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One death is a tragedy, 173 deaths is a statistic

In the midst of an array of Superbowl hype-fuelled stories, links to Will Ferrell’s comically lip-synced performance of Beyonce’s Drunk in Love on the Jimmy Kimmel Show, and widespread speculation on transfer rumours during the Premier League’s Transfer Deadline Day, a contrastingly shocking headline emerged from Facebook’s ‘trending’ panel: “British Royal Marine reportedly deadliest sniper in history with 173 kills.” Something was immediately arresting about the line. Perhaps it was the juxtaposition of the story against a background of filtered club selfies and comedy Vines; or perhaps it was the horrifyingly colloquial and pluralised use of the word ‘kills’ that read more like a Call of Duty scoreboard than it did a news story.

The morning before social media took to the story and made it viral, it was introduced to the country on the front page of The Sun. No doubt composed to sell papers through patriotic feeling, the paper made sure to emphasise the Britishness of the unnamed marksman, and pitched his actions against those depicted in the current Top-10 blockbuster, American Sniper.

The late Navy Seal Chris Kyle recently became famed for his heroism in the Iraq war after Bradley Cooper brought his story to the attention of the British and American public in the film, but David Willetts of The Sun was keen to assert that “the world’s deadliest sniper is,” in fact, “a British Royal Marine,” whose “173 confirmed enemy kills… beats the 160 of American Sniper marksman Chris Kyle.”

Before I continue, two distinctions must be made. I do not intend to doubt the heroism and courage of either of these soldiers. Both joined their respective armies in order to serve their country and both excelled in their military duties. Neither do I intend to bring the legitimacy of either the Afghanistan or Iraq wars into question. However, there is something highly unsettling about tallying the amount of people killed by each soldier against one another in order to determine who beat whom.

The front page of last Monday’s Sun turned war into a competition, a game where killing is the measure of deadliness and, consequently, fame. The Sun was not solely at fault; over the course of the day the rest of the country’s major newspapers followed suit, reporting the story in much the same style. The Daily MailThe Telegraph, The Mirror, and other major newspapers mimicked the original story, universally noting that the Briton’s kill tally put him ahead of the American.

This disturbing slant of reportage opened the floodgates for the proliferation of increasingly informal and inappropriate dealings with this story. In between promotion of an American advert featuring Breaking Bad’s Walter White, and a photo of a 20-year-old ironically celebrating escaping teen pregnancy, the story even got an airing on UniLad.

With the story spreading in such unfit forums it was hardly surprising that, amongst honestly respectful commendations for the Royal Marine’s military service, jokes such as: “Navy seals suck ass,” and: “They should have a 1v1,” filled comments pages, competing for likes against memes featuring Adolf Hitler: “Kills: 17 million, deaths: 1”.

According to The Sun’s own quoted source, for the Royal Marine: “Every shot was judged and balanced, not indiscriminate. He always saw the men between the cross hairs as humans, not as targets… He is not interested in scores or kill counts. He took no satisfaction in the job he had to do.”

In light of this statement, the article has done the exact opposite of what the unnamed soldier has been suggested to want. The anonymous Royal Marine, supposedly amazed at the public response, has been made to look the very thing that the source said he is not, an indiscriminate killer, and one who dehumanises enemies to mere kill numbers.

At a time when heavily Oscar-tipped films such as American Sniper come under attack for turning “the Iraq war into a saccharine, almost PG-rated, two-hour cinematic diversion about a killing machine with a heart of gold,”  at least according to Rolling Stone, it becomes clear that articles such as this one commit the same crime. If the media have the right to criticise portrayals of war in film and games, they must also consider how their own stories are presenting war.

War is not a simple comparison of kills to determine who beats whom, and it is must be presented in a mature, considered, and balanced fashion. If Clint Eastwood glorifies war in American Sniper, then the UK media have unanimously proved that he is not alone. In this country we are in the privileged position of being able to separate ourselves from war. It is ignorant to suggest that anyone is oblivious to the ongoing fighting in many areas of the world but for those of us who aren’t unlucky enough to be born into a warzone war is a faraway reality, far enough away that we can fictionalise it.

War is something we can make entertainment of, something we can boil down to the thrill of inconsequential danger and kills without realising the innate morbidity of what we are doing. And so the number of kills a soldier has recorded can become something to celebrate, a testament to a remarkable skill rather than a horrifyingly neglectful insult to everything that our society’s code of law and ethics teaches us is right.

Tags: death, ethics, glorification, ladbible, law, media, violence, war

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