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A Diary of Four Wars

Where War Reporting Goes Wrong

by PATRICK COCKBURN

The four wars fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria over the past 12 years have all involved overt or covert foreign intervention in deeply divided countries. In each case the involvement of the West exacerbated existing differences and pushed hostile parties towards civil war. In each country, all or part of the opposition have been hard-core jihadi fighters. Whatever the real issues at stake, the interventions have been presented as primarily humanitarian, in support of popular forces against dictators and police states. Despite apparent military successes, in none of these cases have the local opposition and their backers succeeded in consolidating power and establishing stable states.

More than most armed struggles, the conflicts have been propaganda wars in which newspaper, television and radio journalists played a central role. In all wars there is a difference between reported news and what really happened, but during these four campaigns the outside world has been left with misconceptions even about the identity of the victors and the defeated. In 2001 reports of the Afghan war gave the impression that the Taliban had been beaten decisively even though there had been very little fighting. In 2003 there was a belief in the West that Saddam Hussein’s forces had been crushed when in fact the Iraqi army, including the units of the elite Special Republican Guard, had simply disbanded and gone home. In Libya in 2011 the rebel militiamen, so often shown on television firing truck-mounted heavy machine-guns in the general direction of the enemy, had only a limited role in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, which was mostly brought about by Nato air strikes. In Syria in 2011 and 2012 foreign leaders and journalists repeatedly and vainly predicted the imminent defeat of Bashar al-Assad.

These misperceptions explain why there have been so many surprises and unexpected reversals of fortune. The Taliban rose again in 2006 because it hadn’t been beaten as comprehensively as the rest of the world imagined. At the end of 2001 I was able to drive – nervously but safely – from Kabul to Kandahar, but when I tried to make the same journey in 2011 I could go no further south on the main road than the last police station on the outskirts of Kabul. In Tripoli two years ago hotels were filled to capacity with journalists covering Gaddafi’s fall and the triumph of the rebel militias. But state authority still hasn’t been restored. This summer Libya almost stopped exporting oil because the main ports on the Mediterranean had been seized by mutinying militiamen, and the prime minister, Ali Zeidan, threatened to bomb ‘from the air and the sea’ the oil tankers the militiamen were using to sell oil on the black market.

Libya’s descent into anarchy was scarcely covered by the international media since they had long since moved on to Syria, and more recently Egypt. Iraq, home a few years ago to so many foreign news bureaux, has also dropped off the media map although up to a thousand Iraqis are killed each month, mostly as a result of the bombing of civilian targets. When it rained for a few days in Baghdad in January the sewer system, supposedly restored at a cost of $7 billion, couldn’t cope: some streets were knee-deep in dirty water and sewage. In Syria, many opposition fighters who had fought to defend their communities turned into licensed bandits and racketeers when they took power in rebel-held enclaves.

It wasn’t that reporters were factually incorrect in their descriptions of what they had seen. But the very term ‘war reporter’, though not often used by journalists themselves, helps explain what went wrong. Leaving aside its macho overtones, it gives the misleading impression that war can be adequately described by focusing on military combat. But irregular or guerrilla wars are always intensely political, and none more so than the strange stop-go conflicts that followed from 9/11. This doesn’t mean that what happened on the battlefield was insignificant, but that it requires interpretation. In 2003 television showed columns of Iraqi tanks smashed and on fire after US air strikes on the main highway north of Baghdad. If it hadn’t been for the desert background, viewers could have been watching pictures of the defeated German army in Normandy in 1944. But I climbed into some of the tanks and could see that they had been abandoned long before they were hit. This mattered because it showed that the Iraqi army wasn’t prepared to fight and die for Saddam. It was a pointer too to the likely future of the allied occupation. Iraqi soldiers, who didn’t see themselves as having been defeated, expected to keep their jobs in post-Saddam Iraq, and were enraged when the Americans dissolved their army. Well-trained officers flooded into the resistance, with devastating consequences for the occupying forces: a year later the Americans controlled only islands of territory in Iraq.

