Socialist Worker

The first casualty of war

Philip Knightley, author of the acclaimed history of war reporting, The First Casualty, spoke to Socialist Worker about war and the media

Issue No. 1992

Vietnamese victims lie on the road near the village of My Lai

Vietnamese victims lie on the road near the village of My Lai

In the My Lai massacre in Vietnam you saw the mundane racism of the US troops. On 16 March 1968, they killed between 90 and 130 men, women and children. What is important and notable is that it wasn’t until November 1969 that the story came out.

The massacre was not revealed by a war correspondent on the spot, but by a reporter back in the US who was capable of being shocked by it. He wrote the story at a moment when, for a number of reasons, the US public was prepared to read, believe and accept it.

The White House had led the US people to believe that victory in the war was just around the corner. Then, in January 1968, the Vietnamese launched the Tet offensive. The fact that the US was losing the war was important in the story coming out.

It’s not that war correspondents didn’t know what was going on, but that they didn’t see it as abhorrent behaviour. I have spoken to lots of journalists who were in Vietnam about this issue. They all recount how they did not see atrocities like those of My Lai as unusual as worth reporting.

If they did, they were absolutely convinced that their news organisations would not be interested in the slightest in a massacre in small village in Vietnam. After the media turned against the war, every journalist suddenly recalled that they did have atrocity stories to tell.

Unfortunately, My Lai had an unexpected and negative repercussion. From this moment the media decided the war was all but over. The amount of space given to coverage of the war actually declined.

Perhaps it is also worth recalling that Newsweek magazine called the story An American Tragedy – it was that angle that made it an acceptable story. News agency after news agency argued over whether they could run an “out of date story” or whether they should buy “massacre pictures”.

There were atrocities before My Lai and massacres occurred on a larger scale afterwards. But My Lai removed the inhibitions about talking about the war.

There is one major difference between the time of My Lai and now. In a sense, Vietnam was an aberration. It was a war in which, initially at least, the media was welcome. The US wanted the media there to show them fighting Communism.

They did everything to facilitate coverage of the war. The military provided transportation and transmission facilities. It was a key point in the war when the media woke up and turned against it. They turned because of what was happening on the ground in Vietnam and opposition at home.

The US military in particular came to think that the attitude of the media was why they lost the war. So ever since, they have been at pains not to repeat the levels of access for the media. In Iraq, from the beginning, the media has been unable to cover the war effectively.

Journalists have had to be embedded in the military, which makes their reports practically useless. “Unilaterals” as they call them are actively discouraged. They are discouraged to the point that being a non-embedded journalist means risking being killed by the US military.

Nearly all of the reporting of the war comes from the Green Zone in Baghdad. This is like the old stereotypes of the correspondents who never left the hotel bars in Saigon to report on the war in Vietnam. If I see another BBC reporter dressed in a flak jacket telling me what is happening in Iraq while trapped in the Green Zone, I will blow up my television.

It is partially a consequence of the occupation, but far more of the structure of media in Iraq, that the physical and financial costs of covering the war are extremely prohibitive. For instance, one third of any media budget in Iraq is now spent on insurance. That makes it impossible for freelance journalists or film crews to operate.

Something else has happened. Many other people in Iraq now consider themselves journalists and provide footage to the media. While this is better than nothing, it is in no way a method for covering a war effectively. A squaddie with a mobile phone and a blogger in Baghdad don’t take the place of someone like Robert Fisk reporting on the war.

Attitudes to atrocities in war have not changed much at all. Ordinary squaddies in Iraq see atrocities all the time. In fact, they are proud of them. If they weren’t they wouldn’t take pictures of them.

What happened then, and what happens now, is that people who don’t take these things for granted and think there is something wrong with how the war is conducted come across the the story and blow the whistle. The arguments about it being old news or people not wanting to see the horror of war are still used today.

Today the Bush regime has no compunction over the suppression of news over the war. The US is supposed to have a set of checks and balances, which may or may not work in this case. But I feel things like the Bush plan to bomb the Al Jazeera news station will keep coming back to haunt the regime.

The same pattern is emerging over the war in Iraq as over the war in Vietnam. Sections of the media are beginning to see that there is no light at the end of the tunnel for the occupation. The US and Britain are getting deeper and deeper into a quagmire.

The difference is that millions of people knew all this in advance, and the media is being forced to catch up.

The First Casualty: the War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-maker from the Crimea to Kosovo, £15, is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Go to or call 020 7637 1848

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Sat 18 Mar 2006, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1992
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