Thursday, September 22, 2005


I've been reading The Counter-Insurgent State: Guerrilla Warfare and State-Building in the Twentieth Century edited by Paul Rich and Richard Stubbs. One of the essays said that the British, who have the world's most successful record in terms of counter-insurgency--in Malaysian, Oman, Rhodesia, and Kenya (all of which are textbook examples of successful counter-insurgency)--failed quite dramatically in Northern Ireland, which should have been the easiest such operation.

One thing mentioned in passing was the type of media involvement. In prior counter-insurgency, the British press, though there were a comparable number of reporters and resources devoted, where primarily print journalists and still photographers. In Northern Ireland, the media was primarily television/video journalism. In Vietnam, it was a similar story, for in prior wars, including counter-insurgency such as the Phillippines and Haiti, the press was primarily print, and in Vietnam is was mainly visual.

I am quite confident that men were no nobler in the past than they are today, nor have we greatly improved. So what is it? I grant that Vietnam was almost a lost cause from the outset, but why should Britain fail on its easiest assignment with its generations of experience? Here are my thoughts:

Premise one: people do not normally assume that, that which they see is in any way falsified. We are quite used to people distorting the truth in their words and their presentation, but if we can see it, we are inclined to believe it. A lifetime of walking around and seeing the truth has taught us to trust our eyes, and only very rarely will cynicism dent our believe in our own infallibility. For example, the following photograph was part of a 52-second clip of an execution in Vietnam. However, according to The Vietnam Experience: 1968 this video clip had had the sounds of battle added in, the distance between the gunman and the prisoner altered, and the actual shot edited out because someone walked in front of the camera. Such alterations would be expected in print, people would expect the journalist to see it through his own eyes and interpret it for them. They do not, and did not, expect things which they see to have been interpreted for them.

Premise two: war is nasty, ugly, and brutish. Even if it is accomplishing desperately needed ends, the abolition of slavery, for example, it still is and appears evil.

Premise three: transparency is the best way to avoid atrocities. After Srebrenica became public, many Serbian troops began wearing masks. In anonymity is protection from justice.

Corollary one, derived from premise one: video is unable to portray nuance and subtlety. This is a direct consequence of people's natural inclination to accept what they see as true. Very few people have a nuanced view of truth.

Conclusion one, derived from premises one and two: since war will always appear evil, and the military is unable to provide the video journalists with the nuance, the necessity, of that evil, (because of video's limitations) the military will try to conceal their activities from the press.

Conclusion two, derived from premise three and conclusion one: once concealment has begun, the foremost defense against atrocities has fallen, making them much more likely. Once an atrocity has happened, this process becomes self-reinforcing.

Therefore, video media is an enabling cause of the very activities it is trying to prevent.


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