.-backed forces fully recaptured the city in July 2017, there was much casualty and destruction.

At least, 2,463 were killed, half of whom were civilians, according to United Nations estimates. An additional 1,661 were seriously injured. And more than 800,000 fled their homes, according to the BBC, citing the International Organization for Migration. Meanwhile, all five of the bridges connecting eastern and western Mosul across the Tigris river were rendered unusable by U.S. airstrikes.

The Western press had little access to Mosul in the course of the battle because journalists would risk being snatched by ISIS and probably beheaded. So, much of the reporting on the destruction was behind the frontline. Even then the videos were of apocalyptic scenes of destroyed buildings, wreckages, and desolate places.

In one of the rare frontline reports, CNN interviewed an Iraqi commander and stray civilians. The commander talked of the dangers faced by his soldiers in pressing the war against a hardened and determined ISIS soldiers. His troops had sustained considerable casualty already, and he expected a lot more by the time they took over the center of Mosul. He pointed to some of the wrecked buildings and said they were booby-trapped by ISIS and served as hideouts for their snipers. The stray civilians who were interviewed stressed the hardship of life under ISIS and expressed relief that they had been liberated.

The scope of the casualty and damage became evident after the Mosul was fully liberated. Even one year later, there were still corpses all over. “The bodies of both civilians and Islamic State militants can be found throughout Mosul, once Iraq’s second-largest city, abandoned in bombed-out buildings, tossed in roadside rubbish heaps or discarded in and around the Tigris River,” states the second paragraph in a story in USA Today on May 2, 2018.

Though the story is quite evocative, there is no suggestion of atrocity. Quite the contrary, the story indirectly places the blame on ISIS. “The sight and smell of these corpses is a constant reminder of our darkest days,” the story quotes a young pharmacist who was helping to clean the debris as saying. “A large number of bodies are scattered in the houses, gardens, squares and even in some of our mosques.”

In April 2019, the BBC provided this update:

It has been almost two years since the jihadist group Islamic State was defeated in Iraq’s second city of Mosul following a battle that left thousands of civilians dead. Large parts of the city [have] yet to be rebuilt and residents are growing increasingly frustrated.

Unlike the stories about the battle itself, there is an implicit blame here on the lack of Western values. While acknowledging the magnitude of the task of rebuilding Mosul, the writer blames corruption, ineptitude, and religious rivalry for the continued difficulties. Then she ended the article on this summation: “Poverty, corruption, unemployment and an increasingly angry population with sectarian divisions bubbling

The hell of war is non- Western 41 underneath the surface all contributed to the IS takeover of Mosul five years ago. And unless those root causes are tackled, IS will remain a threat.”

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