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 a similar way much of the time: a puppet army fighting for the Americans. Taliban killings resonated differently.
The killing ratio is in part determined by the tactics of the insurgents, who fight from civilian cover. I call this a tactic: the insurgent fighters look for the protection of “human shields” so that they can fight more effectively. But this might also be called a strategy: they deliberately put civilians at risk because they benefit from civilian deaths—as Colonel Tunnell understood. Both the tactic and the strategy are readily documented but not always well described in the news media.
It matters a great deal how the killings are reported, and so one feature of asymmetric warfare is the effort of both sides to control the reports. One of the most famous efforts is the “Isaacson memo,” written shortly after the U.S. attack on the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan in 2001. Walter Isaacson, then the chairman and CEO of CNN, said he wanted his reporters in Afghanistan to “make sure we’re not used as a propaganda platform” by the Taliban; he wanted news items about the killing of Afghan civilians to provide “context” (we were there because of 9/11) and to stress that Taliban fighters were using civilian shields. The memo was read by its critics as if it demanded that certain things be said whether or not they were true. But I don’t think that’s what Isaacson meant, and to his credit he recognized the importance of the numbers: how many civilians were we killing? He just wanted something more than numbers. So should we.
Two years later, the veteran journalist Bob Zelnick wrote an article for Nieman Reports asking, “How should civilian casualties be reported?” He thought the Isaacson memo too formulaic; he was equally committed to “context” but much more ready (and able) to explain what that might involve. Reporters had to tell the story of civilian deaths in their own words, based on their own observations, without simply repeating the stories provided by either of the two sides. Vietnam was perhaps the first war where American reporters and TV camera operators paid virtually no attention to the claims of American press officers when writing about and filming civilian deaths. Mostly they got it right, though some American officers argued, as Zelnick reported, that “by undermining public support for the war, the media effectively limited military options that might have produced victory.” A good thing, I would say, since that could only have been a victory with huge human costs. But the critics had a point: the war reporting was a major factor in the Viet Cong victory.
The Viet Cong’s use of civilian cover and its ruthless killing of uncooperative villagers were underreported in the war years—which may help to explain an American antiwar movement whose militants carried Viet Cong flags and celebrated the communist victory. More “balanced” reporting might have helped those of us trying to find our own balance between opposing the war and not supporting the Viet Cong. But Zelnick argued that reporters shouldn’t think about the influence their stories might have on politics back home. Just get it right.
In asymmetric wars, Zelnick wrote, reporters trying to get it right face “the additional challenge of operating at the sufferance of the other side, usually in its own territory.” The “other side” here is the insurgent side, which commonly has its own press officers and its own methods for getting its version of events across. In August 2014, during the Israel-Hamas war of that year, the Foreign Press Association condemned “the blatant, incessant, forceful, and unorthodox methods employed by the Hamas authorities and their representatives against visiting international journalists in Gaza over the past month.” I am not sure what “orthodox” methods would look like; perhaps those would be the methods of the other “other side,” the state of Israel and its more conventional public relations people—though Israeli police on the West Bank have used “blatant” and “forceful” methods against journalists working there. In any case, some of the best reporting of the 2014 war came after “visiting international journalists” left Gaza and went home.
There are many questions that reporters covering asymmetric wars should be trying to answer. Most reporters consider the primary question—should this war be fought?—above their pay grade. Rightly or wrongly, they focus on the conduct of the war. But they rarely ask the critical questions about military conduct that we need to have answered. There are five of these: How many civilians have been killed? Who did the killing? How was it done? Who put those civilians at risk? And who benefited from their deaths? Most reporters address the first two, and then, lazily or fearfully, stop asking questions. And most of them write about civilian deaths by simply repeating the claims of the “side” from whose territory they are reporting.
There are occasional exceptions, one of which I wrote about a few years ago in Dissent. In 2017, just after the battle for Mosul, where Iraqi army and militia forces on the ground were supported by the U.S. Air Force, a group of Associated Press reporters challenged the official U.S. claim that under 350 civilians had been killed in the air attacks. They visited the morgue six times, spoke many more times to morgue officials, and concluded that over 9,000 civilians had been killed, some by ISIS enforcers, some in the course of the ground fighting, but some thousands, at least, by the U.S. Air Force. That kind of reporting requires a lot of work, and it certainly isn’t easy, but it provides the gold standard.
ISIS was defeated in Iraq in 2017, and the underreporting of civilian casualties while the battle was going on probably helped the Iraqi and U.S. forces. But that was a military victory, decided on the ground. Our own long-term political defeat in Iraq had a lot to do with the killing of civilians by U.S. soldiers in places like Fallujah, widely reported not only in the American press but, more importantly, in Iraq itself.
