The Dangers of Warfare in a Media Age

April 23, 2003

The Dangers of Warfare in a Media Age

  The advent of the contemporary media age, in which events across the world are instantly brought before their vast international audiences, brings not only new opportunities and benefits but also new dangers.


  The advent of the contemporary media age, in which events across the world are instantly brought before their vast international audiences, brings not only new opportunities and benefits but also new dangers. It is possible, for example, that tomorrow's wars will be at risk of being overly influenced by the views of spectator audiences, at the expense of the considerations that ought to guide policy-makers, such as a considered assessment of the national interest.  Coverage of recent conflicts--the air campaign against Yugoslavia, the toppling of the Taliban in Afghanistan and now the second Gulf conflict--has had an impact on how military affairs are to be conducted. 

Symptomatic of this change of emphasis is the likelihood that future leaders will become more preoccupied with the images and headlines of the moment at the expense of the longer-term considerations that ought to be their proper concern. This danger mirrors criticism of contemporary politicians whose domestic agendas are more concerned with "spin" than "substance." 


Headline, not strategy 

The 1998 U.S. missile attack on Afghanistan illustrates this particular danger. Though it was of course launched against a quite legitimate target for a quite legitimate reason- in retaliation for Al-Qaeda's August 7 attack on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that had left hundreds dead- the particular methods deployed did not form part of a coherent strategy but were instead intended to deflect from the massive publicity then being focussed upon the Lewinsky scandal. It seems improbable that much consideration was given to the counter-productive impact such a strike would have upon sympathetic Arab opinion, and as Ahmed Rashid, a leading authority in this field, has since written, the cruise missile strikes were symbolic of how "Washington had demonized Bin Laden to such an extent that he had become a hero for many Muslims, particularly in Pakistan." More importantly, it has since become apparent that the wider strategic end of toppling the Taliban was not taken seriously and plans to undertake such an operation were continually shelved. 


Another danger is a consequence of the greater volatility of public opinion that will characterize future conflicts as a result of a powerful media focus. Governments that wage future wars will find that the public support they depend upon is more likely to waver if graphic images are screened of, for example, the massive civilian casualties that may eventuate during such a campaign. As a result they are more likely to cave into public pressure in an act that amounts to a "half-measure"- one that mixes all the disadvantages of a military strike with all those of having done nothing at all. 

This danger became apparent when, during the 78-day air war against the Milosevic regime in Belgrade in the spring of 1999, the Serbs proved unexpectedly resilient and the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy building dented British and American confidence; Allied morale also fell suddenly, though temporarily, soon after the onset of the recent war against Saddam's Iraq, when enemy hit-and-run tactics initially proved damaging. But the Afghan war provides the best example of how nerve can crack: as the Kabul regime continued to resist Western bombing after four weeks of action, a rebel leader, Abdul Haq, was captured and executed, some stray bombs took a toll on innocent lives, and important allies made pronouncements as to how "we cannot accept what we see every day on the television screens-the killing of innocent civilians, hundreds of them dying every day", signs of pessimism crept into allied capitals, prompting some calls for a cease-fire and a rethink of the whole operation. 

There will, of course, be other times when media images, far from undermining a war effort, will instead sustain it: military action in Afghanistan would have been immensely difficult to justify to the American public without potent images of the World Trade Center. This, however, leads to a further danger. 

Immediate Action 

Because military action- or indeed any non-military political response- is much easier to justify when public opinion is at a height, there is often a danger that politicians will be increasingly tempted to rush into taking unnecessary action. This risk, however, is accentuated by media image, as politicians gamble that public support for their actions may quickly dwindle unless they act when such images are at the forefront of the public mind. Because attention spans are low, and because media images are apt to come and go with extraordinary speed, he may reasonably conclude that speed is of the essence and therefore take actions that could otherwise have been avoided. 

Potent media images, widely broadcast through India, of the carnage caused by Islamic militants after attacks in New Delhi in December 2001 and Kashmir the following May put the Indian government under huge domestic pressure to launch retaliatory raids against the insurgents Pakistani bases: an aggressive emergency debate in the Indian parliament, unanimously condemning Islamabad for the attack, caught the public mood by demanding action to "end the menace" of terrorism. But had Prime Minister Vajpayee followed the aggressive advice of may of his most senior advisors, long convinced of the need for strikes on Pakistani territory, and used the public mood as a convenient moment to launch an attack, then the exhaustive international efforts to make New Delhi "pause and reflect" may not have had any chance to succeed. 

In the realm of foreign policy, the overall effect of modern media may be to revert Western politics towards a new age of populism, in which policy is determined by the whims of the masses, and away from a genuine democracy in which such policy is delegated into the hands of elected representatives.


The author is a British defense journalist. He has covered recent events in the War on Terror for The Daily Mail.