The impact of accurate war reporting on the prevalence of war has been overstated by some. It is more important to address how we have been conditioned to perceive all information – including information about war – through cultural filters which promote a violent response to problems; and how we tend to adopt a current-timeframe specific understanding of the experience of war rather than the eternal and universal experience of war.
After hearing Philip Gibbs recount his experiences of the Western Front in WW1, Prime Minister David Lloyd George said, “If people really knew [the reality], the war would be stopped tomorrow, but of course they don’t know and can’t know. The correspondents don’t write and the censorship wouldn’t pass the truth. What they do send is not the war, but just a pretty picture of the war with everybody doing gallant deeds.” But was Lloyd George’s hypothesis correct?
The effect of accurate reporting on the political decision-making process leading up to the launch of a new war is highly debatable. Leonard Downie Jr., Executive Editor of the Washington Post when the 2003- Iraq War began: “People who were opposed to the [2003- Iraq] war from the beginning and have been critical of the media’s coverage in the period before the war have this belief that somehow the media should have crusaded against the war. They have the mistaken impression that somehow if the media’s coverage had been different, there wouldn’t have been a war.“
Accurate reporting of war does not guarantee any sort of public outcry – “information by itself has neither meaning nor consequences – both are created only through the active reception and through the scope of action of the audience.” Some people might respond emotionally to the information, but “compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers.” And when action does occur, it is not necessarily action which supports the ending of war.
For accurate reporting of war to lead to less war a number of factors would need to be present:
- accurate reporting (‘accurate’ needs defining) from current war-zones would need to be generated
- the reports would need to be transmitted to a ‘large enough’ audience
- the form and framing of the reporting and information would need to be conducive to the audience taking useful action
- the audience would need to actively receive the information with an open mind
- the audience would need to have scope for action which reduces, even by a small theoretical amount, the continuation of the war and/or the likelihood of future wars
Some thoughts on these factors follow with the conclusion that items 1 to 3 are not the prime concern of the average person, whereas items 4 and 5 are. The suggestion is that an educational response is perhaps the most effective response, while being the most often overlooked.
- Generating accurate reports from war-zones
The commercialisation of the media, particularly since the 1980s, has changed the balance of power strongly in favour of governments and their agencies, especially when it comes to war reporting which is expensive and requires access to be granted by the government to reporting locations. Carne Ross, Foreign Office diplomat at the time of the 2003- Iraq War: “We would control access to the foreign secretary as a form of reward to journalists. If they were critical, we would not give them the goodies of trips around the world. We would feed them factoids of sanitised intelligence, or we’d freeze them out.”
Embedding journalists in military units began for mostly positive reasons. The 1991 coalition war against Iraq had very little media coverage, so embedding journalists was a way to secure footage while affording journalists protection. But as research shows, where journalists become “embedded” and are allowed privileged access to the frontline they tend to reciprocate by adopting the government’s line. It prevents reporting on the war from all angles, and the biases of the limited sources are inherited by the reporters. The physical protection afforded to the journalist creates a social transaction in which the reciprocation is a favourable write-up [ref].
