Patrick Cockburn: Where war goes, propaganda follows

Manipulation of news by government is easy when insurgents start targeting journalists

Related Topics

American and Afghan forces are poised to attack the town of Marjah, the largest Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan, in the first major US military offensive since the President Barack Obama announced that he was sending 30,000 reinforcments.

The US strategy is to expel, kill or capture the Taliban, prevent their return, and then provide aid and services to a grateful populace. Described as a sophisticated attempt "to win the hearts and minds of Afghans", its covert and more realistic aim is to win the hearts and minds of the American media, particularly those back in the US who direct the efforts of reporters on the ground. The message the US military wants to send is that in Afghanistan it is fighting a winnable war and not blundering deeper into a quagmire.

The media likes short wars. Its audience is never so eager for news as during an armed conflict. The first newspapers date from the wars of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Television likes the melodrama of exploding shells and blazing tanks. And it is this very eagerness to report the fighting that makes it so easy to manipulate. The US army successfully sold the "surge" in Iraq as a military victory so that the American public scarcely noticed US troops were withdrawing, leaving Iraq in the hands of a government closely allied to Iran.

Television is surprisingly ill-adapted to covering wars. It needs pictures, but on a modern battlefield there is very little to see. Ever since soldiers started using long-range rifles everybody has very sensibly kept their heads down. Films are wholly misleading about what warfare today looks like, giving the impression that D-Day was fought at close range, much like the battles of Hastings or Agincourt. Saving Private Ryan was praised for its gritty realism, presumably because it showed blood and guts. In reality, the film understandably enough goes along with the fiction that highly visible soldiers blaze away suicidally at each other at point blank range.

A frustrating lack of anything to see during real fighting explains why so many of the iconic photographs or films showing 20th-century wars, such as a soldier at the moment of death in the Spanish civil war, or the raising of the Soviet flag over the Reichstag in Berlin 1945, turn out to have been staged after the event. Misleading images of war go beyond faking striking or heroic scenes.

Crucial events are omitted or exaggerated. In 2001-02 I covered the war in Afghanistan, and I was struck by how little fighting actually took place. The Taliban fighters were ordered by their commanders to go home to fight another day because the warlords had been bribed by the CIA, the Taliban leaders had been so advised by Pakistani military intelligence, and because it was the sensible thing to do. Cities like Ghazni and Kandahar fell without a fight. Well-armed Taliban disappeared back to their villages or crossed the border into Pakistan and bands of bewildered anti-Taliban guerrillas took over. But people watching TV or reading newspapers outside Afghanistan at the time were given the entirely misleading impression that the Taliban had been militarily defeated, never to fight again.

During the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and afterwards the news reporting from the mostly American news organisations was often very good, but was continually undercut by the dreadful talking heads back in Washington and New York. Ignorant and partisan former government officials, who had taken refuge in think tanks, were wheeled on as independent experts to pontificate night after night about a war they had never seen, except possibly during a brief visit to the Green Zone.

Government manipulation of news about wars in Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq has become easier since insurgents started targeting journalists. In Northern Ireland and Lebanon up to 1984 it was safer to be a journalist than anybody else. All sides, however bloodthirsty, cultivated the press and every gang of gunmen had a press officer. This changed in Lebanon when the precursors of Hizbullah started kidnapping journalists and since then Islamic fundamentalists have viewed foreign journalists as people to be captured and killed rather than cultivated.

These dangers encourage reporters to embed with American or British troops. Much criticised, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this so long as it is admitted that the embedded journalist's view of the war is partial.

The practical effects of this are serious. In November 2004, for instance, the US Marines stormed the insurgent-held city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad. The battle was heavily reported by embedded reporters and television crews as an American victory and an insurgent defeat. But as this battle was raging, insurgents overran the larger city of Mosul in northern Iraq, seizing some 30 police stations and $40m worth of arms. So few American troops, and hence no embedded journalists, were there that this significant defeat was barely reported.

Wars are so genuinely confusing that even the identity of the victor may be obscure. The new US strategy and 30,000 US reinforcements sent to Iraq in 2007 are believed by many Americans, including generals, to have turned the tide of battle there. But the decisive military event in Iraq in 2006-07 was that the Sunni Arabs, who dominated the anti-American insurgency, were decisively defeated in a savage sectarian civil war with the Shia. Many of the Sunni in the capital were killed or fled to Jordan and Syria and Sunni leaders had to strike a deal with the Americans. As US military casualties fell, newspapers and television stations happily reported, often brushing aside the objections of their own correspondents in Iraq, that what had happened was a triumph for American strategy.

The largely mythical US success in Iraq is now to be replicated in Afghan towns like Marjah and skirmishes there will be heavily reported. A Nato spokesman says the people of the town will soon "feel the benefits of better governance, of economic opportunities and of operating under the legitimate authorities of Afghanistan". But according to a leaked cable from the US ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, to President Obama three months ago, no such Afghan authority exists at any level. Instead he warned that US troop reinforcements, which are now going into action, will only ensure "an indefinite, large-scale US military role in Afghanistan".

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Multi Skilled Engineer - Electrical / Mechanical / Maintenance

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A multi-skilled engineer with a...

Recruitment Genius: Electronic Service Engineer - Television & HI-FI

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Engineers for field & bench ser...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Designer - Award Winning Agency

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity for a t...

Recruitment Genius: Project Manager

£35000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This global provider of call ce...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Punks show off the Doctor Marten boots as they gather in Blackpool for the annual Rebellion Punk Rock Festival  

Recalling my act of punk rebellion at school shows how different attitudes are today

Rosie Millard
A hormone released when someone is under stress or pressure has been found in breast milk  

Shaming women for being unable to breastfeed is wrong, and it needs to stop

Siobhan Freegard
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada