War Reporting and the Stories That Can’t Be Told

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March 02, 2017 08:50 EDT

War reporting is part of something that can act as an antidote to war—good diplomacy, armed with good facts.

Wars have been reported since antiquity. However, they have been reported by participants who, like Thucydides and Xenophon in the Peloponnesian War in the 400s BC, added strategic commentary and philosophic reflection. The Melian Dialogue in the work of Thucydides, about a small state wishing to surrender to the Athenians—who still wish nevertheless to crush it simply because that is the vocation of stronger states—remains the starting point for today’s academic study of international relations.

Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars was, until the end of the 20th century, the Latin text every schoolchild studying classics had to translate. The amazing thing is that, despite his sense of achievement and lack of modesty, Caesar’s account was quite dispassionate in attributing success to his own military genius. There was no arrant boasting. We accepted he was a force of nature—and his reputation, based on real accomplishment and spinning the story of it all— made him a hero of Rome and its ill-fated consul.

These book-length accounts were matched in the Napoleonic era by Clausewitz’s On War, almost a blow-by-blow narrative of battles the Prussian army lost and, then, why they were lost. Clausewitz’s strategic diagnosis still makes his book required reading on every syllabus of every military academy on earth. Guderian’s Panzer divisions at the start of World War II were deployed along Clausewitzian lines, as was the Israeli armor in the crushing victory against Egypt in 1967. Even an Eritrean guerrilla general told me he had read Clausewitz for instruction and inspiration during the 1980s, as the liberation war ended with victories over Soviet-officered armies in the Horn of Africa.

By then, war reporting of the modern sort had begun. Short, sharp, immediate—and by writers who were not themselves soldiers and who did not themselves fight. They didn’t report the Eritrean war of liberation—and they did report many wars incorrectly. The distant “glamor” of the profession is offset by the personal tales of grime and hardship on the part of the reporters, and by the private confessions of “we hadn’t a clue what was going on.” The fog of war is often artificially clarified by the need for a story that makes sense, even if the reporter saw no sense at all.

One late night in Beijing, at the height of the Darfur conflict when China was heavily criticised for seeming to take the side of the Sudanese regime, I found myself drinking in a deserted bar with two veteran war correspondents. The bar, newly built to luxury specifications for the Olympic Games shortly to be held, was a strange mirror and chrome offset to their stories of the first Iraq War where, refusing the offer to be embedded with coalition forces, they had roamed at great risk over the battlefields and saw many terrible things.

But, their stories aside, and their need to get drunk before they could tell them, the contemporary practice of embedding also means not only a degree of protection by friendly forces, but a concerted effort by the host forces and their officers to condition the news sent home. Whether it is a profession of glamor or of horror, it is also a profession on the cusp of propaganda. A new book seeks to disentangle the hows and whys of it all.

Good God, You’re Still Alive!

Paul Moorcraft is a veteran war correspondent who has no capacity to understand health and safety. As often a freelancer as a journalist with Time and the BBC, he has enjoyed much freedom from institutional restraints—so much so that his reputation as a swashbuckler is well-known. But he also has a PhD, is a visiting professor at Cardiff University in Wales, has worked for the UK Ministry of Defence and instructed at Sandhurst. As far as war correspondents go, he is unusually qualified to look behind the scenes and discern, often disquietingly, how we are getting it wrong or, at best, only partially right.

His new book, Dying for the Truth: The Concise History of Frontline War Reporting, is not only a history of the profession, but a critique, and a chapter in a long autobiography. Although still a pundit on wars for international television channels, his reportage these days is for his own books, of which there are a great number, covering for instance wars in Rhodesia, Sri Lanka and Sudan; he has also operated in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Nepal and Syria. The established joke upon meeting him is to mock exclaim, Good God, you’re still alive!

But gathering frontline material for books means narratives about history, philosophy and religion as well as strategy, battles and carnage. The speed of his writing means he doesn’t always get things right himself, and certainly not complete. Yet his book on jihad, for instance, was more nuanced— if breathlessly so—than most disquisitions on the subject for a non-academic readership. He is best when writing about his own adventures and the reflections that arise from them, reflections established in some appreciation of history, philosophy and religion, and these are well represented in Dying for the Truth.

In Moorcraft’s account the first newspaper war correspondent was Henry Crabb Robinson, during the Napoleonic wars—only he seemed to have had a phobia of visiting the front. The first frontline correspondent was Charles Lewis Gruneisen, a music critic. But the first to capture the public imagination was William Howard Russell, a doctor who couldn’t stand dead bodies. Despite this handicap, his reports from the Crimean War spoke not only of British triumphs but British ineptitude especially in the care of British troops.