Non-compliant journalists are not just frozen out. Rageh Omaar: “I happen to be the only journalist in the world that has seen the bombing of Al Jazeera Arabic’s bureaus in both Kabul in 2001 and in Baghdad in 2003. The case of the bombing of the Al Jazeera office in Kabul was without doubt and categorically a direct targeting of those journalists to shut them up and possibly kill them…that was a clear targeting of a journalistic organisation and personnel to get them off the air”. The US Government admitted the Kabul attack was deliberate. It has denied deliberately targeting Al Jazeera’s office in Baghdad in 2003 but there is evidence that George Bush and Tony Blair discussed a plan to bomb Al-Jazeera prior to the 2003 attack. Aidan White of the International Federation of Journalists: “The evidence is stacking up to suggest that the US decided to take out Al-Jazeera in Baghdad, as a warning not only to them but to other media about their coverage. If true, it is an absolute scandal that the US administration can regard the staff of Al-Jazeera as a bunch of terrorists and a legitimate target“. Whilst the coalition governments silence non-conforming journalists, the U.S. State Department claims “On Iraq, they [Al Jazeera] have established a pattern of false reporting.“
The extreme violence and the destruction of social networks and public and media services within Iraq kept many civilian stories hidden from the world. We saw the images the coalition government wanted us to see – the fireworks, the shock and awe, the arrests of enemy combatants, the toppling of statues, the corpse of Saddam Hussain. To see more of the picture we have to seek out material captured by the likes of documentary maker Mark Manning, the work of photojournalists like Anja Niedringhaus, the stories of families trying to find the bodies of their dead relatives, and the writings from Operation Homecoming:
March 29. The old Navy jargon “belay my last,” meaning disregard my last statement, applies to my commentary from yesterday. We got creamed with fresh casualties last night, thirty new patients, both sides, all needing immediate and significant intervention. The injuries are horrifying. Ruptured eyeballs. Children missing limbs. Large burns. Genitals and buttocks blown off. Grotesque fractures. Gunshot wounds to the head. Faces blown apart. Paraplegics from spine injuries. The number of X-ray studies performed last night in a short period of time is so great that it causes the entire system to crash under the burden of electronic data it is being fed.
Image from leaked MoD document: Stability Operations in Iraq, (OP TELIC 2-5), An Analysis from a Land Perspecitve
To the traditional crafts of reporting and documentary making we can add the leaking of information by whistle-blowers. The leaked war logs of the coalition troops provide brutal written vignettes – which the public were never supposed to see – of the reality of the war. They also document 66,081 civilian deaths between 2004 and 2009 (as a result of inaccurate reporting in the media and the refusal of governments to acknowledge specific death toll data, 59% of people in the UK think that less than 10,000 Iraqis were killed in the 2003- war) .
Perhaps surprisingly, the war logs are rarely about coalition troops killing insurgents. More often it is children and babies killed in collisions with coalition vehicles, described in economic sentences punctuated with military acronyms:
“253RD TRANS CONVOY STRUCK AN IZ (Iraqi) CHILD ON Route GINGER (MC4128550637). THE CHILD HAD NO PULSE. AWAITING DISPOSITION OF REMAINS.” [ref]
“AT 1600C, A MSG (Equipment: 8) WAS DRIVING THE LEAD NTV IN A TWO-VEHICLE CONVOY RETURNING FROM A SCHOOL OPENING. HE WAS TRAVELING ON THE MAIN HIGHWAY SOUTH OF SHAQLAWA WITH THREE OTHER PERSONNEL. THE MSG ATTEMPTED TO PASS A VEHICLE ON THE LEFT SIDE. HE MISJUDGED A VEHICLE APPROACHING FROM THE OPPOSITE DIRECTION. HE SWERVED LEFT TO AVOID THE VEHICLE BUT HIT THE FRONT LEFT BUMPER AREA OF THE ONCOMING CIVILIAN VEHICLE HEAD ON. THE IMPACT TOTALED THE CIVILIAN VEHICLE AND SUBSTANTIALLY DAMAGED 426CAS NTV. 5X ADULTS AND 1X 6 MONTH OLD CHILD WERE IN THE CIVILIAN VEHICLE. THEY WERE ALL EXTRACTED FROM THE VEHICLE AND TRANSPORTED IN CIVILIAN VEHICLES TO IRBIL EMERGENCY HOSPITAL WITH SERIOUS INJURIES. THE 4X INDIVIDUALS IN THE 426CA NTV WERE ALSO EVACUATED TO THE HOSPITAL. AT 1819, THE UNIT LEARNED THROUGH A SECONDARY SOURCE THAT THE CHILD DIED FROM INJURIES. THE REMAINING ADULTS WERE TREATED FOR INJURIES AND WERE KEPT OVER NIGHT AT THE HOSPITAL.” [ref]
