On the fallacies, toughness, bias and challenges of war journalism

Reporting from a conflict zone is messy and complicated, rarely as smooth as journalists try to convey. Britain’s Patrick Cockburn, writer for The Independent, is one of the finest chroniclers of post 9/11 madness. His essay in Counterpunch outlines what we should know:

The four wars fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria over the past 12 years have all involved overt or covert foreign intervention in deeply divided countries. In each case the involvement of the West exacerbated existing differences and pushed hostile parties towards civil war. In each country, all or part of the opposition have been hard-core jihadi fighters. Whatever the real issues at stake, the interventions have been presented as primarily humanitarian, in support of popular forces against dictators and police states. Despite apparent military successes, in none of these cases have the local opposition and their backers succeeded in consolidating power and establishing stable states.

More than most armed struggles, the conflicts have been propaganda wars in which newspaper, television and radio journalists played a central role. In all wars there is a difference between reported news and what really happened, but during these four campaigns the outside world has been left with misconceptions even about the identity of the victors and the defeated. In 2001 reports of the Afghan war gave the impression that the Taliban had been beaten decisively even though there had been very little fighting. In 2003 there was a belief in the West that Saddam Hussein’s forces had been crushed when in fact the Iraqi army, including the units of the elite Special Republican Guard, had simply disbanded and gone home. In Libya in 2011 the rebel militiamen, so often shown on television firing truck-mounted heavy machine-guns in the general direction of the enemy, had only a limited role in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, which was mostly brought about by Nato air strikes. In Syria in 2011 and 2012 foreign leaders and journalists repeatedly and vainly predicted the imminent defeat of Bashar al-Assad.
These misperceptions explain why there have been so many surprises and unexpected reversals of fortune. The Taliban rose again in 2006 because it hadn’t been beaten as comprehensively as the rest of the world imagined. At the end of 2001 I was able to drive – nervously but safely – from Kabul to Kandahar, but when I tried to make the same journey in 2011 I could go no further south on the main road than the last police station on the outskirts of Kabul. In Tripoli two years ago hotels were filled to capacity with journalists covering Gaddafi’s fall and the triumph of the rebel militias. But state authority still hasn’t been restored. This summer Libya almost stopped exporting oil because the main ports on the Mediterranean had been seized by mutinying militiamen, and the prime minister, Ali Zeidan, threatened to bomb ”˜from the air and the sea’ the oil tankers the militiamen were using to sell oil on the black market.
Libya’s descent into anarchy was scarcely covered by the international media since they had long since moved on to Syria, and more recently Egypt. Iraq, home a few years ago to so many foreign news bureaux, has also dropped off the media map although up to a thousand Iraqis are killed each month, mostly as a result of the bombing of civilian targets. When it rained for a few days in Baghdad in January the sewer system, supposedly restored at a cost of $7 billion, couldn’t cope: some streets were knee-deep in dirty water and sewage. In Syria, many opposition fighters who had fought to defend their communities turned into licensed bandits and racketeers when they took power in rebel-held enclaves.
It wasn’t that reporters were factually incorrect in their descriptions of what they had seen. But the very term ”˜war reporter’, though not often used by journalists themselves, helps explain what went wrong. Leaving aside its macho overtones, it gives the misleading impression that war can be adequately described by focusing on military combat. But irregular or guerrilla wars are always intensely political, and none more so than the strange stop-go conflicts that followed from 9/11. This doesn’t mean that what happened on the battlefield was insignificant, but that it requires interpretation. In 2003 television showed columns of Iraqi tanks smashed and on fire after US air strikes on the main highway north of Baghdad. If it hadn’t been for the desert background, viewers could have been watching pictures of the defeated German army in Normandy in 1944. But I climbed into some of the tanks and could see that they had been abandoned long before they were hit. This mattered because it showed that the Iraqi army wasn’t prepared to fight and die for Saddam. It was a pointer too to the likely future of the allied occupation. Iraqi soldiers, who didn’t see themselves as having been defeated, expected to keep their jobs in post-Saddam Iraq, and were enraged when the Americans dissolved their army. Well-trained officers flooded into the resistance, with devastating consequences for the occupying forces: a year later the Americans controlled only islands of territory in Iraq.
War reporting is easier than other types of journalism in one respect because the melodrama of events drives the story and attracts an audience. It may be risky at times, but the correspondent talking to camera, with exploding shells and blazing military vehicles behind him, knows his report will feature high up in any newscast. ”˜If it bleeds it leads,’ is an old American media adage. The drama of battle inevitably dominates the news, but oversimplifies it by disclosing only part of what is happening. These oversimplifications were more than usually gross and deceptive in Afghanistan and Iraq, when they dovetailed with political propaganda that demonised the Taliban and later Saddam as evil incarnate, casting the conflict – particularly easy in the US in the hysterical atmosphere after 9/11 – as a black and white struggle between good and evil. The crippling inadequacies of the opposition were ignored.
By 2011 the complexity of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan was evident to journalists in Baghdad and Kabul if not necessarily to editors in London and New York. But by then the reporting of the wars in Libya and Syria was demonstrating a different though equally potent form of naivety. A version of the spirit of 1968 prevailed: antagonisms that predated the Arab Spring were suddenly said to be obsolete; a brave new world was being created at hectic speed. Commentators optimistically suggested that, in the age of satellite television and the internet, traditional forms of repression – censorship, imprisonment, torture, execution – could no longer secure a police state in power; they might even be counter-productive. State control of information and communication had been subverted by blogs, satellite phones and even the mobile phone; YouTube provided the means to expose in the most graphic and immediate way the crimes and violence of security forces.