The Role of Media in War
Columnist Gp Capt SULTAN M HALI discusses how propaganda can be used effectively during war.
revolution in information technology, from the transistor through
widespread digitisation, deeply networked communications, as well as, the
revolutionary changes in the employment of airpower have profoundly
influenced analysts and planners and has completely changed the conduct of
Gulf War afforded the world its first glimpse of the future of warfare.
Millions around the globe were treated to precision-guided bombs
annihilating targets in downtown Baghdad, learned of satellite uplinks
from the battlefield that provided real-time connectivity, and applauded
the ability of Stealth aircraft to ensure aerial dominance. Everyone
seemed to understand that something was different about this “Video-game
war”. There was much more to the spectacle than the one provided by
previous wars. How much of it was real and how much rigged, are discussed
below. More recently India’s use — or rather abuse — of the media to
dupe its own people during the Kargil Crisis is a case in point. The
important thing to note is that the revolutions in the field of
information technology have caused the media to have a much greater impact
on operations. Thus it is imperative to take a closer look at the
intricate relationship between the military and the media, and to
understand the role of media in war.
Military And The Media : Who Needs Whom?
question here arises: who needs whom? Does the media need the military or
does the military need the media? The answer is, however, not that simple.
Throughout history both institutions have been at odds with each other.
The military is perennially popular, but is at its best in battle and
functions like a conditioned athlete. However, it too, has its share of
incompetence. So when the military makes mistakes, they can be monumental.
Besides territory, a large number of lives can be lost.
military are disciplined, hierarchical and live within a homogenous,
closed culture that can be —and often is — hostile to outsiders.
news media, are often unpopular with the brass, for they function
independently, without rules, regulations, or even a Code of Conduct
except for some that are self-imposed. The media’s Newspapers, Radio, TV
and Cable have a variety of interests of their own and set goals to be
achieved. They have their fulsome share of rogues, incompetents and
avaricious vultures. Yet at their best, the media provide the nation with
a vital service it can get nowhere else. It is one of the pillars of the
the two institutions meet during a conflict, clashes are inevitable. The
media wants to tell the story, and the military wants to win the war and
keep casualties to a minimum. The media wants freedom, no censorship,
total access and the capability to get their stories out to their
audiences quickly. The military on the other hand, wants control. The
greatest fear of a military commander in a pre-invasion scenario is that
something might leak out that would tip off the enemy. Otherwise, too,
surprise is the most potent weapon in the Commander’s armoury. On the
other hand, the media fears that the military might stifle news coverage
for enhancing their public image or cover up their mistakes. Those are
fundamental differences that will never change. At times the military and
the patriotic media also have worked together in harmony but usually
animosity tarnishes their relationship. There is definitely a need for
better understanding between the two. A perfect co-operative union of the
media and the military is likely impossible, given the differences in
missions and personalities but there are wise heads in both institutions
who recognize the mutual need. The media is hungry for stories while the
military need to tell their story. Above all they need public support. The
media can tell their story and if there is a rapport and understanding,
they can tell it well and effectively. Both institutions will work better
during the tension and the fog of war if they learn to get along in
the wartime when there is a life and death struggle for the military,
personally as well as institutionally, patriotism comes to their rescue
instinctively and through their long training. Civil media totally lacks
such training and has nothing personal at stake. Self-aggrandizement seems
to be the raison d’etre of most. War is good for the media business.
Despite the excessive costs of sending correspondents for coverage, using
expensive satellite equipment and airtime, armed conflict is precisely the
type of event on which the media thrives. This is an alarming situation
and something must be done during peacetime to remove this dichotomy.
is for the civil media to come forward with the remedy. And for the
military to provide its own media to fill the gap and, more importantly to
serve as the role model.
military leaders have become aware that news media coverage of their
operations can be a force multiplier. Impressed by Gen. Walt Boomer’s
example of encouraging favourable news media coverage of the US Marines in
the Gulf War - to the point where most observers agree that the Marines
received more credit than they deserved, mostly at the expense of the US
Army - many military leaders have come to the conclusion that media
coverage not only develops public awareness and the support of military
units, it has the side benefit of enhancing their morale by informing
their families and friends of the activities of the troops. If used
prudently, media is indeed a Force Multiplier as it builds public opinion.
