Strategic Horizons: The Information Battlefield of Live-Cast War

By Steven Metz, on , Column

During most of history, only those unlucky enough to be on the battlefield or in a sacked city experienced war. To understand armed conflict, the broader public relied on official pronouncements, soldiers’ stories and mythical narratives -- none very reliable. With the spread of literacy and expansion of the popular press, this began to change. A new breed of journalists, war correspondents, followed armies to the very edge of battle. By the time of the American Civil War, stories from the front were often embellished with drawings and engravings. Photography, which had first been used to film military scenes in the Crimean War, made the human cost of battle real in a way that drawings could not -- Mathew Brady's October 1862 photographic exhibition, "The Dead of Antietam," was a landmark at the time and remains moving today.

The 20th century saw an expanded role for war correspondents in shaping public opinion. As photography improved and moving images were added, war became painfully more real to those back home. But it wasn’t until Vietnam, America's first televised war, that scenes of death and destruction were beamed nightly into American homes. To an unprecedented degree, journalists explicitly displayed war's brutality, undercutting public support for the conflict. America's Cold War enemies seized on these images to further tarnish the country’s image abroad. Following this, it took several decades for the U.S. military to again trust journalists enough to embed them with combat units. Even then, there were controls over the images and videos made public. The editors at media outlets still decided what to publish or air, but official pressure could be brought to bear if the pictures or videos endangered military forces or were inimical to national interests. This did not always stop them, but often it did. ...

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