Or it is innocent Iraqi citizens killed or injured by return fire…
“AT 2108C, A/1-32 WAS CONDUCTING A DISMOUNTED PATROL ALONG ASR JACKSON (vicinity 38S MB 4128 4459) WHEN THEY OBSERVED A TEENAGE MALE WITH AN Assault rifle. THE PATROL DECLARED THAT THEY WERE A Coalition Forces PATROL IN ENGLISH AND AGAIN IN ARABIC. THE YOUNG MAN THEN OPENED FIRE ON THE PATROL. THE PATROL RETURNED FIRE WOUNDING THE YOUNG MAN. AFTER THE CONTACT, THE PATROL DISCOVERED THEY HAD ALSO WOUNDED A PREGNANT FEMALE AND HAD KILLED A SMALL CHILD. THE PATROL TREATED THE WOUNDED AND GROUND Evacuation’D THEM TO Forward Operating Base CHOSIN. THE TWO WOUNDED WERE SUBSEQUENTLY Evacuation’D TO THE 31ST Combat Support Hospital AT 2225. AWATING THE Serious Incident Report FROM 3BCT. 1XAK47 WAS CONFISCATED FROM IZ MALE. NO FRIENDLY CASUALTIES OR DAMAGE TO EQUIPMENT RESULTED” [ref]
It is children maimed and killed when picking up unexploded Coalition munitions (a common occurrence)…
“An IZ [Iraqi] child picked up a unexploded ordnance [or unfired] and lost his left hand, also suffering facial and abdominal injuries. Coalition Forces Call Sign and ambulance were requested. Iraqi Police took the child to hospital, whilst waiting arrival of Coalition Forces. 9/12 L Call Sign and ATO tasked to check area. ATO arrived on scene at 1026hrs and gave all clear. Call Sign went to check on child and found that it had died from the injury.” [ref]
But while the soldier’s war logs are an enlightening part of the picture of war, they do not represent a revolution in accurate reporting. Although a different perspective, they are actually more of the same. Like mainstream media reports they focus on the physical effects of war in the now. While the day-to-day horrors seem temporarily profound, there is no wider context, no information on the aftermath – the psychological damage. What happened to those civilians and soldiers next? What led them to be in that situation? The information does not spur critical thinking by the public in the Coalition countries who started the war. The warn-out horror button hit so many times it barely creates a spark.
The definition of accuracy in war reporting must be fundamentally expanded to include: reporting of non-physical (often non-visual) effects; reporting over a much wider timeframe to explore the causes and outcomes of war, including that people and communities can heal; the reporting of myriad non-violent (often non-visual) efforts by individuals and organisations to resolve the conflict before and during the war; the reporting of similarities in the conflicting parties positions and histories of previous reconciliations; the reporting of official government lines only as one part of a much wider, often-conflicting dialogue of voices; and the detailed reporting of all sides perspectives and experiences (many peace journalism resources can be found here). Giving air-time priority to violence seems likely to encourage violence. It makes non-violent people feel as if they cannot contribute to resolutions.
- Transmitting accurate information and reporting to a large enough audience
Getting accurate (see definition above) information to a large enough audience about current war is a technical, financial and political matter of exploiting media and social media channels, marketing techniques, and consumer psychology phenomena. In reality, accurate reporting and truth mostly comes to the wider audience a significant time after the conflict has ended. The audience constantly forgets that the truth is has learnt about war in previous timeframes applies in more or less equal measure to the current war which is being presented to it through a filter of government influence on a media which can no longer deliver its purpose due to the crippling effect of commercialisation and subversion by corporate power. The holocaust was in the past. It happened. It cannot happen again and it is not happening now.
- The form and framing of the reporting and information needs to be conducive to the audience taking useful action.
Does tweeting images of children murdered in war bring the end of the conflict nearer? Does it lessen the likelihood of future war? It will shock people for a while – make them angry, feel disgust – it can also make them turn away. It can emphasise that those things do not, could not, happen here. There is a feeling of disbelief. A sense of hopelessness – what can I do about that?
