Jon Swain - writer and foreign correspondent

War doesn’t belong to the Generals

Jon Swain

British Journalism Review, vol. 14, No. 1, 2003, pages 23-29

Whenever I address the problem of how as a newspaperman I might best report the war in Iraq, I inevitably try to imagine how the talented array of post-war British foreign correspondents would have covered it had they been around in this digital age. Undoubtedly, it would have been with dedication, derring-do, moral integrity and good humour. They would have got out into the field, not sat around at a briefing centre at headquarters relying on official sources for news, and they would not have been part of a pool.

This small, tough and distinguished band of journalist-adventurers, whose by-lines popped up constantly for 30 years after the Second World War from all the world's troublespots – be it Algeria, the Congo, Aden or Indo-China – would have been astonished by the requirements of war reporting today. Many of us heading for the Gulf are being trained in, and distributed with, bodysuits to protect us from nuclear, chemical or biological warfare. The Americans have gone a step further. In an effort to prepare journalists to accompany frontline operations, the Pentagon has been putting small groups of journalists through boot camp for a week. They take part in a live-fire exercise, run for cover with 70lbs packs on their backs as explosions fill the air, are taught how to don a gas mask in nine seconds in a chamber filled with CS gas, and learn basic medical and mapreading skills.

I am fortunate enough to have experienced, in Vietnam and Cambodia, the tail-end of what is still regarded as the golden era of war reporting and I am, as a result, astonished by the careful preparations today's news organisations have been making for the next Gulf war. In Vietnam, there were no such things as the hostile environment courses for correspondents that we have today. We learnt the do's and don'ts of war reporting from our peers, some of whom, like the late Donald Wise of the Daily Mirror, had fought in World War Two and generously shared their enormous combat experience with us novices, welcoming us into the fold as if we were veterans. We picked up from them essential practical tips on how to recognise incoming and outgoing fire, when and where to take cover, what to wear, how to avoid ambushes – or we just muddled through learning from our own mistakes.

They taught us how to see the ludicrous and bizarre side of war, too. Wise, for example, invariably came up with a witty remark when being shot at. During the Bangladesh war he was standing with Tony Clifton of Newsweek in the middle of a dried-out rice field with a group of Pakistani officers. The front was incredibly quiet but the officer told Wise there was an Indian tank in a clump of coconut trees. Wise said: “I doubt it, I've seen this sort of thing before.” Whereupon the officer turned to one of his men and said: “Fire a burst into those trees, will you.” He fired a burst and there was a tremendous snorting and roaring and a tank rumbled out of the clump, the gun swivelled towards Wise and there was a huge explosion. Everyone was covered in muck and bits of dead tree. As Wise picked himself up from the ground and brushed his clothes, he said: “Well, that's what I call a full and frank exchange of views.”

Equipment from the black market
At the time he was wearing a sapphire blue shirt and tartan trousers, which goes to prove that to be a great war correspondent it is not necessary to go to boot camp, wear battledress or try to be overly soldierly. Wise, of course, had been a great soldier, too, thrice wounded in combat.

Sometimes the proper way to report on British or American troops is, however, to wear their uniforms. It makes one more easily accepted. Reporters in Vietnam had to wear military fatigues in the field and it certainly did not make them pull their critical punches. But it is by no means de rigeur. In Vietnam, we got our equipment from the Saigon black market before we went to war. It usually included a mosquito net, ground sheet and air mattress, a camouflage blanket, a first-aid pack, water purification tables, some combat rations and a torch. We did not first go on a course in Britain on how to conduct ourselves under fire or how to dress our wounds before we left for Southeast Asia; such courses did not exist then.

Today's hostile-environment courses are primarily run by news organisations as an insurance matter. That said, they are definitely of benefit, especially the medical side. Many of us in Vietnam and Cambodia were not even insured against war risks by our organisations, let alone trained how to dress a chest wound. It was definitely a more fun journalistic world then, but the care with which news organisations now try and look after their correspondents in the field has to be applauded, so long, that is, that it does not smother the innate curiosity and initiative of the correspondents, so vital to the trade.

The pending war with Iraq will be the first time since the Anglo-French invasion of the Suez Canal Zone in 1956 that a British government has sent British troops into combat without popular support at home. The military itself is not in favour of the war, either. A distinguished British general told journalists the other day that every general he had encountered or spoken to about Iraq in recent weeks opposed the war and thought it was potentially the biggest catastrophe since Suez.