War reporting is easier than other types of journalism in one respect because the melodrama of events drives the story and attracts an audience. It may be risky at times, but the correspondent talking to camera, with exploding shells and blazing military vehicles behind him, knows his report will feature high up in any newscast. ‘If it bleeds it leads,’ is an old American media adage. The drama of battle inevitably dominates the news, but oversimplifies it by disclosing only part of what is happening. These oversimplifications were more than usually gross and deceptive in Afghanistan and Iraq, when they dovetailed with political propaganda that demonised the Taliban and later Saddam as evil incarnate, casting the conflict – particularly easy in the US in the hysterical atmosphere after 9/11 – as a black and white struggle between good and evil. The crippling inadequacies of the opposition were ignored.

By 2011 the complexity of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan was evident to journalists in Baghdad and Kabul if not necessarily to editors in London and New York. But by then the reporting of the wars in Libya and Syria was demonstrating a different though equally potent form of naivety. A version of the spirit of 1968 prevailed: antagonisms that predated the Arab Spring were suddenly said to be obsolete; a brave new world was being created at hectic speed. Commentators optimistically suggested that, in the age of satellite television and the internet, traditional forms of repression – censorship, imprisonment, torture, execution – could no longer secure a police state in power; they might even be counter-productive. State control of information and communication had been subverted by blogs, satellite phones and even the mobile phone; YouTube provided the means to expose in the most graphic and immediate way the crimes and violence of security forces.

In March 2011 mass arrests and torture effortlessly crushed the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain. Innovations in information technology may have changed the odds marginally in favour of the opposition, but not enough to prevent counter-revolution – as the military coup in Egypt on 3 July showed. The initial success of street demonstrations led to over-confidence and excessive reliance on spontaneous action; the need for leadership, organisation, unity, and policies that amounted to more than a vague humanitarian agenda – all that was ignored. History – including the histories of their own countries – had nothing to teach this generation of radicals and would-be revolutionaries. They drew no lessons from what happened in Egypt when Nasser seized power in 1952, and didn’t ask whether the Arab uprisings of 2011 might have parallels with the European revolutions of 1848, when easy victories were swiftly reversed. Many members of the intelligentsia in Libya and Syria seemed to live and think within the echo chamber of the internet and had few practical thoughts about the way forward.

Conviction that a toxic government is the root of all evil is the public position of most oppositions, but it’s damaging to trust one’s own propaganda. The Iraqi opposition genuinely believed that Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic problems stemmed from Saddam and that once he was gone all would be well. The opposition in Libya and Syria believed that the regimes of Gaddafi and Assad were so demonstrably bad that it was counter-revolutionary to question whether what came after them would be much better. Foreign reporters have by and large shared these opinions. I mentioned some of the failings of the Libyan militiamen to a Western journalist and she replied reprovingly: ‘Just remember who the good guys are.’ Good guys they may have been but there was something troubling about the ease with which they provided media-friendly locations, whether in Tahrir Square or at the frontline in Libya. Protesters in Benghazi would hold up placards written in perfect English, which they mostly could not read themselves, for the benefit of television viewers. At Ajdabiya, two hours’ drive along the main coast road south of Benghazi, foreign journalists often outnumbered opposition fighters, and cameramen had to manoeuvre their correspondents so that it didn’t become evident to the audience. The main danger there was being run over by a pick-up truck fitted with a heavy machine-gun: the drivers often panicked when a shell exploded in the distance. The Libyan militiamen were effective when they were fighting for their own cities and towns, but without an air umbrella they wouldn’t have lasted more than a few weeks. Media focus on colourful skirmishes diverted attention from the central fact that Gaddafi was overthrown by military intervention by the US, Britain and France.

There is nothing surprising about all this. Public appearances by Western leaders with smiling children or cheering soldiers are invariably contrived to show them to television viewers in a sympathetic light. Why shouldn’t Arab rebels have the same public relations skills? The problem was the way war reporters so quickly accepted and publicised opposition atrocity stories. In Libya one of the most influential stories described the mass rape of women in rebel areas by government troops acting on orders from above. A Libyan psychologist claimed to have distributed seventy thousand questionnaires in rebel-controlled areas of which sixty thousand were returned. Some 259 women volunteered that they had been raped; the psychologist said she had interviewed 140 of them. That such precise statistics could have been collected in the anarchy of eastern Libya was implausible, but her story was uncritically repeated, doing much to turn Gaddafi into a pariah. Largely ignored were reports a few weeks later from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and a UN commission saying that there was no evidence for the story. It appears to have been a highly successful propaganda ploy. On another occasion, the rebels showed off the bodies of eight government soldiers: they claimed the men had been executed by their own side for trying to defect to the opposition. Later, Amnesty unearthed a video showing the eight men alive after being captured by the rebels: clearly, they had been killed soon afterwards and their deaths blamed on pro-Gaddafi forces.