In the words of Abraham Lincoln:
opinion is everything. With it nothing can fail, Without it nothing can
media gathers its information from various sources:-
communication networks now blanketing the globe and news organisations
developing their capability to report from almost anywhere, with new
technology such as satellite telephones, laptop computers, digital cameras
and other inventions, transmission of news is possible in real time. Soon
commercial, high-resolution photographic satellites will be available to
news organizations. The capability of the news media to photograph a
battle area during time of war and thereby reveal the location of one’s
own ground units, ships and airbases could be very detrimental to the
national security. This makes censorship virtually impossible.
information security implies the military practice of reviewing a
reporter’s newscopy prior to his filing to ensure that no information of
value to the enemy was released. This system was effectively used during
the Second World War but now technological innovations have called into
question the whole concept.
“Vietnam Syndrome” leads most Americans to believe that they lost the
war due to the total freedom given to the media in their coverage of the
war. Their pessimistic reports tipped the public opinion against the
conflict. The tales of atrocities of US troops on My Lai and Iwo Jima and,
Jane Fonda’s radio speeches from North Vietnam and media reports of US
casualties stirred public opinion in USA against the War in Vietnam.
Desert Storm the Pentagon decided to use information security to avoid a
Vietnam-like situation. The imperative for secrecy was great, because if
Iraqi commanders had had even an inkling of the US attack plan, they could
have repositioned their forces, jeopardizing the success of the operation
and inflicting significantly higher casualties on Allied Forces.
US Government demonstrated the means to blackout the battlefield anytime
it so chose, even in the presence of hundreds of representatives of the
World Media. When a television reporter watching the take off of US
fighters from a Saudi base began to report that one of the fighter
aircraft appeared to be experiencing mechanical trouble, his satellite
link was shut down by military electronic counter measures.1
British television crew tried to transmit news to London without the
knowledge of the PR specialists. Their transmission was intercepted by an
airborne AWACs electronic warfare aircraft and they were promptly arrested
for this breach of security.2
news organizations later challenged this approach. When the Press was kept
away from operations at Grenada and Panama, the media actually went to
in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo, better sense prevailed on the
military culture of clamping down news information. This has led to an
improved arrangement of :
At The Source
at the source”, a preferred approach, is a relatively new concept in
which the military strives to develop a plan as far in advance of the
operation as possible in order to allow the news media to have broad
access to the total action. Where feasible, journalists may be
accommodated with the combat forces. Each reporter is first accredited and
then given the ground rules with which he/she is expected to comply.
Because they will be located shoulder-to-shoulder with the troops,
reporters who had questions about the security aspects of the operation
could find someone to respond readily without actually turning in their
newscopy for review. If the Security at the source concept is to work,
certain understanding with the media must be reached.
Fog Of War
wartime, the media serve a variety of roles. With information, they can
convey a sense of the fighting to a public divorced from its actual
horrors or, with entertainment, they can provide a sense of relief or
escape to a public more directly involved such as in a blockade or bombing
because they mediate information about the progress of a war to the
public, the media can serve not just as providers of ‘straight’ news
and information but also as agents of propaganda and disinformation. This
is because the very processes by which war reports are gathered at source,
packaged by journalists and disseminated to a wider audience are subject
to a wide spectrum of influences ranging from battlefield censorship to
broadcasting standards, deception and disinformation campaigns, official
information policy and propaganda. These are indeed the pollutants which
constitute that overworked idiom: “The Fog of War”.
have a front seat at the making of history and it is tragic that by the
time the historians become involved ‘that first rough draft of
history’ provided by the journalists has been so widely disseminated by
the mass media that it becomes extremely difficult to dislodge the
pollutants that caused the fog of war.
: The First
Capa, the famous War correspondent and photographer, was fond of saying
that “ if your picture wasn’t any good, you’re not standing close
enough.” For most journalists, however, being read is better than being
dead - and it is worth noting that perhaps Capa’s most famous photograph
in Life magazine, that of a Spanish civil war soldier ‘the instant he is
dropped by a bullet through the head in front of Cordoba’ was in fact
that of a soldier stumbling in training during peace time.3
rule of thumb in both the world wars was to only show pictures of the
enemy dead. Own casualty figures have often been minimized and those of
the enemy exaggerated. Defeats have simply been omitted or delayed in
reporting. Or explained as “strategic retreats”.
still the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, refused to
release news that HMS Nelson and HMS Barham had sustained serious damage.
In 1971, the news of the surrender of Dhaka was considerably delayed and
was relayed only after the pep-talk of PTV programmes. The sinking of HMS
Sheffield by an Exocet missile fired by an Argentine Mirage aircraft
during the Falkland War was omitted till it became inevitable to be
declared. The fall and recapture of Khafji in the Gulf War was constantly
misreported. The famous ITN footage of emaciated Muslim prisoners-of-war,
which caused an international outrage in 1992, was banned on Serbian TV.
Zee TV played hell with the truth during the Kargil crisis.
August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. In the six-month period prior to the
commencement of hostilities, the Pentagon, military and media worked
together to develop plans that would make the Gulf War coverage the most
comprehensive wartime news coverage in history. It was also the most
massive cover-up in history to date.
the opening night of the US attack on Iraq, ABC anchorperson Peter
Jennings made what was perhaps a Freudian slip, mistakenly referring to
the start of “Operation Desert Cloud” rather than “Operation Desert
Storm”4. In the light of the fact that many of the US military’s most
spectacular claims in the Gulf War have since proven to be false,
Jenning’s slip appears to have been no slip at all.
problem was not simply that the Pentagon and US administration misled the
media, but that the media generally swallowed without question whatever
the military and the US Government dished out to them. They were reduced
to the level of stenographers. By the time the truth began to dribble out
in the war’s wake, it was too late to erase the dominant image of an
inevitable, clean, bloodless, high-tech war.
are countless examples of disinformation released to the media by the US
administration and Pentagon: -
beckoned Iraq to Invade Kuwait. A little-noted poll in February, 1991
revealed striking gaps in people’s knowledge about the Gulf Crisis. Only
13 percent Americans knew that when Saddam signalled he might use force
against Kuwait, the United States through its charming Ambassador in
Baghdad had indicated in July, 1990 that it would take no action,5 which
it certainly had none.
offered to withdraw from Kuwait. As early as August, 1990, Saddam had
sent messages through diplomatic channels offering to withdraw from Kuwait
and release all foreigners in exchange for the lifting of the sanctions,
guaranteed access to the Gulf, and sole control of the contested Rumailah
had no intention of attacking Saudi Arabia. Defence and intelligence
officials informed the US administration shortly after the Kuwaiti
invasion that Iraq had no intention of invading Saudi Arabia.7
posed a major nuclear and chemical weapons threat. Prior to the start
of the Gulf crisis, US intelligence officials estimated that Iraq would
not be capable of producing an atomic bomb for at least five years. But in
November, 1990, President George Bush started claiming that Baghdad will
be able to build an atomic bomb in just six months time insisting that the
time to attack Iraq was now.8
soldiers did not remove Kuwaiti babies from incubators. Despite scant
evidence, the allied media propagated that Iraqi soldiers removed hundreds
of Kuwaiti babies from their incubators, leaving them to die on hospital
floors of Kuwait City. Seven US Senators invoked the event in their
speeches while backing the January 12, 1991 resolution authorizing war.9
Bombs Won the War. The world was mesmerized by Pentagon-produced
videos of Stealth bombers neatly dropping sophisticated laser-guided bombs
down the airshafts of designated military targets while mercifully sparing
nearby schools, hospitals, homes and mosques. Fewer than 8% of the bombs
used by Allied Forces were “Smart” ones and of the 88,500 tons of
munitions dropped on Kuwait and Iraq, an estimated 70% missed their
targets and caused massive destruction to civilian life and property.10
Patriot Missile Performed Flawlessly. Despite tall claims, experts
testified before the US Congress in spring 1991 that the much-vaunted
Patriot missile may have destroyed only one of the 90 Iraqi Scud missiles
fired at Saudi Arabia and Israel. The Patriots actually increased the
amount of ground damage as they crashed into of all places! Israeli
Negative Reports. There was definite attempt to muzzle negative
reports. Some examples were quoted earlier. There were numerous other
examples. Associated Press (AP) photographer Scott Apple White was
handcuffed, beaten, and had one of his cameras smashed when 15 US and
Saudi military police officers descended on him as he attempted to
photograph the Dhahran barracks where an Iraqi Scud killed 27 G.Is.12
Casualties. There was widespread silence about Iraqi casualties,
Greenpeace has calculated that 57,000 to 75,000 members of Iraqi military
died during the Gulf War while 3,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in the
air war. Tapes of attacks by Apache helicopter pilots which were not
released, revealed Iraqi soldiers being killed mercilessly as they were
fleeing their bunkers while thousands were gunned down during their
retreat on the open highway to Iraq.13
Learns from “Vietnam Syndrome”. Saddam Hussein learned his own
lessons from the “Vietnam Syndrome”. CNN’s Peter Arnett, was
permitted to remain in Iraq to report on the other side of the war. He was
accused by the White House of “Speaking for the Iraqi Government”, by
Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf of “aiding and abetting an enemy” and by Col.
