War reporting and truth-seeking missiles

BY Manjula Lal| IN Media Practice | 06/01/2003

War reporting and truth-seeking missiles



The Pentagon is ready to train journalists for the front in case the US attacks Iraq. But is war reporting of that kind still relevant?



Manjula Lal


The propaganda war has begun. The first shots are being fired from Washington, whose press corps is going to be most vulnerable to American spin doctors. But even those on the subcontinent will have to duck to avoid the truth-seeking missiles as they try to wipe out reality.


Our early raid warning comes from a letter from veteran editor S Nihal Singh buried in the Letters page of The Hindu on December 27, 2002. He writes, "I regret your (Washington) correspondent has been taken in by American propaganda whose aim is to soften international opinion on the looming American invasion of Iraq." He is referring to the report on December 14 titled ‘Iraqi Declaration full of holes’ which stated that the United Nations inspectors were thrown out of Iraq in 1998. Instead, Singh points out, the then chief weapons inspector Richard Butler withdrew the inspectors on the eve of the unauthorized bombing of Iraq by US and British warplanes. A big difference, clearly.


The latest news is that the Pentagon has promised "to arrange for hundred of journalists to join the vanguard of American fighting forces should the United States attack Iraq." Media ‘boot camps’ are being organized to prepare journalists so they can report on the troops. A commanding officer says it’s an effort to remove the legacy of distrust from Vietnam.


At such a time, I recommend to all fellow-journalists a reading of  Philip Knightley’s 1975 book ‘The First Casualty’ (Pan Books), based on the famous saying by Senator Hirma Johnson in 1917: "The first casualty when war comes is truth." Subtitled ‘From the Crimea to the Falklands: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Myth Maker’, it is a richly researched, objective account, opening the windows of the mind as never before, or perhaps never after. While recommending it to a friend recently, I was surprised to hear him say, "You’re telling me? I think it’s this book which has made me the journalist I am." ‘Newsweek’ called it "fascinating, disturbing and long overdue."


(Australia-born Philip Knightley worked for ‘The Sunday Times’, London for 21 years until he left in 1985 to write books.)  The first war correspondent, apparently, was William Howard Russell, writing for the London ‘Times’. During the Crimean War 1854-6, this ‘miserable parent of a luckless tribe’ used the tactic of stopping every officer and soldier he could find and asked them to describe what was happening at the front. Sometimes he was too confused and depressed to write his account that night, and saved it for the next morning. So respected was he that on his return he had breakfast with the then prime minister Lord Palmerston, who mistakenly believed that Russell was in a position to suggest alternative ways of conducting the war.


Russell’s glorious innings led to the birth of a whole tribe: when the American Civil War broke out five years later, 500 war correspondents turned out to report the conflict on the Northern side alone. A contemporary wrote that their efforts were ‘a series of wild ravings about the roaring of the guns and the whizzing of the shells and the superhuman valour of the men, interspersed with fulsome puffs of some captain or colonel with whom they happened to pass the night.’ Reminds you of Kargil?


An underlying theme of Knightley’s book is that the reporting of action, even of atrocities - cruel acts performed by soldiers - does not really reveal much about the real nature of war, its causes, or prevent the next one. Even as late as the second world war,  correspondents could not really challenge the official version because they were totally dependent on the military to be able to see the war at all. The point seems to be that reporting from the front doesn’t achieve anything at all, and explains why, at the end of the book, Knightley proclaims the death of the war correspondent as such. During the Gulf War, when Indian reporting came from watching CNN in five-star hotels (the only places with cable television) this certainly seemed true.


Even Ernest Hemingway, in the 1936 Spanish Civil War, was too committed to be objective. He failed completed, says Knightley to report communist persecution and summary execution of ‘untrustworthy elements’ on the Republican side, when he knew this was happening and when disclosing it might well have prevented further horrors.


What of wars conducted in Asia? Did western reporters stick to their government’s line? Mostly they did, but in Korea 1950-3, after a British reporter wrote, "Terrible things are being done in Korea in your name. They are being done by Syngman Rhee’s police sheltering behind US and British United Nations troops," MacArthur imposed full military censorship to help the war continue. Nobody even came to know that the same general was ready to use the bomb against Red China. This was revealed much later, in 1960.


During the Vietnam engagement 1954-75, there was little coverage in the early decades, and only the NYT had a full-time correspondent. The US military desperately concealed the full extent of its involvement. Later, when reporting picked up, editors often chose the official version coming out of Washington over what their own man was reporting from Saigon. Many correspondents questioned only the effectiveness of the intervention, not the war itself. Knightley writes, "At each stage of this escalation, the United States tried either flatly to deny what it was doing or to minimize the effects or to conceal the results behind a torrent of questionable statistics, a bewildering range of euphemisms, and a vocabulary of specially created words that debased the English language." War crimes were not even described as such, till the My Lai massacre of civilians.


It was the advent of television that brought the true horror of Vietnam to the US public. And it is television, perhaps, that has led to the death of the war correspondent, making a war one more attractive drama in between the soap operas and the war movie. Because of the heavy equipment TV crews carry, because they must have a visual of the front for ‘authenticity’, they cannot really do either blood-and-guts reporting, nor report atrocities, nor heavy analysis. Now it is time, Knightley’s book suggests, to stop the farce of war reporting and instead concentrate on the politics, the causes. If you subscribe to this view, mediapersons headed for Iraq under Pentagon auspices will be engaged only in a farcical exercise.



Contact:Manjula Lal is a columnist for Delhi Mid Day and a freelancer.                               


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