War tourism is on the rise. The practice of recreational travel to warzones is now a very real way to get those voyeuristic kicks, get high on adrenaline and enjoy some extreme sightseeing. So forget about taking your Nan for a soggy jaunt along the Jurassic coast this spring, South Sudan is where it’s at; or better yet, Syria. Territories are changing so fast these days that amongst the all the confusion, there’s always some chance to take advantage. But would you? Can you really have a jolly amidst so much death and destruction? Some seem to think so, and the apparent reasons are worrying.
Before the tourists arrived, conflicts overseas were brought to us by the greats: Fisk, Hetherington, McCullin, you name it – they’d seen it. But if a picture speaks a thousand words and an article isn’t much more, then this suggests a problem; war tourists are going on a crusade for the full story, because you really can’t limit war to a word count.
Now although it’s fun to watch a really bad idea play out, someone should probably ask why - why aren’t war reports having such an impact anymore? If they did, any budding war tourist would likely be dissuaded immediately. And heaven forbid, perhaps even change the tide of public opinion. Such was the case during the graphically documented Vietnam War – the first case of its kind.
We now consume such a gross amount of media that any war reporting is becoming less poignant and, more worryingly, the norm. So for the war tourist, that desensitization, that stunted human sympathy, that monumental lack of fucks given currently stands as a challenge to leap over, massive DSLR in hand.
Combine that with a crushing skepticism of basically everything, that comes after browsing the Internet, or the acute lack of public trust in foreign affairs, (after the Bush-Blair debacle); and the war tourist’s argument is almost valid: “You weren’t there to hold the camera”. “You didn’t smell the cordite”. “There’s no residual taste of that guy’s piss you took to the face whilst held in captivity”.
The thing is though; war tourism is actually pretty irresponsible. However strong your appetite for the honest truth, some things just shouldn’t be attempted. Like a danger wank; it’s not just yourself you’re putting at risk here. I recently watched an episode of BBC’s Panorama, where an entire Syrian hospital got sketched out because of the foreign doctors visiting. Artillery shells had begun landing nearby soon after their arrival, and civilians were certain that it was due to the foreign presence. Accusations were made, the mood soured and the doctors fled sharpish, BBC crew in tow.
Thus, think what sort of trophy a war tourist would make. Ending a doctor is, at the very least, morally questionable. But an ignorant sightseer is almost asking for it. Take that feeling, when lost tourists stop in the most awkward of spots on the tube, gawping at the maps, and then multiply it. There are, of course, tourists who have honest and humanitarian reasons for their tour of conflict. They just want to help. And why wouldn’t they? There’s fucking death and misery everywhere. But again, as the spokeswoman for a major Syrian charity told me firmly the other day, “leave it to the professionals”.
War tourists are facing other problems now, too. In their haste for adrenaline and sensual experience they have, several times, been mistaken for foreign fighters. (And foreign fighters mistaken for tourists). This won’t be doing them any favours back home, as was discovered when Theresa May’s “open secret” became less so; dual nationals are having their citizenship stripped, if found to be ‘participating’ in the Syrian conflict.
But instead of leaving them out in the cold, there’s something else that could be done, something more preventative. While Cameron’s calling for censorship on everything from pornography to the price of milk, I’m calling for the opposite. The only viable, effective deterrent against war tourism – perhaps even war in general – is to have some guts and show some guts. Unfortunate as it is, we have to print the pictures, run the footage, and display conflict with its collateral damage in full, sickening horror. Desensitization has pushed us to this. And it’s not just me; Sophie McBain of the New Statesmen, too, sadly asks, “what can I say to make you care about Syria”?
A famous quote from the Vietnam War neatly sums up the potential of shock and disgust, at the previously unseen: “Television brought the brutality of war into the comfort of the living room. Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America - not on the battlefields of Vietnam," Marshall McLuhan, 1975.