There were no boot camps for journalists in 1956. Indeed, military/press relations were at times so cosy that Peter Woods, working for the Daily Mirror, persuaded the army to let him jump into Port Said with the 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment although he had never parachuted before. As the plane approached the dropping zone, he told his secret to the sergeant next in line to him in the stick. The para allowed him to go ahead, saying that since training caused as many injuries as the real thing, Woods stood as much chance as any of them of reaching the ground unscathed – that is if the Egyptian ack-ack guns did not get him on the way down. Woods was the only journalist in the action and handed his scribbled dispatches to helicopter pilots who were flying casualties back to warships offshore. He had a genuine scoop. But he still came in for criticism from jealous colleagues that he had acted irresponsibly and endangered British soldiers' lives.

I do not believe the British army would act in the same generous manner to us today, partly, of course, because we are just too numerous and unwieldy to cater for. Today's conflict zones are studded with TV crews with massive budgets who swing around the landscape like big cities and are set up even to the point that they hire ex-SAS men to advise them on their everyday security concerns. There will be so many of them covering Gulf War Two that it seems unlikely there will be any room for the soldiers on the battlefield.

Part of the reason for the military's reticence towards the press is our new technology, which makes the military top brass intensely nervous and so they will endeavour to limit the access to the battlefield accordingly. It is in their blood to want to corral us into their cause, but military censorship is not possible in the way it once was now that reporters can carry their personal communications gear – satphones and laptops – everywhere with them. The Vietnam war was the first modern war without censorship and the American military rued the day they gave journalists free and uncontrolled access. Because America's defeat was partly blamed on this unbridled freedom, in all subsequent wars – Grenada, the Falklands, Desert Storm, Bosnia, Kosovo – warring armies have again taken to managing the news, and this time round in Iraq will be no exception.

The British will be just as determined as the Americans to control the flow of information. They expect us to be “on side”, working for the national good. Back in World War Two when most correspondents conformed and did their patriotic duty, General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, said that “fundamentally, public opinion wins wars,” and that journalists had a job in war as essential as the military's. War with Iraq is unpopular and so swaying public opinion its way will be crucial for the British Government. Inevitably, journalists are going to be in conflict with this desire of Government and military to control news in their favour. The nature of the war is likely to make operating independently extremely dangerous, but some of the best stories will come from travelling alone; they always have.

They tried to frighten us
During the Gulf War and in Afghanistan the U.S. armed forces limited journalists' access to troops, arguing military security and safety concerns. Correspondents got, with rare exception, much of their news at daily briefings. Last year in Afghanistan, the Royal Marines bottled up journalists in the heat and dust of Bagram airbase, taking them on pools of limited value. One I remember was to a helicopter refuelling point, i.e. a petrol station in the desert, where we hung around for hours and then interviewed a few strapping marines. When a fellow reporter from The Times and I went solo, hiking across the rugged terrain independently of the marines to reach their forward positions in the mountains of south-east Afghanistan, we were accused of breaching operational security and endangering their lives. An embarrassed Ministry of Defence tried to frighten us from doing it again by warning my paper that I had narrowly avoided being shot by a sentry as I approached one marine outpost. In fact the marines, when we came across them, were deservedly flat on their backs dozing after a long slog up the mountainside.

Any suggestion of a breach of security was nonsense since the marines' positions were already the talk of the local bazaar, which is where we had gleaned our information in the first place. (The MoD's line was that the marines from 45 Commando were on a major combat operation.) By operating independently of the pack, we were able to puncture the spin, and report how, dedicated professional soldiers though the marines were, they had arrived in Afghanistan too late to make a difference to the war against terror. They went home without a proper contact or a kill to their name.

We found out that a huge al-Qaeda ammunition cache they had “discovered” in the mountains and blown up in front of massed TV cameras, which the MoD said had vindicated Operation Snipe and was the biggest controlled explosion since the Second World War, was in fact a “friendly” arms dump belonging to a local warlord who was an Afghan ally of the American-backed provisional government in Kabul. The ammo was in caves a kilometre off the road and did not need hundreds of marines crossing mountains and valleys to reach. They could have come by road, but that would have spoilt the drama.

