As staff at some of the world’s most prestigious press organizations effectively take Hizbullah’s side in its war with Israel, they inadvertently reveal a profound transformation in the logic of warfare.
Some examples of their actions:
- Reuters: Adnan Hajj, a freelance photographer with over a decade’s experience at Reuters, doctored his pictures to make Israeli attacks on Lebanon look more destructive and Lebanese more vulnerable. His embellishments created thicker and darker plumes of smoke from bombing raids and posed the same woman bewailing the loss of her bombed-out residence in three different locations. Reuters fired Hajj and withdrew 920 of his pictures from its archive. Further research by bloggers uncovered four types of fraudulent pictures by Reuters, all exaggerating Israeli aggressiveness. The bloggers even documented how a Reuters picture was staged.
- The BBC: Editors actively trolled for personal accounts to demonize Israel, posting this request on its news pages: “Do you live in Gaza? Have you been affected by violence in the region? Send us your experiences using the form below. If you are happy to speak to us further please include contact details.”
- CNN: an anchor on its international program, Rosemary Church, implied that Israeli forces could shoot down Hizbullah’s rockets but chose not to do so when she asked an Israeli spokesman, “would Israel not be trying to shoot them out of the sky? They have the capability to do that.”
- The Washington Post: Similarly, military affairs reporter Thomas Ricks announced on national television that unnamed U.S. military analysts believe the Israeli government “purposely has left pockets of Hezbollah rockets in Lebanon, because as long as they’re being rocketed, they can continue to have a sort of moral equivalency in their operations in Lebanon.” Having one’s own people injured, he explained, offers “the moral high ground.”
- All these media activities stem from a perception that taking casualties and looking victimized helps one’s standing in the war. Adnan Hajj’s distortions, for example, were calculated to injure Israel’s image, thereby manufacturing internal dissent, diminishing the country’s international standing, and generating pressure on the government to stop its attacks in Lebanon.
But this phenomenon of each side parading its pain and loss inverts the historic order, whereby each side wants to intimidate the enemy by appearing ferocious, relentless, and victorious. In World War II, for instance, the U.S. Office of War Information prohibited the publication of films or photographs showing dead American soldiers for the first two years of fighting, and then only slightly relented. Meanwhile, its Bureau of Motion Pictures produced movies like “Our Enemy – The Japanese,” showing dead bodies of Japanese and scenes of Japanese deprivation.
Proclaiming one’s prowess and denigrating the enemy’s has been the norm through millennia of Egyptian wall paintings, Greek vases, Arabic poetry, Chinese drawings, English ballads, and Russian theater. Why have combatants (and their media allies) now reversed this age-old and universal pattern, downplaying their own prowess and promoting the enemy’s?
Because of the unprecedented power enjoyed by the United States and its allies. As the historian Paul Kennedy explained in 2002, “in military terms there is only one player on the field that counts.” Looking back in time, he finds, “Nothing has ever existed like this disparity of power; nothing.” And Israel, both as a regional power in its own right and as a close ally of Washington, enjoys a parallel preponderance vis-à-vis Hizbullah.
Such power implies that, when West fights non-West, the outcome on the battlefield is a given. That settled in advance, the fighting is seen more like a police raid than traditional warfare. As in a police raid, modern wars are judged by their legality, the duration of hostilities, the proportionality of force, the severity of casualties, and the extent of economic and environmental damage.
These are all debatable issues, and debated they are, to the point that the Clausewitzian center of gravity has moved from the battlefield to the op-eds and talking heads. How war is perceived has as much importance as how it actually is fought.
This new reality implies that Western governments, whether the United States in Iraq or Israel in Lebanon, needs to see public relations as part of their strategy. Hizbullah has adapted to this new fact of life but those governments have not.