Philip Hammond, Edward S. Herman (eds.), Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis.
"Facts", Robert Lamborn Wilson once observed, "can be used like poison gas." At a time when the military and governments please themselves in emphasising, the civilised and "controlled" nature of modern warfare, the use of poison gas has not really disappeared. Instead, it has moved from the trenches to the television screens and newspaper headlines, where it makes up the core of the new information war strategies. Maintaining the invisibility of actual poison gas, the new forms of propaganda seem to blend in neatly with the war coverage of most of the mass media. This was once again demonstrated by the media's coverage of NATO's intervention in Kosovo in the spring of 1999, critically analysed in Philip Hammond's and Edward S. Herman's book.
Preceded by a foreword by playwright Harold Pinter, 19 authors provide a thorough and illuminating analysis of the different ways in which many of the leading western media became part of the information war waged against Yugoslavia during the Kosovo crisis. Both the political legitimisation of the military intervention and the media coverage are subjected to critical scrutiny, often with disturbing results. In three different sections, an international group of authors paints a bleak picture of the standards that many of the mainstream media apply to themselves, and expose the strategies employed by the military and governments to get their message across.
The first part of the book, titled "The West's Destruction of Yugoslavia", analyses the West's policies vis-à-vis Yugoslavia against the background of post-cold war strategy. The reorientation of strategic thinking which occurred after 1989 has produced the concepts which helped to legitimise the intervention, even if they sound preposterous: terms such as "humanitarian war", "ethical foreign policy", "peace-keeping troops", or "New World Order", repeated without a second thought by most media, show how the Western governments and military were able manipulate the meaning of concepts in such a way as to make violence appear a regrettable, but perfectly legitimate means of reaching "civilised goals". Indeed, the way the "intervention" was presented in the media created had little in common with the crudeness and selfishness of past wars. In this way, not only was the exercise of violence covered with a cloak of goodness, but resistant voices were effectively silenced when the ethical foundation for non-violence was occupied by the military machinery itself - a factor which might help explain why there was so much support for the intervention even among groups normally opposed to the military.
In a culture dependent on the visual, enemy images are essential in building a war agenda and preparing the legitimisation of violence. The second section of the book looks at the images used for Slobodan Milosevic in the western media, with its abundant references to Hitler, the Nazis and the Holocaust. But it also shows how enemy images are shaped by military news management, and the close relationship between developed between journalists and the military through the new "security at source" doctrine.
The last and largest section of the book, "Reporting the War around the World", looks at the ways in which the Kosovo war was covered in selected countries and media, including the most powerful players in the conflict, the US and Britain. However, there are also interesting and less obvious choices such as Greece and India, where the media were critical of the war.
Perhaps the Kosovo war was the first war not fought for a particular country, alliance, person, or purpose; if one believes the official statements and most of the media reports, one cannot help but conclude that it was the first war fought for goodness itself. A war which was the better peace, a morally elevating exercise reminiscent of the Crusades rather than anything else. Given the enthusiasm of the military and the weakness of opposition, the Kosovo war may have created a new basis for legitimisation of warfare, and a danger of similar occurrances in the future.
Therefore, Herman's and Hammond's warning should be taken to heart: "Whenever we hear talk of the 'ethical' concerns of the 'international community', some critical questions must be asked." Their book is a powerful inspiration for asking such questions. (London: Pluto Press 2000)