War has become so politicised that it is no longer entrusted to generals. Whitehall attached a political officer to Brigadier Roger Lane, the marines' commander in Afghanistan, to ensure he gave the press corps the correct upbeat line. It was a shame because we saw through it and, besides, the marines are too good at what they do to need the press corps to promote their virtues to the people at home.

In Desert Storm, there were some 1,400 reporters based in Saudi Arabia and most got their news from daily briefings. The American and British military tried to control access by a tightly-controlled pool system of reporting that kept reporters away from the battlefield and the front lines. This had the desired affect of creating the impression of an antiseptic war. In war, having journalists working within the military system is, of course, essential. But those who came up with the best stories then were, almost without exception, accredited and working around the system.

Three of us formed what we laughingly called the LRPG, which stood for the Long Range Picnic Group. Sharing a Land Rover kitted out with camouflage netting, entrenching tools and other military-style paraphernalia, and uniformed with sandy-coloured SAS-style berets on our heads, we roamed the Saudi desert south of the Kuwaiti border more or less at will, bluffing our way through checkpoints guarded by Royal Military Police. On one occasion, the RMP corporal on guard duty was so taken in that he divulged the secret password. “You ought to know it, sir,” he said. “Otherwise you could get into trouble. I say Four' and you say Two'!” Then he proceeded to direct us through the lines to the commanding officer's tent.

The American military was ruthless with any journalist it caught acting independently of the pool, rounding them up and sending them all the way back to the JIB, the joint information bureau, hundreds of miles in the rear at Dhahran. They went so far as to try to get the Saudi authorities to throw several offenders out of the country. Our intentions were entirely honourable: to get a picture of the impending land invasion of Kuwait so we would know how best to cover it when it began in a few days time. As a result of such initiatives, the accredited journalists who struck out on their own reached liberated Kuwait City well ahead of the pools.

Changes are enormous
Of course, security concerns can be legitimate and the press corps does not want inadvertently to jeopardise British or American soldiers' lives. But all too often, the military has used bogus security concerns, particularly in the Gulf War and in Afghanistan, as a device to control the information flow. The point is that journalists have an overriding right and duty to cover any war in Iraq. War is not exclusively the military's domain; it is the people's war, too. “It is their blood, their money, their flag and it is what they have to answer to the rest of the world, for the next generation,” said Mort Rosenblum, a veteran war reporter with the Associated Press. “We represent them and if we are not there, the people are not there.”

There are other interesting aspects to the Iraq conflict. Changes in war reporting have been enormous even just in the 12 years since the tanks rolled into Kuwait. Advances in the form of satellite and videophones mean we can now deliver our stories and pictures from the battlefront in real time. And if how we communicate modern conflicts has changed beyond recognition, it is the predominance of television which has profoundly affected war coverage for the worse. The numbers of TV crews are huge, the money is awesome, the competitiveness ruthless. Television has become a 24-hour slog with the result that while many of today's TV reporters may have all the traditional dedication and intrepidness of their predecessors, they cannot use it. They are tied to the satellite dish on the hotel roof ready to deliver “live spots” and so are unable to explore in depth the stories they are supposed to be reporting. As a BBC television colleague of mine said: “Anybody on the main news circuit has no fun anymore.”

I know that the great post-war foreign correspondents who crisscrossed the globe for Fleet Street with their battered portable typewriters, using telex machines and the absurdly truncated prose of cablese to dazzling journalistic effect, would not have enjoyed today's digital war reporting age one jot. In their day, before the advent of video and satellite transmission, British war reporting was newspaper, not television led. Because all television film footage of a battle had to be air-freighted back to London the first battlefield accounts and pictures inevitably appeared in the Fleet Street papers many hours before the story was aired that night. There was real by-line identification in Fleet Street then. The visual images that seared people's minds were the black-and-white photographs on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, not TV pictures. Writers and war photographers such as Don McCullin were household names in the same way that TV reporters are now. Today, McCullin says there is a Hollywood element to war photography. Photographers hunt in packs and the solitary nature of war photography has gone. And television and competitive pressures, he believes, have changed ethical standards.

So all appears very different now. Yet the essence of war reporting is and will always remain the same. No briefing can compete with the drama of actually being in the field of battle. I know as a war correspondent that one can sometimes be beguiled by the strange beauty of combat: the eerie light of flares, the sparkling of anti-aircraft fire, the sight of exploding missiles, are extraordinarily powerful and seductive images until one thinks about just what they mean. In this war, the greatest writing will again be by those full of humanity and care.