Phillip Knightley, The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Kosovo. Rev. edn (London, Prion, 2000). First published in Quadrant (Australia), 44 (October 2000).
During the Gulf War of 1991, American commander General Norman Schwarzkopf claimed, with characteristic brio, that the Patriot missile attacks on Iraq’s Scud missiles had achieved the astonishing success rate of one hundred percent. Two years later, in 1993, the US Armed Services Committee found that this was something of an overestimate. Not every Patriot missile had found its target. Very few, in fact. Well, to be scrupulously accurate, none at all. No evidence could be found to show that a single Patriot missile had managed to bring down a Scud.
All over the world, television coverage of the Gulf War regularly broadcast pictures of flashing lights which, we were told, was yet another success for the sturdy Patriot. These pictures were false, though this was by no means obvious at the time. Someone was lying, or mistaken, and continued to be mistaken throughout the war.
The Patriot myth is one of a number of propaganda stories which were quietly exposed after the war had ended. Other falsehoods include the allegation that Iraqi soldiers stole incubators from a Kuwaiti hospital, leaving premature babies to die; the idea of a clean war fought with ‘smart bombs’; and even the famous photograph of a dying cormorant covered in oil. The degree of falsehood varied. The incubator story was entirely untrue. It was supported by the testimony of a young woman said to be a nurse who had witnessed the event. She was later revealed to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US who produced a fine piece of acting for a congressional committee. Her appearance before the committee was organised by an American PR firm, consultants to the Kuwait government.
As for the smart bombs, it is certainly true that these were used in the Gulf War, but their success rate was much lower than was claimed at the time. Overall, precision bombs constituted only 7 per cent of the attack on Iraq. ‘The rest were modern area impact munitions, like the cluster bomb, designed to devastate a wide area rather than confine their destruction to a precise target. Even these bombs missed most of the time. The Washington Post, quoting a senior Pentagon source, said that of the 88,500 tons of bombs dropped on Iraq, no fewer than 70 per cent missed their target.’ The Tomahawk missile hit just over half of its targets. One American Defense Department official commented dryly that ‘shamelessly doctored statistics’ and video clips of a few dazzling successes – not to mention fake footage, such as the Patriot missile pictures – were fed by the military to the media, who then broadcast them without question or criticism, often without making the source known to the viewers. The aim, he noted, was ‘to influence post-war [US] budget decisions.’ Huge sums of money were at stake, and war correspondents ‘unwittingly acted as unpaid publicists to help weapons manufacturers get government contracts’.
What about the cormorant, whose pathetic figure appeared on television and in the press all over the world? It was real, and really dying, but the story associated with it was somewhat misleading. The official version is that Iraq released a huge oil slick from Kuwait; the cormorant was another innocent victim of Saddam Hussein, now deemed an environmental terrorist. It is true, says Knightley, that Iraq had pumped some oil into the Gulf near south-east Kuwait to prevent amphibious landings. The cormorant in the picture, however, was from a place some fifty miles away, on the Saudi coast. This oil spill had been caused by the Americans when they bombed an Iraqi tanker. There was not much political value in pity for a bird our side had killed, so it was attributed to the other side, who were, after all, responsible for an oil spill somewhere else. It was hoped that the story would appeal to ecologically-minded people who until then were among the vocal opponents of the war.
These and numerous other pieces of war propaganda from the past 150 years are discussed in the new edition of The First Casualty, Phillip Knightley’s ground-breaking study of war journalism. First published in 1975, the book is a critical history of war reporting since the middle of the nineteenth century. The new edition adds chapters on the Falklands, Gulf War and Kosovo; these alone are worth the price of the book. Knightley has all the virtues of a good journalist. His writing is clear and persuasive, he provides evidence for his arguments, he can tell a good story, and he is not afraid to express an opinion. Indeed, the book is often polemical, but even those who disagree with his arguments will find it an interesting and provocative work.
In 1999, NATO went to war against Yugoslavia over the troubled province of Kosovo. This was covered by 2,700 media people, yet it was close to impossible to learn the truth of what had happened in the war and the months preceding it. Nor was it clear what the war was really about. There was however a good deal of atrocity propaganda. British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook claimed that Serbian soldiers had established ‘rape camps’ in Kosovo. Cruel acts of rape certainly occurred, as happens in all wars but, according to Knightley, no evidence of organised or institutionalised rape centres has so far been found.
A number of appalling massacres were reported. Knightley points out that the US State Department issued a statement on 19 April 1999 that half a million Kosovo Albanians were missing, assumed dead. A month later, the figure was quietly reduced to 100,000. In the middle of June, it was reduced again to 10,000 in a statement from the British government. None of the official spokesmen acknowledged the startling changes in the figures. For the civilian public, even if they noticed the discrepancies, 10,000 killed was still an appalling figure. After the war, forensic specialists were brought in to assess the scale of the alleged massacres. Many of the allegations seem to be questionable. One site, said to be a mass grave of about 350 bodies, turned out to contain five dead. (Very few newspapers reported this fact, says Knightley.) By November 1999, just over 2,000 killings were confirmed, some of them KLA soldiers who had died in the fighting.
