PHILIP KNIGHTLEY is a veteran foreign correspondent. He is author of the authoritative book The First CasualtyFrom the Crimea to the Falklands: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Myth Maker. He talked to Socialist Worker about how our rulers have always attempted to use propaganda to hide the bloody truth about war.
YOU SHOULD never believe official war spokesmen on either side. Official spokesmen will always lie to you when they feel the need to do so. You never actually learn about those lies at the time. They are reluctant to lie to you if they think they might be found out in the course of the war. But if they think you won't learn about it until later, then they won't hesitate.
We did not know until long after the First World War was over that a lot of the atrocity stories about the behaviour of Germans had been invented by our Ministry of Information. They had invented stories of nuns having their breasts cut off, of babies being bayoneted and rape camps. They demonised the enemy so thoroughly, and the public was in the end so disgusted that they'd been conned, that when in the Second World War the first stories about German death camps for Jews began to come out, people didn't believe them.
In the 1991 Gulf War they said new bombing techniques meant that targets could be hit with pinpoint accuracy and wouldn't cause any "collateral damage"civilian casualties. Only after the war was over did we learn that at least one in four of the socalled "laser smart bombs" had failed to hit the target and had caused civilian casualties.
SHEA MADE the error of pretending he knew what had happened and then was forced to retract. Even more important, he was following a plan for managing the media in wartime that the Ministry of Defence has had in operation since the mid-1970s. I summarise it like this:
TV STATION bombed in Belgrade last week
THAT ALL helps conceal the bloodiness of what's happening. "Collateral damage" does not sound as bad as dead men, women, children and old people. "Degraded" doesn't sound as bad as blowing up. Those conducting the war are sensitive to what people think. They don't want to lose public support like the US lost it in the Vietnam War.
The military don't want pictures on the television screen like the attack on the refugee column. They are happy to have pictures of people looking distressed and cold and hungry, but they don't want ones with lots of blood and arms and legs flying around.
JUST AS today, there was never an official declaration of war. That meant that the military could not impose censorship. The reporters were left to their own devices. The military didn't worry about that to begin with because they thought the media would be "on side". For a long while they were. But then, like now, the correspondents began to complain about the way the war was being run. They complained about undue optimism and that winning the "hearts and minds" of the people of Vietnam meant burning, bombing and pouring napalm over them. Journalists began to attack the military. It became an absolute litany of horror stories, atrocities and bungled operations. The truth of the war began to emerge. People at home began to say, "We don't want to fight this war any more."
GOVERNMENTS HAVE always done this in time of war. The most recent parallel would be Peter Arnett who stayed on in Baghdad after the Gulf War broke out and reported the bombing. He was attacked for being a traitor and there were demands to put him on trial. Going back further you have James Cameron who went to Vietnam in 1965 to report. He later said that "the kindest thing that anybody could say at me when I came back was that I was a 'misguided, gullible, commie tool'." If you can intimidate one person, and the more prominent the better, then you can intimidate the lot of them.
GOVERNMENTS THAT go to war have got to get the public on their side. So we were told we fought the Falklands War to maintain our "national integrity". So you suggest that the "national integrity" or the "national identity" is at risk and you are being attacked by a vicious, brutal enemy. You then demonise that enemy to make him appear subhuman so it's quite OK to kill him. Milosevic is being demonised in much the same way as they demonised Saddam Hussein. They are using a lot of the same phrases. "Hitler", "intent on genocide"this is the jargon. But I deplore it. It's inaccurate.
I object to the phrase "ethnic cleansing" because I'm not certain what it means. If it means people who are somehow different because of religion or culture being forced to relocate because they've lost some battle or civil war, then this has happened throughout the ages. The use of the word "genocide", which has a very specific meaning, is an inaccurate use in the case of Kosovo. Genocide means an attempt by a major industrial power to eliminate a particular race from the face of the earth. It may be nasty, what is going on in Kosovo, but I do not see an attempt to eliminate a whole race. People must try and probe behind the rhetoric and not allow themselves to be fooled by politicians, whatever political party they may be.
THE MORE that the truth comes out, the less support this war will have and the more rocky the NATO alliance will be. It becomes very difficult to wage a war when victory is not immediately in sight and once the truth of how that war is being waged comes out. The trouble is that the daily newspapers and the television tend to treat the war on a day by day basis. They don't take a deep breath and say, "Let's go back to when the war started to find out how we got to where we are today."
David Halberstam, one of the better reporters from the US in Vietnam, who began backing the American cause, wrote to me many years later. I asked Halberstam what went wrong with the way the war was covered. He wrote to me: "The problem was trying to cover something every day as news when in fact the real key was that it was all derivative of the French-Indochina Warwhich is history. So you should really have a third paragraph in each story which would have said, 'All of this is shit and none of it means anything because we are in the same footsteps as the French and we are prisoners of their experience.' But given the rules of newspaper reporting you can't really do that. Events have to be judged by themselves as if the past did not really exist. To an incredible degree in Vietnam we were haunted and indeed imprisoned by our past."
That applies absolutely equally to the current war. It's time some quality newspaper ran a whole page saying this is how we got to where we are. I'd like to know what is happening in this war and so would a lot of other people.