Russell probably caused the British government to fall from office as a result. His newspaper, The Times, responding to his despatches, set up frontline hospitals and these established the legend of Florence Nightingale. As a man of courage, intrepid truth-telling, and of practical effect, he was the great startling innovation of war. His one paragraph on the charge of the Light Brigade into Russian guns was more harrowing than Tennyson’s much longer poem.

Heroes of Our Time

The idea of the war correspondent as heroic has lingered ever since. In the 20th century it acquired also the gloss of a person horrified by war and its injustice—not only on the battlefields, but in the reasons for going to war in the first instance. Crusading left-wing journalists like John Pilger and his reports about Vietnam are the archetype of this figure. But figures not of the left, but regarded as heroic in any case, and probably directly responsible for final pushes to government policy, include Max Hastings, whose reports on the humiliation of British troops in the Falklands probably was the public spur to Margaret Thatcher’s movement towards war with Argentina.

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About 1,000 war correspondents covered Vietnam, and they were largely uncontrollable from the point of view of the United States. The Falklands, a more concentrated and briefer war, allowed an effective embedding of reporters within units, and allowed also a concentrated “on message” casting of the war as one of British valor and just cause. This was a lesson learnt by the US for all its future wars. The need to cast the war in one’s own image became a priority in strategic planning.

Even so, this cannot be universally effective. Even at the time of the Falklands, when I was living in Zambia, the front pages were full of Argentinian victories—as indeed there would have genuinely been, had their French-made Exocet missiles exploded every time they hit a British ship. Even Thatcher could not have survived many a sinking like that of the Sheffield.

My two friends in Beijing aside—the minority who resist embedding—war reportage has become a contest of presentations and the securement of belief and support. There are hugely courageous exceptions to this, not least by female war correspondents and Moorcraft gives people like CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Channel 4 News’ Lindsey Hilsum and The Sunday Times’ Marie Colvin their just due.

By and large, however, war preparation includes dedicated attention to media strategy and conditioning. The redeeming aspect is that, in a coalition, as in the First Iraq War, every army had a media strategy for back home. I watched it from Geneva, subjected to tales of French as well as British and US triumphs—each account differently pitched; as was the Qatari account of its troops being the first unit to cross over, on land, into Kuwait.

Social Media Wars

To this, in the 21st century, has been added citizen reporting, often pleading for help—and of course propagandistic reporting by belligerents—on social media. As formal media declines to depict bloodshed beyond a certain point, war reporting has acquired a sanitized quality, but social media will graphically broadcast the beheadings by the Islamic State (IS). The condensation of image and message has acquired a quality of its own, as has condensation of reasoning in response to the abbreviated but terrible image of atrocity.

It is in those wars where social media, and indeed other journalists of any sort, are not a frequent species, where Paul Moorcraft has made a latter-day reputation—and as he covers the misunderstood and neglected wars of the world, his capacity for discerning judgement has grown. It is probably true to say that in his early days, covering Rhodesia as the white army made its great last stand, he was a gung-ho personality of not fully progressive views.

Covering Darfur, the quality of his commentary and reflection is a benchmark. Not everyone will agree with his views, and specialist scholars will dispute them. But few, writing as journalists, will be able to refute them. His balanced views on Darfur reflect Moorcraft at his best and most controversial.

He also briefly but pungently reflects on WikiLeaks as a demolition ball to the state-management of reportage on war (despite briefly making it clear he can’t stand Julian Assange).

But the book’s most plangent quality comes when he talks about war correspondents who were killed—as brutal broadcast examples of warning, as in the execution of Daniel Pearl—and his reflection that war reportage now takes the place of religion in its depiction and meditation upon life and death and reasons for dying. Whether stage-managed, sanitized or not, fundamental human issues of mortality are its stuff of trade. If war correspondents have become the theologians of our day, while also being manipulated by state machines, while still trying to stand independently from them, while still—chillingly and inescapably—giving publicity and oxygen to the perpetrators of massacre simply by covering those massacres, are there any longer journalists as heroes like William Howard Russell?

They remain a form of witness, certainly. And, by and large, they no longer portray themselves like the BBC’s John Simpson in seeming to single-handedly liberate Kabul. But they are now one part of something that can act as an antidote to war, and that is good diplomacy, armed with good facts, furnished by good journalists working with other reflective practitioners and thinkers on international relations.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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