TCS Daily


Journalists, You're in the Army Now

By Robert Haddick - June 6, 2007 12:00 AM

The days of the independent, neutral war correspondent, objectively reporting from a war's front lines, are quickly coming to an end. In the future, a war correspondent will either effectively be a soldier for one faction of a conflict, or he will literally not survive in the war zone.

In today's media age, the requirement for combatants to shape perceptions about the nature of a conflict, and the necessity of denying that ability to the enemy, are more crucial than firepower and logistics, the traditional measures of battlefield dominance. Successful media operations energize a faction's supporters and demoralize its enemies. When effective, this is more important than squadrons of fighter-bombers or train-loads of assault rifles. Whether they like or not, journalists are in the army now.

The Journalist Body Count in Iraq

On May 31, Reporters Without Borders, a non-governmental organization that promotes freedom of the press, issued an urgent notice about the extreme hazards of being a journalist in Iraq:

"Reporters Without Borders voiced deep shock today at the murders of four Iraqi journalists by armed groups in the past five days. The body of a local TV station employee was found in the boot of his car in the northern city of Kirkuk on 26 May. A Turkmen journalist was killed in Kirkuk on 28 May. Gunmen burst into the home of a journalism teacher and contributor to several media in Amariyah, near Fallujah, on 29 May, killing him and seven members of his family. A Shiite journalist was fatally shot yesterday in the southern town of Amara."

According to the organization's website, eleven journalists were killed in Iraq in May alone. Since March 2003, total journalist casualties in Iraq are 181 dead, 14 kidnapped, and 2 missing.

How a Local Reporter Survives

The targeting of these journalists, the vast majority of them local Iraqis, indicates that the various factions in Iraq place a high value on controlling the flow of information, and denying that flow to the enemy. What journalists are learning from these chilling facts are that they must only live and travel under the heavily armed protection of a particular faction; there is simply no other way to survive for long in the country as an active reporter of the war.

Naturally that protection will come at a price to be determined by the faction providing the protection. In a chaotic civil conflict such as Iraq's, previously independent media organizations have found it necessary to choose a faction that will provide physical security; the alternatives are to either exit the media business or to risk being murdered. These media organizations essentially have or will become information staff sections of the factions with which they have aligned. The journalist has become a soldier.

What about the Western Media in Iraq?

I counted 43 people on the Reporters Without Borders lists of 197 journalist casualties in Iraq who were Westerners or locals that worked for a Western media operation such as CNN, the BBC, or the New York Times. Being an employee or "stringer" for a Western media organization, and living outside the protection of Baghdad's Green Zone, is apparently little protection at all. The same forces of violence and intimidation described above apply to these sources reporting back to their Western handlers inside the Green Zone. These unfortunate facts will eventually degrade the quality of the reporting these organizations produce.

The Future of Embedding

What about those reporters who have embedded with U.S. combat units in Iraq? The American tradition of freedom of the press, combined with an American commander's fear of looking bad, has meant that these reporters have been able to say what they please, sometimes with a short delay due to operational security needs. We should expect the American practice of allowing reporters to embed with conventional U.S. combat formations to continue in the future.

However, in the future those American conventional combat formations will not spend much if any time fighting in long, drawn-out and controversial counterinsurgency campaigns. Reporters can embed with these units, but they won't leave the barracks very often.

Future U.S. leaders will adapt to the painful lessons learned in Iraq. In the future, the U.S. will use its conventional combat formations only for the types of operations that they are best suited for, namely short, high-speed, and high-intensity combat operations. Reporters will be invited to these affairs, but they will be very rare. Potential enemies of the United States will arrange to avoid high-intensity combat operations, at which U.S. conventional combat units excel.

The U.S. Also Adapts to the Media World

What about the multitude of Islamist insurgencies, low-intensity conflicts, and counter-terror operations the U.S. faces in the years ahead? The U.S. will get the best results when it arranges a media blackout of these conflicts. The U.S. government will arrange such a blackout when it employs local proxies, militias, and tribes to do its fighting. There will be few or no U.S. conventional units going to such conflicts in the future with which reporters can embed. By contrast, reporters are almost never allowed to cover current special operations missions, such as those that would support such proxy wars. As for the local proxy and militia allies of the U.S., they are unlikely to have much sympathy for the needs and traditions of Fourth Estate.

A current example of these practices can be found in Somalia. There, the U.S. intelligence community and special operating forces have worked with the Ethiopian army and local Somali tribes to wage a campaign against an Islamist movement that had previously gained power in the country. There is virtually no Western news coverage from inside Somalia. Western reporters are forced to cover the war as best as they can from either Nairobi or Addis Ababa. Since the "common, everyman" U.S. soldier is not present, the U.S. media has little interest in the conflict. Few if any visual images of the Somali conflict make it to Western news media. The U.S. can sustain a conflict on these terms for a long time, far longer than the media-intensive war in Iraq.

The Journalist as Soldier, Again

War journalism has thus come full circle. During World War II, journalists were essentially in the army, in most cases in uniform. Government policy, wartime censorship, and the culture of the times made the war correspondents just another part of the greater war machine.

The next two generations of war reporters obviously followed a different model. Whether the media "lost" the Vietnam (and Iraq?) wars is an old argument I will not repeat here. Suffice it to say that the Vietnamese Communists stumbled on a winning strategy, a strategy that the Islamists have studied and are now trying to implement.

In the meantime, combatants in today's conflicts are striving to control how their conflicts are perceived. And they are trying to deny this capability to their enemies. Being able to energize your supporters and demoralize your enemy is today's best "combat multiplier". The high death toll of reporters in Iraq is a stark indicator of the struggle for this information high ground.

Perhaps slowest of all to understand these trends, U.S. policy-makers are finally learning how to adapt their military operations to the modern media environment. They will find that the best course for the U.S. is a blackout of media coverage. The U.S. government will recruit local proxies for its low-intensity conflicts, and will keep its "common" U.S. soldiers, of such fascination to the media, in the barracks, only to be used for short, high-intensity wars, which will be rare.

The only journalists that will survive will be those that choose a side. The classic independent war correspondent who once floated across a war will be, literally, dead.

The author was a U.S. Marine Corps infantry company commander and staff officer. He was the global research director for a large private investment firm and is now a private investor. His blog is Westhawk. He is a TCS contributing writer.

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