By Patrick Cockburn
War reporting is easy to do but difficult to do well. No one taking part in an armed conflict has an incentive to tell the whole truth.
This is the case in all forms of journalism, but in time of military conflict the propaganda effort is at its peak and is aided by the chaos of war, which hobbles anybody searching for the truth about what is really happening.
Military commanders are often more aware than reporters of the complexity and uncertainty of news from the battlefront. Citing such reasons, the Duke of Wellington doubted if a truly accurate account of the Battle of Waterloo could ever be written.
During the American Civil War, the Confederate general “Stonewall” Jackson made a somewhat different point. Surveying the scene of recent fighting with an aide, he turned to him and asked: “Did you ever think, Sir, what an opportunity a battlefield affords liars?”
He meant that war opens wide the door to deliberate mendacity because it is so easy to make false claims and so difficult to refute them.
But there is more at work here than “the fog of war” that over-used phrase which exaggerates the accidental nature of the confusion and is often conveniently blamed as the cause of misinformation.
Propaganda, the deliberate manipulation of information, has always been a central component of warfare and never more so than at present.
It tends to get a bad press and is the subject of much finger-wagging, but it stands to reason that people trying to kill each other will not hesitate to lie about each other.
The fashion popularised by President Trump for denouncing news contrary to one’s own interests as “fake news” has heightened the perception that information, true or false, is always a weapon in somebody’s hands.
This is correct, but it does not mean that objective truth does not exist and that it cannot be revealed by good journalism.
The glib saying that “truth is the first casualty of war” is a dangerous escape hatch for poor reporting or credulous acceptance of a self-serving version of reality spoon-fed by the powers-that-be to the media.
On the contrary, there is nothing inevitable about the suppression of truth about war or anything else – though it is much in the interests of governments to demoralise critics by pretending their efforts are puny and ineffectual.
Journalists, individually and collectively, will always be engaged in a struggle with the propagandists that will sway backwards and forwards; but victory for either side is never inevitable.
While this general principle is true, I nonetheless have had the depressing sense since the First Gulf war in 1991 that it is increasingly the propagandists who are winning the content and that accurate eyewitness reporting is on the retreat.
The causes of this are diverse: politics, finance and technology have combined to squeeze, or even eliminate, those whose job it is to find out what is truly going on and pass on news of it to the public.
These ill-winds may blow from many directions but their collective impact is to blight many types of on-the-ground news gathering: casualties include the provincial press in the US and Europe as well as my own field of foreign reporting, a speciality which, in the last two decades has been increasingly dominated by war reporting.
What has changed in war reporting in recent decades is the much greater sophistication and resources that governments deploy in shaping the news
Since 1999 I have been writing about conflicts in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria which are sometimes referred to as the post 9/11 wars, although in certain important respects predate the destruction of the Twin Towers.
Reporting from war zones was always difficult and dangerous to do, but has become more so in this period. Coverage of the Afghan and Iraqi wars was often inadequate, but not as bad as the reporting in Libya and Syria.
Misconceptions have arisen not just about matters of detail but about more fundamental questions, such as who is really fighting whom; and who are the winners and losers.
This ignorance is often portrayed as something afflicting the general public, while the powers-that-be, the controllers of “the deep state”, who may have their burrows in the Pentagon, Whitehall or the Kremlin, really do know what is going on.
In fact, sad experience shows that this is not true and politicians, like Tony Blair and George W Bush in Iraq in 2003, take momentous decisions on the basis of limited and misleading knowledge.
The same was true of David Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and Hillary Clinton when they came together in 2011 to sanction the overthrow of Gaddafi by Nato in Libya.
It should have been obvious from the beginning that the rag-tag opposition militias on the ground were in no position to replace him and that anarchy would be the inevitable outcome of the war.
As for Syria, political leaders and media organisations convinced themselves that the fall of President Bashar al-Assad was inevitable, while anybody with real experience on the ground could predict with a fair degree of certainty that this was not going to happen.
One should not be too dewy-eyed about standards of reporting 50 years ago, when most news organisations covering the Vietnam war dutifully toed the official line about the impending victory of the US and its allies.
The media often exaggerates its own ability to find out truth and speak that truth to power.
Still, in Vietnam journalists were thick enough on the ground and were free to operate. They had in their ranks a fair number of perceptive dissenters who contradicted official optimism and said that the US was heading for disaster.
Sadly, the balance of forces has changed since Vietnam away from independent-minded journalism and towards those who act as messenger boys and girls for government views.
The change for the worse is detectable, although I do not want to sound too much of a Cassandra since the world turns slowly and usually there are fewer things changing than stay the same.
There is nothing new about propaganda, controlling the news or spreading “false facts”.
Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs inscribed self-glorifying and mendacious accounts of their battles on monuments in which their defeats are lauded as heroic victories.
What is new about war reporting in recent decades is the much greater sophistication and resources that governments deploy in shaping the news. Where governments do not have their own heavily-manned press offices, they hire private PR companies.
After Vietnam, the US military convinced itself – wrongly to my mind – that it had lost the war because of hostile media coverage. They were determined not to let this happen again and one could sense this approach at work in the Gulf war of 1991, a conflict that set a pattern for war reporting in the coming years.
Life was not difficult for propagandists in that early period: Saddam Hussein was easy to demonise because he was genuinely demonic. On the other hand, the most influential news story of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the US-led counter-invasion was a fake.
This was a report that in August 1990 invading Iraqi soldiers had tipped babies out of incubators in a Kuwait hospital and left them to die on the floor.
A Kuwaiti girl working as a volunteer in the hospital told the US Congress that she had witnessed this horrific atrocity. Her story was confirmed by Amnesty International and was hugely influential in mobilising international support for the war effort of the US and its allies.
In reality the Kuwait babies story was a fiction. The girl who claimed to be a witness turned out to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador in Washington.
Several journalists and human rights specialists expressed scepticism at the time because purported eyewitness accounts were full of holes, but their voices were drowned out by the outrage provoked by the tale.
It was the classic example of a successful propaganda coup: the story could not be easily disproved and when it was – long after the war – it was only after it had had an immense political impact in creating support for the US-led coalition.
continues in part 2
Patrick Cockburn is an award-winning Independent columnist who specialises in analysis of Iraq, Syria and wars in the Middle East. He has been with The Independent since 1990.