Shock is the mainstream media’s strategy – if it bleeds it leads – fed by government agencies and their movie titled conflicts – operation desert storm; shock and awe. “The appetite for pictures showing a body in pain is as keen, almost, as the desire for ones that show bodies naked”. We are fucking desensitised.
A still from The Road to Fallujah, 2009
The video of the child scared out of her wits trying to hold back tears, terrified for her family and searching for someone to comfort them is perhaps more powerful. It is closer to home. The horror of war on the ground, the enduring nightmares, the post-traumatic stress. No way out. But then again, perhaps still a sense of hopelessness – what can I do about that? I’m not there.
- The audience actively receiving the information with an open mind
Our cultural belief systems influence how we interpret the information we receive and therefore shape our emotional responses. We are taught on one level that violence is wrong, but at the same time we carry it out on a daily basis and we are able to justify this in our minds. Governments and those with financial interests in war are very adept at helping us to do this through their influence on culture. Toy manufacturers, filmmakers and advertisers are proficient at reinforcing and amplifying these values.
We’re conditioned to see international problems as military problems and to discount the likelihood of finding a solution other than a military one. Peace is only attainable through military power. Backing down is shameful. A strong politician is one who takes us to war. Human beings are by nature violent, aggressive and competitive. Strength is yelling and being right. We are conditioned to compete – beating others is the goal, not self-development. We fear losing control and not maintaining dominance. We fear. We have a special right to exert power in the world. Beacons of liberty must keep a finger on the trigger. There are enemies everywhere and we must subjugate them – this means prioritising spend on weapons even though our people are hungry and illiterate (but offer them the military as a way out of their condition). The battlefield is where heroes are made. Objection is treason. Democracy and law are negotiable. Declare war on social problems.
A strategy based solely on making war reporting more accurate will not be successful at reducing war. Whatever the information generated, it will be received by a critical majority of the audience through the dominant cultural filters. With a certain mind-set any horror can be justified.
- The audience needs to have some scope for action which reduces, even by a small theoretical amount, the continuation of the war and/or the likelihood of future war.
An educational response which counters the militaristic (and paternalistic) cultural values which enable and encourage a military response to problems is perhaps the most accessible and effective response for the majority of people to the question what can I do about it?
Trying to make war reporting more accurate by becoming a war reporter, going into the field, then trying to navigate constricted and restricted mass media platforms to get your reports to the public in real or near real time in a form you control requires a particular set of skills, resources and luck. However, working through a media studies syllabus with your children and exploring how the media works, its limitations, biases, its prioritisation of visual news, asking who owns the news, why some news is unreported, the principle of newsworthiness and so on, is a response accessible to most parents.
Inaccurate war reporting in the present timeframe is not a barrier to fostering a deeper understanding of war in general. Technologies and tactics may change over time, but the underlying ritual of war and its effect on people and the environment is universal through time and space: death, pain, injury, hunger, fear, loss of family, loss of home, resentment, humiliation, a desire to avenge. This has already been documented. It has happened therefore it can happen again. It is happening now.
There are many resources and lesson plans available (such as book 2 of Learning to Abolish War on the Global Campaign for Peace Education site) to challenge the military and paternalistic mind-set ingrained in our current culture and instead foster a peace mind-set. They focus on the origins of violence and its effects on victim and perpetrator; they sharpen the awareness of un-peaceful personal and national relationships; they consider human versus national measures of security; they build empathy and understanding with other people and their cultures, and create a sense of place within the environment; they equip people with conflict resolution skills and create awareness of restorative practice; they build good citizenship skills; and they build a commitment to social justice and non-violence, while exploring practical ways in which change can be achieved in peaceful ways.
Gender studies are also a part of this, as is the development of critical media evaluation skills (see media studies syllabus above) which question why there is inaccurate reporting of peace and nonviolent actions for change, as well as inaccurate reporting of war.
