Book Review: Going to the Wars

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Max Hastings, the newspaper reporter, editor and historian, is good at telling good stories. Going to the Wars is about himself. It is a book of anecdotes, not meant to be serious, but still a work to be taken seriously by a student of the media-military interface.

Hastings covered numerous conflicts in his career as a reporter. He was there at the outbreak of 30 years of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland and he was on one of the helicopters evacuating Americans and reporters from the embassy in Saigon. His career highlight and the highlight of Going to the Wars is the British Falklands campaign of 1982.

In between the telling of his experience of those conflicts and others, he makes a number of notable comments about the military media relationship, including the touchy areas of censorship and rule-breaking.

Writing about the 1973 Arab-Israeli war he says: “There is powerful faction in the media today [1999] which argues that no self-respecting journalist should ever accept censorship of his dispatches. Most journalists, at one time or another, go to great lengths to avoid or circumvent censorship – I describe in this book some of those occasions in my own experience. But in a war of national survival, it seems hard to argue against any nation’s right to preserve its military secrets, if it can. Many colleagues disagreed then, however, and disagree now. They perceive a media interest, a ‘responsibility to our profession’, which supersedes any mere national or public interest. This seems to me to reflect an almost insane conceit. In war or peace, the media can only justify itself by reference to the public interest, however wide is the scope for debate about what this means. It is not necessary to believe that war correspondents should file what governments want us to file … but merely that we should not wantonly pass on operational secrets which could cost lives. In a war, when issues of life and death are at stake, if journalists perceive themselves as mere spectators in the galleries of the Colosseum, turning a thumb up or down with absolute indifference towards those struggling for survival in the arena, they cannot expect much public respect.”

He is also concerned that few reporters these days have any experience of military service. As a result, their “military judgement often seems pretty flaky.” He argues that to report war – or military affairs generally – intelligently requires reporters “to make some shot at judging”. He adds: “It is as important for an effective war correspondent to know something about armies as for a theatre critic to have seen some plays, a political editor to have talked to a lot of politicians, and so on.”

Officers are often not all that keen on having reporters around either, an attitude Hastings regrets. “The lesson the Royal Navy (RN) was so slow to learn in the South Atlantic is that when men are risking their lives for a cause, they passionately want to know that what they are doing is being noticed – and that means written about and broadcast to the world.” The RN’s attitude demoralised ships companies while in combat – an avoidable own goal.

Keeping the media at bay has another pernicious effect: it makes it easier for military and political leaders to lie to the public – and themselves. Writing about Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, he says: “This is a fundamental lesson for any army, any government, in any war. Do not lie to yourselves. In the early phase of the illegal Rhodesian regime, it was possible to argue that Ian Smith and his colleagues were merely foolish. But in the later years, their hands became steeped n the blood of their own people because they could not bring themselves to admit the inevitability of defeat – nor to allow their own people to perceive it.”

Harsh words indeed, but still they are not heeded.

Going to the Wars

Max Hastings

Pan Books



London
2000