Harry Summers, Public Affairs advisor of “treason”.14
Hussein used Peter Arnett to his own advantage by trying to create a
public outcry in the allied nations by allowing CNN to transmit pictures
of the destruction of a Chemical Weapons Complex with freshly scrawled
“Baby Milk Factory” in English, parading captured Allied pilots on
Iraqi TV, declaring their disapproval of the war and displaying the
charred bodies of hundreds of civilians killed by Allied air attacks on
air-raid shelters. Unfortunately for Saddam, his ploy did not work. It was
merely a drop in the Allied scum tide. Perhaps it helped the Allied
propaganda machine by providing a posture of objectivity.
- A Watershed
must draw important lessons from the recent crisis in our own backyard,
Kargil. A discussion on the strategic brilliance of the operation, the
moral aspects, the efficacy of the move are beyond the scope of article.
We must take cognisance of the brilliant use of media by India to salvage
some pride from the mauling it received on the snowy peaks of Kargil.
Kargil became one of the worst nightmares for India. It not only caught
them napping, but also exposed their extreme vulnerabilities and resulted
in very high casualties. Having said that, we must credit the Indians for
their resilience and for their highly successful media and diplomatic
way Indian media responded to the crisis, mobilized its resources and
organized Television programmes, newspaper reports, analyses, discussions,
features, the famous “rogue army” posters and a wide array of coverage
convinced the world that Pakistan was on the wrong foot and the Indians
were the aggrieved party. The Chanakyan principles of deceit and lies were
fully exploited to dupe their own countrymen. To enhance their lies and
sanitize the Indian public from the truth, PTV was banned from Cable
networks in India and Pakistani newspapers were blocked on the Internet.
also made a very intelligent use of the Internet and dedicated an
exclusive Website www.vijayinkargil.com to spread their propaganda.
Trained PR officers manned chat sites on the web. We on the other hand,
could not launch an adequate counter attack on the media front. Even their
very obvious lies and claims of Vijay or victory could not be exposed.
India did not permit media personnel to visit Kargil, Dras or Batalik
sectors. Zee TV and the 32 Indian Channels continued to spew venom against
Pakistan but we lacked the wherewithal and the will power to tackle them
on this extremely volatile front. Obvious lies like Tiger Hill, the use of
Mirage-2000 HUD displays with doctored information were continuously being
telecast with serious TV News Channels like BBC and CNN re-transmitting
Media Lessons from the Gulf War and Kargil
who do not learn from history are relegated to become a part of history.
It is important to draw lessons so that past mistakes in the employment of
media in war can be avoided.
most effective way of censoring the media is simply to deny them access as
was effectively carried out by the Indians in Kargil or the pool system in
the Gulf War. This can backfire, as the press can become volatile. The
Indians got away with it in Kargil by appealing to the Indian media’s
sense of patriotism.
assimilating the role of the media in war, and getting a glimpse of the
impact of technology on news reporting, the role played by media in two
recent conflicts, it must raise questions in our mind that whereas the
military trains hard and well to achieve its goals and reach a level of
specialization yet we call upon the media, which is perhaps the only
career which starts its profession with zero specialization and most
reporters don’t know the difference between a company and a brigade, a
destroyer and a Fleet Tanker or an F-16 and M-16, to tell the story of the
military. This is all the more valid in view of the general level of
education in our country.
makes it all the more imperative for building greater harmony and
understanding. We will keep shooting ourselves in the foot if we don’t
realize the potentials of media as a force multiplier and a weapon of war.
Failure to recognize and counter enemy usage of media could lead to
avoidable military failures. We must realize that decisions are no longer
based on events but on how the events are presented. So we must lay
greater emphasis on the role of media in war and train for it in