The End: thou vs it
From Bill Moyers interviews with Joseph Campbell :
BILL MOYERS: What happened a hundred years ago when the white man came and slaughtered the animal of reverence [the buffalo]?
JOSPEH CAMPBELL: That was a sacramental violation. You can see in many of the early nineteenth-century paintings by George Catlin of the Great Western Plains in his day literally hundreds of thousands of buffalo all over the place. And then, through the next half century, the frontiersmen, equipped with repeating rifles, shot down whole herds, taking only the skins to sell and leaving the bodies there to rot. This was a sacrilege.
MOYERS: It turned the buffalo from a “thou” –
CAMPBELL: – to an “it.”
MOYERS: The Indians addressed the buffalo as “thou”, an object of reverence.
CAMPBELL: The Indians addressed all of life as “thou” – the trees, the stones, everything. You can address anything as “thou”, and if you do it you can feel the change in your own psychology. The ego that sees a “thou” is not the same ego that sees an “it.” And when you go to war with people, the problem of the newspapers is to turn those people into “its”.
 C. P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, recorded in his diary comments made by David Lloyd George at a private meeting on 27th December, 1917. “I listened last night, at a dinner given to Philip Gibbs on his return from the front, to the most impressive and moving description from him of what the war (on the Western Front) really means, that I have heard. Even an audience of hardened politicians and journalists were strongly affected. If people really knew, the war would be stopped tomorrow. But of course they don’t know, and can’t know. The correspondents don’t write and the censorship wouldn’t pass the truth. What they do send is not the war, but just a pretty picture of the war with everybody doing gallant deeds. The thing is horrible and beyond human nature to bear and I feel I can’t go on with this bloody business.” http://spartacus-educational.com/PRgeorge.htm
 The fact the Iraq 2003- war was illegal did not prevent the war. The West was not being attacked (the US 9/11 Commission stated there was no credible evidence that Iraq and Al Qaeda cooperated in the World Trade Centre attacks) nor was it imminently about to be attacked (unless you believe Alastair Campbell’s “45 minutes” spin); there was no justification for “humanitarian intervention” – many of the pre-war humanitarian issues were caused by the UNSC’s sanctions on Iraq; the UN Security Council did not approve an invasion; and there was an alternative because Saddam Hussain offered Bush and Blair everything they wanted to avoid an invasion. [NB this post was written before the Chilcott report came out]
 59% of people in the UK think that less than 10,000 Iraqis were killed in the US/UK Coalition led 2003 Iraq War, whereas actual estimates for the number of deaths range from 100,000 to over 1,000,000. The leaked coalition troop war logs alone document 66,081 civilian deaths between 2004 and 2009. Coalition leaders refuse to acknowledge any specific figure. General Tommy Franks: “we don’t do body counts”. The UK Ministry of Defence claim not to hold or recognise any figures for civilian deaths, but this is not true. In response to a FOI request they said they investigate and report internally where any UK troop action is suspected to have caused civilian casualties. A leaked MOD report charts a number of civilian deaths and references the Oxford Research Group’s “Iraq body Count dossier of civilian casualties 2003 – 2005” project which in the timeframe of the MOD report identifies 24,865 civilians killed. 1,332 of these were children who were most frequently affected by explosive devices, in particular air strikes and unexploded ordnance. Most adults killed left behind orphans and widows. 42,500 civilians were injured. The latest civilian death toll in Iraq is in the range of 162,754 – 181,851 (as at March 2016: https://www.iraqbodycount.org/). Upwards of 400,000 children have been orphaned by the fighting, not to mention the horror of cancers and birth defects caused by contamination from depleted uranium munitions and other military-related pollution.
 From leaked MOD report (page 72) “the failure to clear the large numbers of munitions has allowed an arsenal to become available to insurgents, and the civilian population has suffered casualties both from battlefield UXOs (unexploded ordnance) and from IEDs (improvised explosive device) made from munitions taken from unguarded sites.”
 The Power of Myth, 1988