Survivor stories

From Little Ali to Private Jessica Lynch: the cynical search for a victim to define the image of Gulf War II.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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If this is a war in search of a defining image, it may finally have found one – in the UK at least. It is not an American flag flying over Baghdad, the discovery of chemical weapons or the capturing of Saddam. It is a badly burned boy with no arms.

Ali Ismail Abbas is a 12-year-old boy whose home in Al Zafiriya was hit by a coalition missile three weeks ago. The rest of his family was killed. Ali survived: but with 60 percent burns, and both his arms were amputated below the elbow. For a while, he was treated in a Baghdad hospital but they were ill-equipped to deal with the severity of his injuries.

His story came to wider attention on 6 April, when he was pictured in his hospital bed. Bronwen Maddox, writing in The Times (London) two days later, captured the mood: ‘The despairing face of Ali Ismail Abbas, the 12-year-old boy who lost both arms in the blast that killed his entire family, has become a symbol around the world of the casualties of the Iraq war.’ (1)

But Ali was now more than a symbol: he was becoming a bandwagon. The Mirror newspaper and the Limbless Association both launched appeals in his name. ‘The picture that will stay with us…the image that refuses to leave the retina no matter how many times you blink, is of 12-year-old Ali Ismaeel Abbas’, said the London Evening Standard, launching yet another appeal. (2)

Television news bulletins have been leading with news of the latest developments. Offers of free, or cut-price, treatment have come in from around the world. UK prime minister Tony Blair apparently intervened personally to request that Ali be flown to Kuwait for treatment.

Ali’s picture is heart-wrenching; but the fact that he has received so much attention is about more than that. It indicates the need to find a victim to convey the story of the war. War, apparently, cannot be understood except in terms of individual suffering.

In turn, all sorts of feelings can be projected on to a victim: anger at governments for causing wars; guilt at being, in some respect, the perpetrator; empathy, sharing someone’s plight. But the last of those feelings is the strongest. Little Ali, we feel your pain.

Feeling the pain of others has characterised much of the reaction to this war. The main argument put forward for the war in recent weeks has been to help the Iraqi people. Coming to Little Ali’s rescue fits in perfectly with that notion. The fact that his injuries were caused by the very people supposedly liberating him seems, for the most part, to be ignored. Meanwhile, the anti-war protests have been more about laying flowers than shouting slogans.

But when it comes to victims, one size does not fit all. In America, discussion of Ali’s case has been muted. Instead, Private Jessica Lynch has been the subject of most attention. She is a member of a maintenance company in the US Army that was ambushed near Nasiriya on 23 March, suffering broken legs and other injuries. She was rescued from a hospital in Nasiriya by special forces on 1 April.

But it’s the little details that count. First, it’s the tragedy: she never really wanted to join the army but in her little town, it was the only way she could get an education; she was only in a maintenance company, she wasn’t supposed to have to fight. Then, it’s the triumph: her bravery while imprisoned by evil Saddam; the daring of special forces in getting her out. It’s just the kind of story you might find in a downmarket women’s magazine. How much of the story is really true is another matter.

Private Jessica is just the right kind of symbol for this war, a story that combines horror and heroism. But this is heroism of a peculiarly modern kind, not the ability to risk life and limb to achieve a particular result but the quiet acceptance of suffering. If World War II was symbolised by real-life heroes like Audie Murphy and screen equivalents like John Wayne, this war has Jessica Lynch.

The cynical sentimentalism only serves to make it more sickening. In Little Ali’s case, it is the newspapers forming a disorderly queue to be seen to be doing something to help. In Lynch’s case, it is the three promised made-for-TV movies, and the potential chequebook battle for the ‘official story’, that will be stretching the bounds of good taste.

The elevation of the victim may be an attempt to make the war more human, but the result is no less repugnant than the battle itself.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Iraq’s children will pay ultimate price of war, The Times, 9 April 2003

(2) Quoted in Ali’s agony puts human face to suffering of war, Sydney Morning Herald, 12 April 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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