Two thousand dead is a grievous figure. But it is not the massacre of half a million. Why do such figures matter? Knightley suggests two reasons. First, because the war itself killed between 10,000 and 15,000 civilians, including a good many Kosovo Albanians – the people whom the war was supposed to save. If these figures are correct, more than five times as many people were killed by the war than by the oppression which preceded it. Secondly, the claim that Kosovo Albanians were being killed in huge numbers was said to be the main reason for going to war in the first place. If these figures were inaccurate – possibly wildly so – then some other reason for the war is surely needed. Otherwise, we could presumably make up whatever stories we like and kill foreigners on that basis. This would be a curious way of implementing the ethical, humanitarian goals said to lie at the heart of NATO’s new world order.
What was the NATO attack on Kosovo really about? It is almost impossible to know. But Knightley makes a convincing case that the stated reasons look somewhat implausible. Many war correspondents – along with other journalists and commentators – made a vital contribution to the dissemination of dubious information and outright lies. Whether they knew the information was false is hard to tell. Much of it came direct from NATO’s PR officers. Were journalists sceptical of the information? Despite the many complaints about news management in the Gulf War, it seems there was a remarkable lack of critical questioning. If Knightley is correct, then journalists helped to justify a war which had precisely the opposite effect to its stated humanitarian aims. One lesson of Knightley’s book is that war correspondents who participate in propaganda are rarely called to account.
The modern war correspondent was born at the Crimean War of 1854–56. William Howard Russell’s dispatches from Balaklava and Sebastopol were the first detailed eye-witness reports from a war zone. These were published in The Times and could run to five or six thousand words. Even today, Russell’s dispatches are a good read, putting much recent war journalism to shame. Nor was there any censorship in the mid-1850s, and reports from the Crimea were, by and large, true.
Today we congratulate ourselves that we live in the great age of information; we think we have access to more knowledge than ever before. This is a myth. In wartime, especially, we are poorly informed and, in many respects, misinformed. Much war news in the newspapers, on radio and television, and on the internet is false. It is sobering to discover that British citizens in the 1850s had more reliable information about the Crimea than we can get about wars at the turn of the 21st century.
There are many reasons for this change, starting with the introduction of censorship as a result of the Crimean War. Governments quickly realised that an informed public could be a nuisance in wartime. By the beginning of the First World War, it was clear that as well as withholding unpleasant facts from the public, newspapers and other media (photography, painting, literature, newsreels) could provide a range of part- truths and lies to make the war popular. This is much more complex than it sounds. War propaganda is an art. To be convincing in the newspapers, for example, it needs to be indistinguishable from real news. Effective propaganda will often mix its lies with the truth. Some stories which put the government or the military forces in a bad light will also appear; to suppress these completely would look implausible. Such stories give readers a sense of democratic debate and freedom of information; this has been a crucial factor in recent wars. Such a sense is real; there is some genuine debate and real information. But it is also an illusion, for we cannot be sure which pieces of news are true, and which false. Our debates are then based on some dubious assumptions. This is particularly alarming now that governments claim to be going to war in response to public opinion. For if our opinions are formed on unreliable or false foundations, what are they worth?
Different groups and individuals within a society will support a war for different reasons – possibly even for opposing reasons. Motives for opposing a war can be equally diverse. Today [in the year 2000], it seems the main purpose of news coverage is to help maintain support and reduce opposition when our nations go to war. To this end, a variety of strategies are employed to appeal to different groups in appropriate ways – just like any other marketing campaign. Where does this leave the intrepid war correspondent? What is his or her role at the turn of the 21st century? Phillip Knightley is concerned that journalists now find themselves so efficiently managed by military and political PR machines that there is very little actual reporting. What troubles Knightley most of all is that journalists have become, unwittingly and unwillingly, part of a war propaganda machine. One aim of his book is to give war journalists an overview of their own history; without such knowledge, one is likely to repeat the errors of the past. In his preface to Knightley’s book, John Pilger remarks that ‘for all the dazzling advances in media technology, the media has little or no memory, as the same bogus “truth” is served up again and again’.
Is journalism the first draft of the history of a war? Only in one respect. War reports since the late 19th century are records not of what occurred so much as evidence of how the war was represented. Historians have long known that you do not look to the media for accurate information about twentieth century wars. Anyone writing about the First World War, for example, would be foolish to draw their facts from the press; if they did, they would be surprised to read that the Somme was quite a success, really, and Gallipoli far from a disaster.
Knightley’s view is that it does not have to be this way. In its earliest days, eye- witness war reporting was independent and generally accurate. He regards Russell at the Crimea as an ideal model – an opinionated, feisty Irishman with a marvellous capacity to tell a story. Russell described what he saw, supplemented with comments from other observers, both military and civilian. He reported blunders and exposed the shortfalls in military organisation, much to the irritation of the army leadership.
