Media and Conflict:

Reflections on the Centenary of WWI

Today, as I write this, it is 4 August 2014, the centenary of WWI. Or, as I prefer to conceptualize it as a historian, Act I in a Century of Tragedy. Niall Ferguson calls it The War of the World (N.B.: The present author disagrees with Ferguson on a few significant points, but the man asks such interesting questions). Sure, Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie on 28 June, but this is the day that the fighting started and as such is itself a noteworthy date.

Virtually every major conflict since then, and many of the minor ones, can be traced back to the forces unleashed in 1914. The relationship between conflict and the media is often a contentious one and is always evolving. But it is important to consider in light of the fact that some of the biggest players in the twentieth-century drama began their rises to power as news men. Winston Churchill was a Morning Post war correspondent in the Boer Wars in South Africa. Adolf Hitler was editor of the Völkischer Beobachter, the news organ of the NSDAP. Benito Mussolini edited Lotta di classe, prompting uncomfortable comparisons to modern Italian prime minister and media mogul, Silvio Berlusconi. Leon Trotsky was a writer for the London-based Iskra newspaper among others. Ronald Reagan was an actor. The definitive version of the Kennedy assassination was recorded on film by amateur cameraman Abraham Zapruder. The list goes on. The implication is clear: media both record and make history.

And then there’s the selfie. These are quick snapshots, usually of duckfaces or assorted jackassery, which lack any context and only show the vanity of the taker. But this is not always the case as can be seen with the selfie taken by the Duchess Anastasia and a photobombing Queen Elizabeth II at this year’s Commonwealth Games. They can also be used for good as an Inuit group has proven in their attempt to preserve their way of life. Selfie posts, a topic in its own right, have taken the forefront in international attention as posters from Israel, Donetsk, and Thailand document the military conflicts in their front yards. Less nobly, they can also be used to show how soldiers are disrespecting their profession or antagonizing the population they are supposed to help. In short, media has long been intertwined with war, both with how we perceive it and how it plays out in the field.

The ways we think about and portray war matter because they tell us why we fight and who we fight. Some of the most successful propaganda techniques, evolved by Stalin in the 1920s and now used in American marketing campaigns, have been used in the last century to justify why nations go to war, most famously in US history for WWII. Worse, the media has been used to goad nations into declarations of war without firm evidence as to who was the perpetrator, happening both in 1898 with the USS Maine when William Randolph Hurst shamed Pres. McKinley and Congress into fighting Spain and in 2003 with supposed 9/11-Iraq connections that Dick Cheney later blamed on the media rather than on any wishful thinking within the administration. (His claim may make more sense if Fox News was all he watched.) In WWII, American propaganda was careful to distinguish between Nazis and “good Germans,” but made no such allowance for the Japanese. For the conflict in question, WWI, there are still some conspiracy theories regarding the authenticity of the Zimmermann Telegram; that is, was it real or a British dummy to bring America into the war? I disregard such theories, but they do have currency in certain circles. What matters is that a message sent along a global communication network, real or faked, precipitated American entry into the conflict.

What does all this mean in the long run? I don’t know how to put it briefly. I have an idea, but that would require a whole book. What I can say for certain is that the conflicts of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries are the best documented in history because of media capabilities. Indeed, arguably the greatest human atrocity of the twentieth century was captured on film: The Holocaust, the systematic destruction of Jews, Rom, Poles, homosexuals, and others deemed “undesirable.” Both the Nazis themselves as well as invading Allied troops took massive stockpiles of still and video footage of the camps and everything that went on there. Gen. Eisenhower, for his part, insisted that the sites taken by American forces be massively documented so as to preclude possible future denial. That hasn’t stopped people, ranging from those merely expressing historical doubt to active Nazi apologists, from trying. Folks in these groups use the self-same archives that Eisenhower ordered made in the hope that there never would be any doubt. Similar archives exist in other instances as far ranging as Nanking and Armenia. While the records themselves are clear, how people interpret and use them is highly ambiguous.

Media in general is ambiguous. Without a constructed narrative given to us by educators or media outlets, it is often difficult to make heads or tails of events. The basic facts are not in dispute, usually, but their causes, connections, and consequences often are. This is why historical schools of interpretation can be so often contentious with one another. Seriously, find a Marxist historian and ask their opinion of the Annales school or vice versa; the fireworks will be fun. And if staid academics can have rather heated if still cerebral discussions on such matters, the shouting matches and demagoguery of cable news suddenly makes a great deal more sense, sad and terrible sense.

Is media itself to blame for the conflicts in which it was involved? No. Media is a blank slate upon which people draw meaning. But, like a hammer, it can be used to build a house for all humanity to share or a gallows for nations. Audiovisual representations of the world, especially of a world in turmoil, can enchant and enrage us all at once. We, as purveyors and interpreters of the media, have a duty, an obligation if you like, to represent the world as accurately as we are able.

We sometimes get it wrong in cases ranging from the initial misidentification of the Boston Marathon bombers to the “Dewey Beats Truman” headline of 1948. The media may not be responsible for the conflicts of the world, but we are in part responsible for people (mis)understanding them. Even a site like this one that usually examines lighter material, still has a duty to be as accurate as humanly possible. In my own case, as a historian, it’s the very essence of my profession.

And so, I must draw these ruminations to a close, no closer to a conclusion than when I started, much as the Century of Tragedy is no closer to an end than it was in 1914.

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J. Holder Bennett spends his time in the “real” world, whatever that means, as a history professor in North Texas. The rest of the time he focuses on his real love: fandom. For the past fifteen years he’s helped run A-Kon, an anime and manga convention in Dallas, and recently organized the Fandom and Neomedia Studies (FANS) association to bring together fans and academics for the better understanding of their mutual love. He has also done work on historical fiction and collaborated on analyses of science in cinema. Yes, he’s that guy.

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