Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Rumours of wars

And before modern communications technologies, rumours were all most people heard about foreign wars. Today on Radio New Zealand National I talked about how that all changed with the reporting via telegraph of a disastrous military engagement over 150 years ago.

Read on for my speaking notes and for some really good links.

Q: What has the impact been of technology on war reporting?

A: Technology has changed what a home population finds out about foreign wars, and that has an impact in the way they play out. Going back to antiquity, of course, people had oral history and then literature celebrating great victories of the past. At school I was forced to learn vast chunks of Latin about the fall of Troy, for instance, which was basically Roman propaganda.

But about 150 years ago there was a very famous piece of war reporting. That’s the Times reporter WH Russell’s first hand account of the Charge of the Light Brigade. He wrote: “We could hardly believe the evidence of our senses! Surely that handful of men were not going to charge an army in position? At the distance of 1200 yards the whole line of the enemy belched forth, from thirty iron mouths, a flood of smoke and flame through which hissed the deadly balls. Their flight was marked by instant gaps in our ranks, the dead men and horses, by steeds flying wounded or riderless across the plain. The first line was broken — it was joined by the second, they never halted or checked their speed an instant. With diminished ranks, thinned by those thirty guns, which the Russians had laid with the most deadly accuracy, with a halo of flashing steel above their heads, and with a cheer which was many a noble fellow’s death cry, they flew into the smoke of the batteries; but ere they were lost from view, the plain was strewed with their bodies and with the carcasses of horses”.

Now Russell had the advantage of a telegraph, probably the first war reporter to do so, and that let him deliver an eye-witness account of, let’s face it, incompetent command in battle, back to the British public while the news was still reasonably fresh.

Q: And what happened as a result of his reporting?

A: Quite a lot. The most famous thing, of course, is that Alfred Lord Tennyson romanticized the whole thing in poetry – Into the Valley of Death rode the six hundred and so forth. And Tennyson’s imagery has meant that the charge has lived on as a kind of monument to heroic failure ever since. But the real impact was in people’s outrage and what they did about it. At that time, British Army commissions were purchased. You couldn’t become an officer without paying the army for your commission. And you had to support yourself, provide horses and uniforms and so on at the field of battle. And of course this meant that officers were all wealthy men, mainly aristocrats, rather than career soldiers promoted on merit as they would be today. And that system, the system of buying commissions, was changed soon after the debacle of the charge of the light brigade.

And Russell, the first war correspondent, came to be celebrated as a hero eventually. There’s a memorial to him in St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Q: Because he uncovered the stupidity and the incompetence in the Crimean War?

A: I’d like to think so, but he was involved in other wars like the US Civil war and Anglo-Zulu war. Certainly Florence Nightingale credited Russell with her becoming a nurse on the front line. Russell was undoubtedly a great man who deserved he accolades heaped upon him – he was knighted by the King – but he owed part of his success to the newly-invented telegraph which let him get his message out.

Q: So what about later wars?

A: There was heavy censorship in the first and second world wars. I don’t think the civilian populations got a very clear picture of what was going on. And, of course, in the second world war, the civilian population of Britain was under bombardment. This wasn’t some remote conflict but a very personal one for everyone in the UK. You can still hear people who grew up in Britain speak approvingly of the “thousand bomber raids” over Germany towards the end of the war – something we find hard to accept these days, but if you have lived in fear of being bombed every night for years your viewpoint would be quite different.

Moving on to Vietnam, that was another remote conflict. That’s the link to the music we started with, of course, that was Paul Hardcastle’s Nineteen which was mostly composed of samples from an ABC documentary called Vietnam Requiem which was about Vietnam veterans suffering post traumatic stress disorder.

Vietnam was the first war that was televised. Night after night, the American public had images of bombing and other horrors beamed into their living rooms every night. Did that change the course of the war? It may have. And the evidence of atrocities by US troops – My Lai for instance, or just the impact of napalm on civilians – led to disgust in many Americans and to deep divisions in that country about the war, which as we know the US eventually just gave up on. But my point here is that modern technological media bring a remote conflict home to the public, and that has an impact on a war’s prosecution.,

Q: More so in a democracy you’d imagine.

A: Yes, and more so where there is freedom of press although those two tend to go hand in hand.

Q: And what about more recent conflicts?

A: The Internet has an amazing impact on foreign wars and on conflict in general. Take Iraq as an example. The late unlamented Saddam Hussein described the Internet as “the end of civilizations” but I think he missed the point that it has a great power let the everyday person participate in what’s going on. Of course, he probably would have thought that was a bad idea anyway. But the Internet has changed so much about that war. Just a simple example: the soldiers are all using instant messaging and skype to stay in touch with the loved ones back in the US. And that makes the families really, really involved, far more so than it used to be when people just sent their sons off on a ship and hoped to see them again in a year or two. There was a Doonesbury cartoon a year or two back about a soldier being given a hard time by his worried wife for not showing up on instant messaging at the agreed time.

Q: And people are blogging about the war.

A: On all sides. US soldiers were doing that, although I think it’s been clamped down on now, Iraqi civilians are telling what is, in some cases, a really heartbreaking tale of what is going on around them, and Islamists are using the Internet as a tool of terror by posting videos of themselves killing and abusing captives.

Q: And what practical difference does all this make?

A: It’s brought the entire Internet – that’s about 2 billion people at the last count – to a place where it can experience the war from all sides at only one remove. And that’s really the underlying thread here. The Internet is putting people in touch with others at a deeply human level – soldiers to their families, the public of Iraq and the public of the rest of the world. Sure, reading some of the blogs you can get a sense of irritation or anger – I know I do sometimes – but I also feel genuinely touched by first person accounts of what is going on.


A BBC article about the reporting of the Charge of the Light Brigade and Tennyson’s poem.

An article about Vietnam as a television war and a link about the song Nineteen.

A list of blogs by people in Iraq.

posted by colin at 10:50 am  

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