The best example of the decisive role of the press is the 2014 Israel-Hamas war, which was reported mostly from Gaza. The more recent fighting, the war of 2021, was covered in pretty much the same way, but we don’t yet have a good report on the reporting. Thanks to Richard Behar, writing in 2014 for Forbes, we know a great deal about what journalists wrote and what editors published about that year’s war. Behar has a long record of remarkable investigative reporting for which he has won numerous prizes, including two Polk awards. His article, “The Media Intifada: Bad Math, Ugly Truths About New York Times In Israel-Hamas War,” is a wide-ranging critical account of the U.S. media—dealing with some twenty newspapers, magazines, and television networks, and also, for comparative purposes, with news reports from ten other countries. I will rely mostly on Behar here, but also on my own analysis of the tactics and strategy of asymmetric war.
Let’s begin with the first of the five questions: how many civilians have been killed? Civilian deaths, Zelnick writes, are “an integral part of the war story.” In fact, they lead off most reports about asymmetric wars. Behar quotes fifty-five of those leading sentences written in July and August 2014 in the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Time magazine, and the Associated Press, or read over CNN, NBC, the BBC, National Public Radio, and others. All have exactly the same form, so two examples will be enough:
Associated Press, July 28: “The war, now in its 21st day, has killed more than 1,030 Palestinians, mainly civilians, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.”
CNN, a few days later: “The conflict is entering into its fourth week and already more than 1800 Palestinians have died in Gaza, mostly civilians, according to local health officials.”
Most of the stories include a sentence, presumably added by the editor back home, saying that Israeli officials dispute the numbers, claiming that many or most of the dead were not civilians, but the “takeaway” is always the Hamas numbers, rarely challenged or questioned by reporters on the spot. The overall numbers are probably right, confirmed by both Palestinian and Israeli human rights groups. But the disagreement about the military-civilian ratio, crucial to our political and moral judgement of the war, doesn’t often get the attention it deserves. Behar’s fifty-five leading sentences are not gold-standard reporting, though it is possible that reporters who asked questions would have been expelled from Gaza.
Despite the AP report that “the war” did the killing, it was Israeli airplanes, missiles, artillery, and ground troops that killed most of the Gazans who died in the war. Errant Hamas rockets probably took a toll, but we will never have reliable numbers. Israel insists that its soldiers aimed carefully at military targets and, as I will explain below, if that is true, they would still have killed many civilians. But there is a prior question about what counts as a military target.
Some of the reports from Gaza, several by the Associated Press, featured photos of destroyed houses with a child or parent staring at the rubble, mourning dead family members. An AP photo editor later admitted that the photos had been posed, but the destruction was real, and the deaths, too. Israel considered the homes of Hamas leaders to be legitimate military targets. My understanding of just war theory and international law is different: enemy leaders can be attacked where they work or wherever they appear in fighting mode, organizing or planning military attacks—but not when they are at home with their families. The case is the same with soldiers, who are legitimate targets even when they are resting at a base behind the lines, but not when they are on furlough, at home with parents or kids. There they cannot rightly be attacked.
There were other unjustifiable Israeli attacks, but most of the Gaza dead died because they were living, working, praying, or studying near the sites from which rockets were fired into Israel. Curiously, or maybe not, hardly any of the mainstream American newspapers or networks had much to say about those sites. Hamas apparently forbade reporters from writing about rocket launches (but if that’s so, the ban itself should have been reported). Still, we know a lot about how Hamas fought its war because of reports filed by “visiting international journalists” from India, Japan, Finland, Italy, Australia, Canada, and a few other places, many of them writing only after they left Gaza—the reports collected by Behar and quoted at length in his Forbes article. They describe rockets launched from sites directly adjacent to mosques, schools, hospitals, hotels (where the journalists were staying), and from residential streets within sight of children playing.
The launching of rockets from sites like these must be deliberate, since there are many other sites that would not implicate civilians in the same way. Gaza is densely populated, a crowded territory, but the crowds are concentrated in a few urban areas, and there are wide spaces, desert and beach, from which rockets could be fired. The question—who benefits?—is crucial here.
Israel supposedly achieved some degree of deterrence as a result of the 2014 war; it was seven years before there was another full-scale military conflict. But the war was a political defeat, evident in rising hostility toward Israel in European countries that were officially friendly and increasing criticism in the United States, the country most crucial to Israeli security. The war of 2021 was even more of a political defeat, and the role of the press was probably even more pronounced. We don’t yet have anything like Behar’s report on 2014, but one could say that Israel’s defeat was sealed when the New York Times published on its front page, on May 26, 2021, the pictures of sixty-four children with the caption, “At least 67 people under age 18 in Gaza and two in Israel were killed during this month’s conflict.” The accompanying text consisted mostly of sad and disturbing quotations from relatives of the kids, describing their dreams and their deaths. There was one sentence reporting that Israel “blamed” Hamas for the killings because its fighters launched rockets from civilian residential areas. The Times had reporters in Gaza throughout the fighting who could, presumably, tell us if that claim was true or false, but they had nothing to say. Perhaps they never saw the rockets being launched or never asked questions. I assume that the editors of the paper did know the answer to the question: who benefits?