The essential ingredients of a good atrocity story are that it should be shocking and not immediately refutable. In 1990 it was widely reported that Kuwaiti babies had been tipped from their hospital incubators by invading Iraqi soldiers and left to die on the floor. Immensely influential at the time, the story was only discredited when the person who claimed to have witnessed it turned out to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to Washington; she had not been in the hospital at the time. Reporters may have their suspicions but they can seldom disprove such tales straightaway. They also know that news editors don’t welcome being told that a colourful news story, which their competitors will unquestionably run, is probably false. It’s easy to put the blame on the ‘fog of war’ and it’s true that fighting involves confusing and fast-moving events, reports of which can’t be checked. Everybody in a war has a more than usually strong motive for misrepresenting their achievements and failures, and it’s usually difficult to disprove their claims. This is scarcely new. ‘Did it ever occur to you, sir, what an opportunity a battlefield affords liars?’ the Confederate general Stonewall Jackson once remarked to an aide.

It is of course dangerous when people are shooting at one another to hang around long enough to establish what’s really going on. In Syria in June I was interviewing the governor of Homs when he unexpectedly claimed that the Syrian army had taken over a town on the Lebanese border called Tal Kalakh previously held by the opposition. He suggested I go there to see for myself. The opposition was saying that fierce fighting was still going on and al-Jazeera reported that smoke was rising from the town. I spent three hours driving around Tal Kalakh, which was certainly under full government control, and didn’t hear a shot fired or smell or see any smoke. Part of the town had been badly damaged by shelling and the streets were empty – though a government sympathiser claimed this was because ‘people are taking their siesta.’

While in Damascus I stayed in the Christian district of Bab Touma, which was being hit by mortar bombs fired from rebel-held districts. A friend rang to say that four people had been killed by a suicide bomber a few hundred yards away. I went there at once and saw a body under a white sheet; on the other side of the street was a small crater that looked as if it had been made by an exploding mortar round. Syrian state television kept claiming that the dead man was a suicide bomber who had been targeting a Christian church; they even named him. For once, it was possible to know exactly what had happened: CCTV footage taken from the street showed a falling mortar bomb outlined for an instant against the white shirt of a passer-by. He was killed instantly and wrongly identified as the bomber. Syrian TV later apologised for its mistake.

In each of these cases political bias and simple error combined to produce a misleading version of events, but it has little to do with the ‘fog of war’. All it really establishes is that there is no alternative to first-hand reporting. Journalists rarely fully admit to themselves or others the degree to which they rely on secondary and self-interested sources. The problem is compounded because people caught up in newsworthy events often convince themselves that they know more than they do. Survivors of suicide bombings in Baghdad would describe to me in minute detail the bomber’s facial expression moments before he detonated his explosives, forgetting that if they had been that close they would be dead. The best witnesses were small boys selling cigarettes, who were always on the look-out for customers.

In reality, war isn’t much foggier than peace, sometimes less so. Serious developments are difficult to hide because thousands are affected by them – soldiers, guerrillas and civilians – and once the fighting has started the authorities become less and less able to check on and impede an enterprising journalist’s movements. Secrets about who holds what territory and who is winning and losing become difficult to keep. Informants become easy to find. In times of danger, whether in Belfast, Basra or Damascus, people become acutely aware of any potential threat in their neighbourhood: it can be as small as a new face or as large as the arrival of a military unit. A government or an army can try to maintain secrecy by banning reporters but they will pay the price as the vacuum of news is filled with information supplied by their enemies. The Syrian government put itself at a political disadvantage by denying visas to most foreign journalists, a policy it has only recently begun to reverse.

