The politicians not without good reason consider the mass media to be the basic instrument in dissemination of ideology. Therefore, seemingly, the media so often has been found themselves in the center of heated public debates and not rarely were being charged with provoking social, political and war conflicts. War propaganda is perhaps as old as war itself, though in recent years means for its dissemination have been perfected with the same genius that has improved and made more deadly the implements of war.
In ancient times war propaganda was spread by word of mouth; today all the resources of a highly mechanized civilization are mobilized to sway the public mind. The role of media in disposing required public opinion can be hardly overestimated, especially during wartime when the mission of the media lies in convincing the public in propriety and inevitability to levy war to attain the certain goals of the state. In this paper we will consider the role of the media in decisions to go to war by the examples of Spanish–American War of 1898 and recent War in Iraq.
To realize the place of the media among driving forces of these two wars we should scrutinize aspects of war propaganda in both cases, reveal the parallels and differences between them, and make the conclusion. During wartime the political and military leaders can be expected to deceive the enemy and the public. Not as well understood is the role of the mass media. Although sometimes accused of aiding the enemy or becoming advocates, the media actually assist authorities in a variety of ways, including keeping them informed and conveying their propaganda and disinformation.
The mass media can be an ally in making war and even can make armed conflict appear entertaining (Smith, 1999). Considering the part played by the media in two war conflicts distant in time for more than a century from each other we meet the evident analogy in widespread formulation by the media of the nature of war. In both cases it was presented by the press as the war of freedom: the Spanish–American War was positioned by the media as a fight for Cuba’s “freedom from Spanish rule” (Wilkerson, 1932, p. 31), and one of the slogans under which the War in Iraq was initiated – to liberate Iraqis from tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein (“Why You Should Oppose”, 2002). Unrestricted news coverage helps to assure that the armed conflict conforms to international law, and to the political and psychological dimensions of national defense. As military public affairs analyst Harry Noyes has pointed out, nations do not just fight in wars, they also “must take sound diplomatic, economic, social and cultural measures and communicate them well”.
He has argued that the military and the media need each other, and that press accounts are as much a part of war as the weapons, because winning in the battle of public opinion requires that combat be “credibly communicated to the world” (qtd. in Smith, 1999, p. 222). In the light of Noyes’ words we can regard performance of this task by the media before and during wartime – to prepare and form public opinion approving initiation and conduct of war – as being successful for both wars concerned.
Thus, in discussions of the causes of the Spanish-American War, historians have made only passing reference to the influence of the ‘yellow journals’. To state merely that these journals were active in behalf of the Cuban rebels is to note only a part of their contribution to initiation of war. Their influence was much more far-reaching than appears on the surface, for their activity in exploiting the Cuban revolt and in selling their news services to other newspapers made it possible for all parts of the country to get partisan accounts of the Cuban insurrection (Wilkerson, 1932).
Similarly, in the case of War in Iraq the American mass media accustomed the public opinion to the thought that Iraq develops and manufactures weapons of mass destruction which entitles the US to levy war on this country being potentially threatening to international security (Anderson, 2004). Although the President and military may have to control territory on a map, they should not have the power to subdue the realm of thought. Journalists who rely too much on official sources and underproduce vital information have to share the blame for the nation’s blunders (Smith, 1999). It was true for both our cases.
Thus, for the Spanish–American War the Maine disaster may be said to have been the immediate cause of the war with Spain. For approximately three years sensational newspapers had campaigned vigorously for the cause of the rebels, but prior to the Maine explosion their news, though arousing sympathy for the Cubans, was lacking in those elements necessary to crystallize American sentiment in favor of war with Spain. For some time a large part of the American public had indicated their opposition to Spain, but the spark needed to explode their pent-up feelings against Spanish ‘oppression’ had failed to materialize.
This spark was furnished in the Maine disaster. The mystery surrounding the catastrophe and the suspicion of Spanish treachery furnished the basis for many rumors and speculations as to the cause of the explosion, which were used to advantage by several newspapers in inflaming the minds of the people (Wilkerson, 1932). It was proved later that the Spanish were not guilty of the Maine explosion, and the mass media bear responsibility for feeding disinformation.
Similarly, for the War in Iraq the information about possessing weapons of annihilation by Iraq, widely disseminated by the media, afterward turned out to be unconfirmed. The press is the watchdog over institutions of power, its job is to inform the people about the doings of their institutions (Trainor, 1990), and from the standpoint of this mission Wright (1965) noted that the objects of war propaganda are always the same regardless of epoch: the unification of the combatant, the disunion of the enemy and attaining the good will of neutrals.
It is obvious that in both concerned cases the media successfully realized their mission. The scholars emphasized that the media and the military power influence each other “not in accordance with any ‘master plan’ but rather as their diverse and sometimes contradictory actions influence the perceptions of the individuals who combine to make up ‘the military’ and ‘the media'” (Eccles, 1979, p. 150). The military–media relationship is symbiotic. The media need to see the action while the military need for them to see it, because battle is meaningless until it is credibly communicated to the world (Trainor, 1990).
In coverage of military operations the media used different means to perform this communication. While correspondents covering events of the Spanish–American War used only telegraph wire, the modern media have complete set of technological means to deliver news to the majority of people all around the world – Internet, facsimile, cellular communication etc. hence, the covering of the Spanish–American war can be hardly comparable with that of recent War in Iraq. This reflected also on awareness of the public with causes, purposes and conduct of war. The media have changed the face of modern warfare.
Revolutionary technological advances in the last two decades provide an instantaneous dissemination of the news (Gervais, 1998), and during War in Iraq the American media used all these modern developments to receive powerful backing from the public. While the correspondents in the Spanish–American War faced difficulties in gathering of news in Cuba due to controversy between the newspapers and Spanish authorities over the rights of correspondents (Wilkerson, 1932), the numerous media accredited in Iraq have carte blanche to collect and transmit news.
The crucial point in the latter case was the threat for the correspondents to be killed or kidnapped, but such threat is a reality in any war. There is one more difference in the media’s coverage of two concerned war conflicts. While the coverage for the Spanish–American War was gradually increasing up to the moment of the Main explosion (Wilkerson, 1932) that of the U. S. -Iraqi conflict prior to the war was problematic in two ways.
First, few newspapers and even fewer news broadcasts offered diverse perspectives on the war, and, second, both newspapers and television news broadcasts were dominated by the voices of Americans, particularly American politicians and military officials, without hearings from the other side of the conflict (Leahey, 2004). Summarizing the evidence from two war conflicts involving the American mass media it is reasonable to say that whatever the epoch be the media play substantial role in forming public opinion and preparing it to back governmental decisions to go to war.
Moreover, the media themselves bring both the authorities and the public to such decisions. As Gervais (1998) rightly noted in the case of military–media relations, history is bound to repeat itself. We revealed that during both the Spanish–American War and the War in Iraq the American media succeeded in escalating the public’s indignation towards the actions of Spain in the first case and those of Iraq in another case which prepared supportive public opinion to levy the war.
Although the coverage of the recent War in Iraq was more comprehensive due to modern means of communication that of the Spanish–American War was more balanced and systematic. Although the war-mongering press demonstrated its great power over the public mind when the different media work together in fostering international hatred and distrust, hopefully, the same way, the united efforts of an enlightened press would prove tremendously effective in creating the conditions of world peace and a better understanding among the nations at all times.