The earlier question about how the insurgents and the army fight, especially about the fighting on the ground, is rarely addressed in any detail by reporters, even by reporters who were close by. But these are issues that could be discussed in news reports—and that are certainly discussed among the fighters on both sides. When insurgents deliberately put civilians at risk, the army can respond by insisting that civilian deaths are no longer its responsibility. So long as they aim at military targets, its soldiers needn’t do anything more to avoid or minimize the deaths they cause. But the army can also respond, for both moral and strategic reasons, by actively trying not to kill civilians—even if that means increasing the risks its own soldiers must accept. When ground troops are involved, as in Vietnam in the 1960s, Afghanistan after 2001, and Gaza in 2014, this is a critical issue.
The rules of engagement announced by General McChrystal in 2009 were designed to reduce the number of Afghan civilians killed or injured by the U.S. Army. There were news reports at the time about soldiers complaining that the new rules made fighting more dangerous for them, which I assume was true. The further truth about these wars is that some soldiers accept the dangers and work hard to avoid killing civilians—and some don’t. I haven’t found a report like Behar’s on the reporting of the Afghan war. But I can’t recall any stories by journalists on the spot about the risks that soldiers actually took, or didn’t take. Knowing the risk story would help a lot in judging the conduct of the war.
I wrote earlier that high-tech armies don’t win asymmetric wars. In fact, this isn’t always or necessarily true. The Sri Lankan army (“high-tech” is relative here) defeated the Tamil Tigers in a war that went on, intermittently, over many years, but was decisive at the very end. The army won by destroying the civilian cover of the insurgents—that is, by killing a very large number of civilians. Estimates range up to 100,000; UN officials say that some 40,000 died in the last phase of the war (I don’t know their sources). Clearly, Sri Lanka’s military and political leaders had abandoned any moral scruples about killing civilians, and, clearly again, they saw no strategic reasons to try to minimize the killing. They weren’t stupid; they realized that if you kill enough civilians, you can win an asymmetric war. But there is a further condition: that no one is reporting the deaths, that there are no pictures of dead children in newspapers around the world. The Tamil Tigers suffered from the silence of the media. Had there been vivid accounts of dying civilians, the outcome of the war might well have been different: a longer ceasefire, perhaps, or a negotiated settlement. Whether for good or ill, the army might have been denied its triumph. On the other hand, if the Tigers were deliberately putting civilians at risk, forcing them to serve as cover (as the Sri Lankan government claimed), and if that had been accurately reported, the army’s victory might have come sooner and with a lower human cost.
There is a tangled relationship between the conduct of a war and arguments about its rightness, which Samuel Moyn has recently tried to untangle. In a New York Times op-ed, he generously quotes from an old article of mine on “the triumph of just war theory and the dangers of success.” His argument is that high-tech armies like the U.S. Army have now adopted the moral and legal rules that govern the conduct of war (as in McChrystal’s code). They fight justly; they take risks to avoid civilian deaths, or they claim to do that, and all this makes it easier to fight. The fighting is done so nobly, he suggests, that no one bothers to ask if the wars themselves are necessary or just (he thinks they aren’t). His argument doesn’t seem to apply to wars like Iraq in 2003, when many people working from just war theory or international law called that war unnecessary and unjust—however well it was fought (not so well, as things turned out). I assume that with regard to asymmetric wars, Moyn would think that any efforts by the high-tech army to fight justly, while commendable, would serve only to deflect attention from the injustice of its war. I wonder if he would agree that the insurgents’ claim to be fighting in the only way available to them deflects attention from the human cost of their strategy—which might also raise questions about the justice, not of their cause, but of their war.
Moyn focuses mostly on drone warfare, and there he may be right: the supposed precision of the weapon has undercut criticism of its use. Precision, however, is itself undercut by bad intelligence, and U.S. drones kill significant numbers of innocent people. The deaths have been documented by organizations from global civil society like the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the Human Rights Institute. But the killing of civilians hasn’t been adequately reported in the mainstream media (the left press does better here). A moral and legal commitment to fight justly may well provide cover for immoral wars, but only if reporters fail to report what is actually going on.
As I have argued in this essay, the same thing is true for the other side. The insurgents also claim the high road. They fight with the weapons of the weak, alongside the people because the people are on their side. That argument, too, only works if reporters don’t describe the actual methods of insurgent warfare and the circumstances of civilian deaths. If truth were told, it would then be possible to ask if the insurgents’ war is necessary or just. Leftists generally assume that it is both, but perhaps, as Moyn argues about the U.S. military, insurgent fighters should be looking instead at the possibility and value of political struggle.
What reporters report really matters—not always in a good way. If we (on the left) look beyond their reports, 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. And then we can answer, or at least argue intelligently about, the critical question: which side missed the chance for politics and is chiefly responsible for the war?
Michael Walzer is editor emeritus of Dissent.