As the danger increased in Iraq after 2003, a rumour spread that foreign reporters weren’t really eyewitnesses because they had been reduced to ‘hotel journalism’, never leaving three or four well-fortified hotels. This was never true, quite apart from the fact that these hotels were repeatedly targeted by suicide bombers. Journalists who were frightened of leaving their hotel took the sensible precaution of not going to Baghdad in the first place. I used to think that the reporters most likely to be killed or kidnapped were the inexperienced ones who were trying to make a name for themselves by taking outrageous risks. But the war reporters I knew best who died, such as David Blundy in El Salvador in 1989 and Marie Colvin in Syria in 2012, were highly experienced. Their only mistake was to go to dangerous places so frequently that there was a high chance that they would one day be hit by a bullet or a bomb. Messy guerrilla fighting and sporadic artillery bombardments in wars with no clear front-lines are particularly dangerous. In 2004 I was nearly killed outside Kufa on the Euphrates by Shia militiamen who had been rattled by fighting with US Marines earlier in the day. Suspicious of the local headdress I was wearing, they half-decided I was a spy. But I had put the headdress on as a basic disguise, in order to travel through Sunni-held villages on the road between Kufa and Baghdad.

The idea that foreign journalists just lurk in their hotels in Damascus, Baghdad or Kabul is absurd. A more substantive charge is that they write too much about firefights and skirmishes, the fireworks of war, while neglecting the broader picture that might determine the outcome. ‘My newspaper doesn’t do what it calls “bang-bang” journalism,’ one correspondent said grandly, explaining why none of his colleagues was covering the fighting in Syria first-hand. But the ‘bang-bang’ matters: war may not be explicable without the politics, but the politics can’t be understood without the war. Early on in the occupation of Iraq I went to al-Dohra power station in Baghdad after one American soldier was shot dead there and another wounded. This was the small change of incipient guerrilla war, but the approval of local people as they stood around the pool of dried blood on the pavement was significant. ‘We are very poor but we will celebrate by cooking a chicken,’ one man said. ‘God willing, there will be more actions like this.’

Embedding with the American and British armies had the disadvantage that the journalists ended up having the same experiences as the soldiers and thinking many of the same thoughts. It’s difficult not to bond with people who are important to one’s safety and with whom one shares common dangers. Armies like the embedding system in part because they can favour sympathetic reporters and exclude the more critical. For journalists, counterintuitively, it often means missing crucial parts of a war, since an experienced guerrilla commander will naturally attack wherever the enemy forces are absent or weak. Anybody embedded with the army will tend to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In 2004 when the US Marines stormed the city of Fallujah, killing many insurgents, they were accompanied by most of Baghdad’s press corps. It was a famous and well-publicised victory, but largely ignored by the media at the time was the insurgent counter-stroke: the capture of the much larger city of Mosul in northern Iraq, from which US soldiers had withdrawn.

The most sinister change in the way war is perceived springs from what two years ago seemed to be a wholly positive development. Satellite television and the use of information supplied by YouTube, bloggers and social media were portrayed as liberating innovations. The monopoly on information imposed by police states from Syria to Egypt and Bahrain to Tunisia had been broken. But as the course of the uprising in Syria has shown, satellite television and the internet also spread propaganda and hate. Fraudulent atrocity stories have an effect on a war: a Libyan militiaman who believes that the government soldiers he is fighting are under orders to rape his wife and daughters isn’t going to take many prisoners.

The situation has grown worse since Libya. The ‘YouTube war’ showing atrocities on both sides has outpaced the actual war in Syria as an influence on both rebels and government supporters. Satellite channels such as al-Jazeera depend on these propaganda clips. Many of the atrocities are real. Rebels can see film of mass graves of people killed by poison gas or children writhing in pain from napalm burns. In government-held parts of Damascus people don’t go out much in the evening but sit at home watching footage of captured government soldiers being decapitated or Christian priests and Alawite soldiers having their throats cut. Much of this footage is real – but not all. A correspondent in south-east Turkey recently visited a Syrian refugee camp where he found ten-year-old children watching a YouTube clip of two men being executed with a chainsaw. The commentary claimed that the victims were Syrian Sunnis and the killers were Alawites: in fact the film was from Mexico and the murders had been carried out by a drug lord to intimidate his rivals.

The diet of snuff movies helps explain the ferocity of the conflict in Syria and the degree of hatred and terror on both sides. It also explains why the two sides find it so difficult to talk to each other. How would Union soldiers in the American Civil War have reacted if they had repeatedly watched film of a Confederate commander cutting open the body of a dead private in the Union army and eating his heart?

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.