Vancouver photographer Farah Nosh had a front-row seat to history—and it wasn’t a pretty sight. As a freelancer working for major western media outlets in Baghdad from 2002 to 2003—and then going in and out of Iraq until 2010—she saw the horrors of war up close.
In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight, Nosh said that some of the worst times followed the al-Askari mosque bombing in February 2006. Around that time, western journalists would stay hunkered in their bureaus, but Nosh, the Canadian-born daughter of Iraqi immigrants, still went out in Baghdad from time to time.
“I would all of the sudden see a dead body on the street,” she recalled. “The security situation was so bad—why was the kebab guy killed? Who knows? Body parts were being delivered on platters to different neighbourhoods.”
According to her, the prevailing sentiment among Iraqis was that other countries welcomed their civil war and their suffering. They felt that their crisis benefited everybody else. Persian Gulf states and Russia faced less competition selling oil on world markets. Israel could see how sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shia undermined Arab unity. And American contractors got rich thanks to U.S. military spending.
In the face of this Nosh said she felt a responsibility to share the civilians’ experiences with those in other countries who’d never had the misfortune of living through war. But she admitted it was hard to remain objective, given that she had family members living in Baghdad.
“You can’t undo the experience of witnessing,” Nosh said. “It really sticks with you.”
Nosh's images will be shown in Vancouver
Nosh will have another chance to spread understanding of what war is like for civilians next Thursday (September 15) as part of a multimedia project called War Stories. Presented by UBC’s Peter Wall Institute of Advanced Studies, it will showcase the work of Nosh and U.S. author-photographer Ann Jones, whose most recent book was They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars—The Untold Story.
There will also be a play, Contact! Unload, directed by Wall scholar and UBC education professor George Belliveau and moderated by another Wall scholar, UBC journalism professor Peter Klein. It will feature an interactive presentation by Canadian veterans showing what it’s like for soldiers coming home after serving in combat overseas.
Wall scholar and UBC geographer Derek Gregory will offer historical context by discussing dramatic changes over the past century in the evacuation of casualties from battlefields.
“I want to guard against this lazy politics in which the left cares about their civilians and the right cares about our soldiers,” Gregory told the Straight by phone. “It seems to me that that’s the wrong way of thinking about this. Obviously, I care passionately about civilian deaths and injuries, but it’s also the case that soldiers—these young men and women—are not just vectors of violence. They are also the victims of it.”
To reinforce the impact of war, the event will also feature Vancouver artist Foster Eastman’s Lest We Forget Canada! mural commemorating the 162 Canadian lives lost in Afghanistan. But Gregory said it’s also vitally important to remember the survivors of war, both civilian and military.
Spectacular advances in military medicine save lives
Traditionally, Canadians have mourned those who died in wars through poems like “In Flanders Fields” and Remembrance Day ceremonies. Gregory pointed out that due to great advances in military medicine in recent wars, more soldiers and civilians are surviving wounds that would have killed them in the past.
Part of the reason is superior battlefield evacuation procedures, which result in the wounded often receiving care within five minutes of suffering injuries. He also said that better trained doctors, including many with experience dealing with gunshot wounds in big-city U.S. emergency rooms, have improved treatment in combat zones.
“So while it’s true that the number of deaths may have gone down—though even that is a lot more complicated these last few years—the fact is that the number of wounded has shot up,” he said. “Many, many more of them are civilians.”
For example, Gregory said, it could take weeks during the First World War to get a wounded soldier to a casualty-clearing hospital. That’s because troop and munitions trains going toward the front took precedence over sending ambulance trains in the opposite direction.
He explained that helicopters were used extensively in the Korean and Vietnam wars to move casualties, which was a significant improvement. More recently, the British put surgical teams on helicopters in Afghanistan, offering more immediate medical care to those in distress.
According to Gregory, if a wounded soldier receives treatment within an hour of being wounded in Afghanistan, "their chances of survival is something like 95 percent."
While Gregory acknowledged there has been greater public acknowledgement of former soldiers suffering from mental issues—such as posttraumatic stress disorder—people often ignore the number coming home with physical injuries. He also pointed out that many more civilians are being injured in modern wars compared to a century ago, when the vast majority of casualties were soldiers.
“My major concern is that the larger public doesn’t lose sight of the wounded,” Gregory emphasized. “The great military historian John Keegan says somewhere in a book called The Face of Battle that as soon as a soldier is wounded, he disappears from view. And I think that’s exactly right.
“The focus on the wounded is, I think, novel and important,” he added. “That’s what War Stories is trying to get at.”
War Stories takes place at 7 p.m. next Thursday (September 15) at the Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre (162 West 1st Avenue). For more information, visit the Peter Wall Institute of Advanced Studies website.