Asymmetric War and Its Journalists

Asymmetric War and Its Journalists

If we ask the right questions, we might well conclude that political struggle rather than war is the better strategy for both sides in virtually all asymmetric conflicts.

A Palestinian journalist in Gaza City on May 12, 2021 (Momen Faiz/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

It’s commonly said that the victors write the history books. That’s probably true, except when revisionist historians decide years later that the “victors” didn’t really win. In the asymmetric wars of recent decades, the case is easier: it’s the journalists who decide who the victors are—the on-the-spot reporters and the editors back home. These aren’t always the final deciders or the only ones, but their role is critical. It is especially important for leftists to think about how these wars are reported and decided, since we have always been quick to take sides.

An asymmetric war is a war fought between a modern high-tech army and a low-tech insurgency, between the highly trained armed forces of a state and the barely trained militia of a non-state political party or movement. The strange fact about wars of this kind is that the high-tech army doesn’t win—not in Algeria, not in Vietnam, not in Afghanistan, not against Sunni or Shi’a militias in Iraq, not against Hezbollah in Lebanon, and not against Hamas in Gaza. The army doesn’t always lose, but it doesn’t win—and not winning is in effect a victory for the insurgents, who, if you just look at the firepower available to each side, shouldn’t have had a chance. In every case, the army’s generals assured the political leaders of their state that they would win. In every case, they failed to win. Talk about the immense power of the modern military machine is greatly exaggerated.

The victory of the insurgents comes at a huge cost to the people they claim to be fighting for. The Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese win but the people of Vietnam suffer. The Taliban wins but the Afghans suffer. Hamas wins but the men, women, and children of Gaza suffer. What is unique to asymmetric warfare is the close, almost causal, connection between the suffering and the victories. Reporters covering the wars help to cement the connection by what they write and by what they don’t write—and that is my subject here.


The problem the high-tech army faces is that asymmetric war is a political as well as a military struggle. It is a war for hearts and minds as in Vietnam and Afghanistan or for international sympathy and support as in Lebanon and Gaza. And in that war, the army’s soldiers are at a big disadvantage: however well they fight, they do most of the killing—and many or most of the people they kill are innocent civilians. The more civilians they kill, the more certain it is that they won’t win the war. In 2011 Colonel Harry Tunnell told an American reporter working in Afghanistan, “If we are killing local civilians, we are going to strategically lose.” There were other factors making for the U.S. defeat, but this was central: our soldiers were not only killing civilians; they were foreigners killing natives, “local civilians.” The Afghan army was viewed in ...