Managing the Image of War


Lessons of Vietnam

Despite the immense commitment of men, materiel and the might of the whole economy of the USA, America was beaten in Vietnam. US forces returned home and their enemies, the Vietnamese communists overran the whole country.

After this damaging experience morale in the US Army was rock bottom, I happen to know from personal contacts. You can ask anyone who served in the US Army in the nineteen seventies. Drink, drugs and indiscipline were rife.

At this time there were many in the military, and in the political establishment who felt the US military did not lose the war in Vietnam, rather they felt they were defeated on the home front by journalists and the mass media. Those at the top resolved to learn lessons from what happened and to not to let it happen again.


Professional armies

The first signs that the lessons had been learned became increasingly apparent under President Ronald Reagan’s rearmament programme. In Vietnam, Korea and in the Second World War the USA had fielded a “Citizen Army”. That is an army of conscripts representing a true cross-section of American society. Now there was a change, future conflicts would be conducted by a modern ‘Professional Army’ of career soldiers.

Professional soldiers would be less difficult to manage, less easy to disaffect and more likely to have a long-term commitment to life in the military. They belonged to a military sub-culture. Perhaps they came from military families, their parents and grand-parents may have served, they knew the ropes, they knew what to expect. Such soldiers formed a closed community, closing ranks against the criticisms of the outside world.


Embedded journalists

What to do about the journalists? How to control their prying and their criticisms? A war is a dangerous place, and unlike the journalists of old, who perhaps spent their formative years fighting in World War Two or Korea, they were mostly out of their depth in a conflict zone. It would be necessary for the authorities to ‘protect’ such people. The journalists would only be permitted into the war zone if they were embedded safely with troops.

The corollary of this is that it is difficult to bite the hand that feeds you. Journalists who live sleep and eat with the troops, bond with them, and importantly may be grateful to them for protecting them are unlikely to be either critical or objective in their reporting. They will identify with the friendly troops, an inescapably powerful piece of human psychology.

Those journalists bold enough to venture out alone often turned up dead. A deterrent to employers with their legal duty of care, and insurance premiums to pay, as well as to most reporters.

Back at home the right-wing press almost always brimming over with enthusiasm for a jolly good war did their part by trying to recreate an atavistic form of ‘patriotism’ which many of us, of an older generation, thought had been stamped out in the sixties and seventies. It’s all about ‘Our Boys’, support ‘Our Boys’, don’t stab ‘Our Boys’ in the back. The wars may not be our wars, but the soldiers are ‘Our Boys’.

The press reduced conflict to a video game of objects exploding in cross-hairs. Civilian suffering was rarely shown unless it was inflicted by our enemies.


Technology and Tactics

Here advances in military technology were able to contribute to a delusion of fighting a ‘clean war’. Modern democracy we were led to believe fights clean, they are a bunch of ‘Boy Scouts’ protecting civilians even when destroying their country. Thanks to the precision of modern weapons only the, and this is the term, ‘Bad Guys’ get hurt, just like in an episode of your favourite, infantile television series.

Whereas there is no doubt the advances in technology have reduced the need for unnecessary civilian casualties in many battlefield contexts, there is also little doubt that such losses still abound, even if going unmentioned.


Not Keeping Count

So here was another crucial component in the creation of the ethos of the ‘nice, clean war’, no official estimates would be made, and certainly if made, not reported to the media, of non-combatant casualties. If asked officers would shrug their shoulders and reassure the public that modern rules of engagement, training and weapons technology ensured that every care was made to avoid civilian casualties. May be if you have no figure, the figure is zero, another piece of human psychology.

Counting dead civilians would be left to NGOs, charities and activist groups. Whatever figure they came up with could be undermined as, inaccurate, amateurishly incompetent, or ‘politically motivated’. We could only be sure the military had the true picture, they controlled the area where combat happened and cleaned it up after. Only they would know, but they’re not telling. If they do tell how can you independently verify their figures? You’re expected to trust them, because this is democracy, and in democracy politicians and generals never lie.


The ‘nice clean’ war

Thus the politicians, the military, and the mass media have trained the public well, especially since the Kuwait campaign in 1991, to see war as a civilised, controlled, ‘nice, clean’ process. Nothing to despise. ‘War can be a force for good in the world, so let’s have much more of it’, is the subliminal message.

Thus the governments of the west are given a free hand by the public to adopt war as a routine tool of foreign policy, not the ghastly last resort of self-defence an older generation often believed it should be.