The Media and Modern Warfare

Professional soldiers through the past century and a half have seldom thought much of the journalists who have accompanied them to war.  William Howard Russell of The Times, father of modern war corresponding, was sometimes feared by the generals of the Crimea, but never admired by them.  In the early days of the American Civil War, an idealistic Union general named Irvin McDowell said that he had arranged for correspondents to take the field with the army, “and I have suggested to them that they should wear white uniforms to indicate their purity of their characters.”  It was not long before any delusions of that sort were shattered.  By 1898, when General Kitchener started his expeditionary force up the Nile to defeat the Mahdi, he was best remembered among the accompanying journalists for his answer when they besieged his tent one morning in search of news: “Out of my way, you drunken swabs!”

In the nineteenth century, an image was forged among professional soldiers about the behaviour of journalists reporting war which has persisted in some measure to this day: of a band of anarchistic, untrustworthy, ill-conducted men, owing loyalty to nothing save their own careers.   In our house in London, I have some drawings from The Graphic and the Illustrated London News from colonial wars of the 1880s and 1890s, depicting correspondents advancing to war armed with cases of whisky, riding while better men walked, looting while better men fought.

The relationship between this image and reality in the nineteenth century was very much the same as it is today.  Journalists, like warriors and pretty much everybody else, are a mixture of the good, the bag and the ugly.   Soldiers fight wars because it is their duty to do so.  Although they are too gentlemanly to say so too loudly or too often, most hunger for the opportunity to distinguish themselves in action, because war for the professional soldier offers the same career opportunities as a takeover or a major sales campaign to a corporate executive.  Civilians, in modern times, take pains to avoid battlefields whenever they can.  The old voyeuristic instincts that brought fine ladies and gentlemen in their carriages to the ridge of Waterloo, and to the great battlefields of the American Civil War, have gone.  Modern weapons make the scenes of conflict between armies too uncertain and too dangerous to encourage casual bystanders.

The public remains inexhaustibly curious  to discover what war is like, but now satisfies this at one remove, through the media.  It has been accepted by western societies since the 19th century, though rather less enthusiastically by their military commanders, that journalists should be allowed to tell their peoples what is being done by their armies in their name.    In every modern war, therefore, anything between a handful and some thousands of media correspondents have been authorised to attend the world’s battlefields as privileged spectators.  Some – like Russell and G W Steevens in the first generation, Alan Moorehead, Martha Gellborn and Ernie Pyle in the Second World War, John Simpson and Christina Lamb today – have been people of high intelligence and literary gifts, who treated their responsibilities very seriously, and filed dispatches that become recognised as models of informative reporting.  This by no means always make them popular with armies.   Russell was hounded out of the United States for telling the world after the battle of Bull Run in 1862 that the Union forces had broken in rout, when the Washington administration and the Union command recoiled from admitting the truth.  Winston Churchill was enraged by the reporters in North Africa who told the public, entirely accurately, that British tanks were no good.

And in addition to the serious and dedicated reporters, from the beginning there have also been the voyeurs, sensation seekers,  political propagandists, drunkards, louts, cowards carrying press cards.   These men- and today women-  often outnumber the serious reporters: maybe not in their influence upon the public, but in the perception of professional soldiers on the spot, and in later legend.  Vietnam, more than any other recent war, attracted a host of thrill seekers, war lovers, women war “groupies”, reporters who never left the bars of Saigon.

The great American military analyst S L A Marshall wrote bitterly of the lack of national loyalty among that new breed of reporters in Vietnam: “In the days of yore the American correspondent … was an American first, a correspondent second.  This old-fashioned standard seems to have been forgotten in south-east Asia.  Some old-timers still play the game according to the rules.  There is a new breed that acts as if it believes a press ticket is a licence to run the world”.  I shall say a bit more later about issues posed by the hubris of some modern war correspondents.   Yet we should no more allow the doings of the moderate reporters to define our picture of the media at war than we should judge armies by their stupid officers.   The principal downside of the dross on the battlefield is that whereas there is almost no limit to the number of journalists who can report a royal wedding,  flood disaster or a big political event, physical constraints in a war mean that only a limited number of reporters can be accredited to a battlefield.   Every dud who gets to accompany an army means that one less good reporter will do so.