A few years later, the American Civil War (1861–65) saw the birth of modern war reporting in the United States. America was better served than the Crimea by the telegraph. In big centres, such as New York, long articles about a battle could be published the following day. But the technology created as many problems as it solved. To make money, correspondents needed to keep close to reliable telegraph lines or good rail connections to major centres. This, says Knightley, influenced the entire Northern coverage of the war. Unlike British newspapers during the Crimea, the American press was strictly censored, ostensibly to prevent information reaching the enemy, but also as a means of suppressing criticism.
An account of a major battle could increase a newspaper’s sales five-fold, and writers were under intense pressure to deliver vivid stories, even if they had no material. The Civil War also produced some famous atrocity propaganda, such as the claims that Southern belles had necklaces made from the eyeballs of dead Yankee soldiers and that Northerners used the heads of Confederate corpses as footballs. Civil War reporters have been much romanticised, but Knightley shows that their work was often sensational and inaccurate.
For Knightley, the golden age of the war correspondent occurred between 1865 and 1914 – from the end of the American Civil War until the beginning of World War I. More and more people could read. The rise of the popular press, increasing use of the telegraph, and delays in the introduction of coherent censorship all gave the war correspondent the chance to bring exciting stories to a mass audience. Even fairly distant wars were good for circulation. London’s Daily News increased its sales three- fold during the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71). Indeed, foreigners’ wars were often best of all, for journalists could produce lively battle stories without taking sides or feeling obliged to moralise.
Some of the most famous war correspondents, such as Archibald Forbes of the Daily News and Stephen Crane of the New York Journal, were appointed by editors who had been impressed by their fictional writings about war. During this period, war journalism in Britain and the United States became a form of adventure narrative. The war correspondents themselves were colourful, tough, hard-drinking men who slept in their boots and spurs. They covered Custer’s last stand, the Paris Commune, the Sudan, the Turkish-Serbian War, the Spanish-American war, the Boxer Rebellion. One American journalist is said to have started a few small wars in Africa in order to write about them. All this made for some great yarns, but did it help readers back home to think critically about war or international relations? Perhaps not. This period was a golden age only in the sense that war reporters enjoyed unprecedented freedom and adventure, and produced a thrilling set of fantasies for readers. But such press coverage did not equip English-speaking people to respond intelligently when their own countries engaged in a major war; this was to have serious consequences in 1914.
During the Boer War (1899–1902), soldier and correspondent Winston Churchill wrote rapturously of troops following a ‘guiding star, the red gleam of war’. This was a common view. Dozens of writers covered the conflict for the newspapers, including Kipling, Conan Doyle, and Banjo Patterson. Colonel Robert Baden-Powell sent plucky, stiff-upper-lip dispatches from his besieged position at Mafeking.
At first the Boer War was widely supported in Britain, but as it dragged on, public opinion became divided. Strong anti-war movements emerged. In order to keep the war popular, errors and failures were not reported; nor did correspondents write about the problems in medical care. Of the 22,000 British dead in South Africa, 14,000 died of sickness rather than in battle. Some forty years earlier, Russell had exposed similar problems at the Crimea. His shocking stories in The Times forced radical improvements in sanitation and army medicine. They also generated public support for the work of Florence Nightingale. But in the Boer War, newspapers were unwilling – and, due to strict censorship, unable – to take a critical view.
Knightley points out that while censorship might prevent you from criticising, it does not force you to write false or exaggerated stories. Yet this is precisely what happened in the Boer War. Lurid atrocity stories were illustrated with graphic drawings of floggings, massacres, and so forth, many of them entirely fictitious. An early newsreel shown in Britain depicted British medical staff treating a wounded soldier while their Red Cross tent was attacked by the dastardly Boer. The film was a fake, made using actors in London.
Britain was fooled in the Boer War, argues Knightley, by inaccurate, propagandistic news coverage. The nation never had a full or accurate picture of events in South Africa. Nor was the political significance of the war realised at the time. Despite ‘the swarms of war correspondents … the main military lessons of the war went unnoticed. The British soldier learned the value of accurate rifle fire, but the only conclusions drawn from the Boers’ use of trenches proved to be false ones’. This too had disastrous consequences in 1914.
Clearly, war correspondents were not to blame for all the problems and failures of the Boer War; nor even for Britain’s failure to learn from the experience. But Knightley makes a convincing case that propaganda in the mass media can have a tangible effect upon a nation’s ability to face questions of war and peace in a rational manner. War correspondents have a crucial role to play, and Knightley concludes the book with a call to journalists today to think critically about their profession. They may no longer be heroes, like the best nineteenth-century war correspondents, but perhaps they could refuse to act as ‘propagandists and myth-makers, subservient to those who wage wars’. This would be a courageous and difficult decision, but Knightley shows why it is needed now, more than ever before.