The Role of Media in War

Columnist Gp Capt SULTAN M HALI discusses how propaganda can be used effectively during war.

“Journalists will say that war is too important to be left to generals. Reporting of war is too important to be left to reporters. Soldiers need to get involved in this.”

-Maj Gen Patrick Brady - 1990

(former Public Relations Chief of US Army)

The 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 war.

The 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.

The Military And The Media : Who Needs Whom?

The 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.

The military are disciplined, hierarchical and live within a homogenous, closed culture that can be —and often is — hostile to outsiders.

The 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 state.

When 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 peacetime.

During 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.

It 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.

Media As A Force Multiplier

Many 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:

“Public opinion is everything. With it nothing can fail, Without it nothing can succeed.”

How The Media Gathers Information

The media gathers its information from various sources:-

Overt Sources

  • Press briefings.

  • Press releases/handouts.

  • Supervised visit/tour of battle area.

Covert Sources

  • Own contacts.

  • Electronic Eaves dropping.

  • Clandestine visits to battle area.

With 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 And The Military Culture

Traditionally, 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.

The “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.

In 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.

The 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

A 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

The news organizations later challenged this approach. When the Press was kept away from operations at Grenada and Panama, the media actually went to court.

Thus 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 :

Security At The Source

“Security 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.

  • They must accept that the military can only effectively accommodate a finite number of journalists in combat operations. A mechanism must be developed in peacetime to establish the strength of reporters.

  • News organizations need to more diligently train their reporters in the area of military operations. The best way to do this is to invite the media for the coverage of peacetime military exercises.

The Fog Of War

In 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 campaign.

Just 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”.

Journalists 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.

Truth : The First Casualty Of War

Robert 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

A 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”.

While 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.

Operation “Desert Cloud”

In 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.

On 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.

The 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.

Some Cover-ups and myths are:-

There are countless examples of disinformation released to the media by the US administration and Pentagon: -

USA 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.

Saddam 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 oil field.6

Iraq 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

Iraq 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

Iraqi 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

Smart 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

The 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 streets.11

Muzzling 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

Iraqi 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

Saddam 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

Saddam 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.

Kargil - A Watershed For Indian Media?

We 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 campaign.

The 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.

They 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 them.

Important Media Lessons from the Gulf War and Kargil

Those 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.

  • Public opinion must be supportive as whole nations go to war not just the armed forces. Public opinion can be built by the media.

  • Operational secrecy in modern limited wars now requires the active connivance of the media.

  • Conflict of Interest can also come into play. The media involved in the Gulf War had ties to the US arms industry e.g. NBC, which is owned by General Electric produces aircraft and missiles, like the widely reported Tomahawk Cruise missile and the Patriot Air Defence System.15 Thus the propaganda effect may be market oriented and in effect an advertising campaign.

  • There is a need for reporters to be educated about the military and the military about the media.

  • Media coverage is a force multiplier. People get their perception of the military as a dedicated and professional organization from media reports so closer trust and confidence must be created.

“Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets”.


  • Technology has had a tremendous impact on media. It must be assimilated. News media and military leaders should jointly engage in a study of the security issues posed by real-time reporting from the battlefield.

  • The media is as patriotic as anybody else in the civil life is. We need to build trust.

  • Talk to the media but without ebullience and boast. The USAF Chief of Staff Gen. Michael I. Dugan was sacked in September 1990 for inadvertently revealing air strike plans to the media, during a casual conversation.16

  • Deception has formed a part of warfare since the Trojan Horse but the incorporation of the media into such exercises is a highly dangerous game. If the free media, even patriotic media, discover that they are being used for such purposes, they are likely to distance themselves from the exercise. They may not expect to be told the whole truth during wartime, but they do expect to be told as much of the truth as can be told without jeopardising military operations and the lives of troops.

The 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.

  • Air power is a very difficult phenomenon for the media. Most coverage has to consist of interviews with pilots and aircrew before or after the missions or footage of take offs and landings. AVTR recordings and gun camera clips cannot be released directly. Both the Allies in the Gulf War and Indians in Kargil resorted to doctoring video clips. The reality of air war evades the media war.

  • “Media Spin” has become a new principle of war. “Media Spin” is defined as paying close attention to public relations, recognizing that public support is an essential ingredient of combat success. The military must not take media coverage of combat operations for granted, and should avoid operations that will alienate public support, while ensuring maximum media coverage of success stories: In an age where 24-hour instantaneous battlefield news coverage is a fact of life, paying attention to media spin is of paramount importance for a combat commander.

  • It is impossible now to assume a Janus-like posture: that of a Holy Warrior guarding the ideological frontiers, for home consumption, and, that of a modern, moderate thinking well-disciplined armed forces for the outsiders. All pervasive, ubiquitous media makes it fail on both the fronts.


After 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.

That 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 peacetime.


1.             Kennedy, William V., The Military and the Media-Why the Press Cannot be

            Trusted to Cover a War, Praeger Publishers, West Port USA, 1993, p.x.

2.         Taylor, Philip M., The War and the Media, Keynote address at the Royal Military

            Academy, Sandhurst, 1995.

3.         Ibid

4.         Gottschalk, Marie, ‘Operation Desert Cloud: The Media and the Gulf War, World

            Policy Journal, p. 451.

5.         Ibid., p. 471

6.             Gittings, John, ed., Beyond The Gulf War : The Middle East and The New World

            Order, London: Catholic Institute for International Relations, 1991, p.6.

7.         Royce, Knut, ‘The Butchery of Baghdad’, Newsday, January 27, 1991.

8.         Lewis, Paul, ‘U.N. Experts Now Say Baghdad Was Far From Making an A-Bomb

            Before Gulf War’, New York Times, May 20, 1992.

9.             Emmons, Garry, ‘Did PR Firm Invent Gulf Stories’, In These Times,

            January 22-28, 1992.

10.             Gellman, Barton, ‘U.S. bombs Missed 70% of Time’, Washington Post,

            March 16, 1991.

11.       Los Angeles Times wire service, ‘Study : Patriots Missed’, New York Newsday,

            March 1, 1991.

12.       Fialka, John J., Hotel Warriors : Covering The Gulf War, Washington DC :

            Woodrow Wilson Centre Press, 1991, pp. 56-57.

13.       Balzer, John, of the Los Angeles Times, cited in William Boot, ‘The Pool’,

            Columbia Journalism Review, May-June 1991, p. 26, and

            (fn1) p. 23

14.             Schechter, Danny, ‘Gulf War Courage’, Z Magazine, December, 1991.

15.             Rostrup, Truls, ‘The Gulf War - The Failure of the Fourth Estate?’,


16.             Atkinson, Rick, The Military and The Media : Facing the Future, paper read at the Catigny Conference,                  Illinois, 1997.