BOOK REVIEW: ‘War in 140 Characters’ by David Patrikarakos


War in 140 Characters: How social media is reshaping conflict in the twenty-first century

by David Patrikarakos. Basic Books. 2017.

PREPARING FOR A TRIP TO THE MIDDLE EAST in the 1990s, I bought a guidebook which had just been published. The author, apparently enthused by Israel’s recent signing of a peace treaty with Jordan, suggested that one between Israel and Syria might soon follow. Alas, the world has not turned out that way.

Writing on current trends in a way that will have some enduring relevance is a great challenge for an author. In his engaging new book, War in 140 Characters, David Patrikarkos succeeds in telling us much which we did not know about the new world of media and conflict.

The book’s strengths include an approach which combines eyewitness reporting with more considered analysis. The author’s readiness to accompany Ukrainian social media activists into the warzones of the east of their country offers the reader truly revealing insights. The chapter on the Russian troll, Vitaly Bespalov, is the highlight of the book — leading as it does to the disgruntled former employee of St Petersburg’s infamous troll farm concluding that ‘unfortunately’ he too was ‘an actor in the Ukraine war’.

As anyone who has written or spoken on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict knows, it is impossible to offer any analysis which will be universally accepted. That said, Patrikarakos’ discussion — enlightening though it is  — of the social media war which accompanied Israel’s 2014 campaign in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, comes across as one-sided. His interview with the teenaged Palestinian twitter user, Farah Baker, is compelling for the way that it identifies a new front in the propaganda battle between Israel and the Palestinians. As Patrikarakos notes of the Palestinians, ‘Hopelessly outgunned, their side could never hope to win militarily’.

His argument that ‘Israel bombed and invaded Gaza with deadly success, but it still “lost” the 2014 war’, because the Palestinian media campaign was more effective, is stretching a point. Israel does all it can to avoid negative media coverage, but surely it cares more about its ability to win on the battlefield.

Nothing which has happened since 2014 suggest that this supposed Palestinian victory in the media war has delivered any lasting benefits. The killings of protesters at the Gaza border fence over the last few weeks tend strongly to suggest the opposite. Patrikarakos seems to admire the slick Israeli PR operation — right down to the ‘immaculate’ uniform of the ‘courteous and well-disposed’ Israeli Amy spokesperson whom he interviews — but then, that is what it is there for.

The undoubted effectiveness of the reportage is occasionally weakened by a tendency to overuse the weather and the light as a means of introducing new scenes. Patrikarakos’ point about the political significance of the use in Russian of the prepositions v or na when talking of Ukraine is important, but muddled here. ‘Na Ukraine’ does not mean ‘on the border’ (although the country’s name does share a root with the Russian word krai meaning edge, or district). The significance of the preposition is whether the speaker implies that Ukraine is a country in its own right (v) , or a region, (na). The use of the Google definition of ‘propaganda’ feels a little lazy when so much has been written on the subject.

Overall, though, Patrikarakos is to be congratulated on a book which makes important contributions to a number of important debates. War in 140 Characters is especially worth reading for its sections on Russian trolls, and its account of Bellingcat’s impressive investigation of the shooting down of MH17. I recommend it to anyone wanting to understand the way war, politics, and the media interact in today’s conflicts, and look forward to discussing it in Journalism seminars.



Why covering other people’s wars made me value the EU

For this week’s The New European, I have written a piece on how reporting on armed conflict in other parts of the world made me grateful for the peace which has prevailed in Western Europe during my lifetime. You can read the first two paragaphs below, and the full story in the newspaper, on sale here .


IN A LITTLE OVER 24 HOURS, THE CITY CENTRE TURNED INTO A WAR ZONE. That Saturday lunchtime, a demonstration turned violent. By Sunday evening, there was a gun battle as rebels tried to take control of the TV station. By Monday morning, tanks shelled the parliament building.

It was October 1993. Russia was a discontented country. The massive economic shock which had come from the collapse two years earlier of the Soviet Union had left millions of losers. The political transformation had only been partial. President Boris Yeltsin was left with a parliament elected in Communist times, and containing many Communist MP’s. Wanting both to shore up their own positions, and to oppose Mr Yeltsin’s reforms, they defied the president. Political tension led to an explosion of bloodletting.


Tanks on a bridge over the Moskva River, central Moscow, 4 October 1993 ©James Rodgers

Fixing the risks of war reporting

This week, the Times correspondent Anthony Loyd, and his colleague, photographer Jack Hill, were held captive in Syria. Antony Loyd was shot twice in the legs; both men were badly beaten. I wrote a piece for The Conversation looking at what the incident said about the hazards of finding help as a journalist in a war zone. You can read it here, and a version follows below (as does a photograph of me looking rather younger than I do now).

It all happened so quickly I barely realised how much danger we had been in. The door had opened. The cameraman and I were immediately rushed into another room. We were told to remain completely still and silent.

We were not supposed to be in Chechnya. Then, in early 2000, the region on Russia’s southern edge was a war zone. Russian troops had launched a major campaign against separatist fighters some months before.

The Moscow authorities – presumably mindful of unfavourable media coverage of an earlier war – had declared the region a “zone of anti-terrorist operation”. It was closed to journalists. If you did manage to get in, as we did on occasion, you were on your own or, at least, in the hands of those you had hired to get you there.

We had stopped at the house of a distant relative of our fixer. He had suddenly taken fright when another relative – a member of a local militia – also arrived for a visit. All I saw was the door being opened by a hand below a camouflaged sleeve. That’s when we were rushed out of the room. Our fixer had feared we might be kidnapped and held for ransom.

Now we sat, waiting for the coast to clear. I wondered if I would spend another ten minutes in the room, or another ten months. I wondered too whether we had placed our trust in the right person. Had he perhaps actually brought us here to hand us over?

The man left soon after. So did we. My fears were misplaced. But it was a lesson I have never forgotten in the impossibility of guaranteeing safety for journalists in areas of armed conflict.

In Grozny, Chechnya, June 2000. This picture was taken a few months after the incident described in this post.

In Grozny, June 2000. This picture was taken a few months after the incident described in this post.

The dangers then were real. A little over a year earlier, in late 1998, a group of telecom engineers from Britain and New Zealand had been taken captive in Chechnya. When no ransom was paid, they were beheaded.

The recent ordeal of Anthony Loyd and Jack Hill of The Times is a terrifying example of the dangers journalists can face. The fact is that in war zones, in order to get where they need to go to tell a story, reporters often need to rely on people they barely know.

In most cases, the guides, drivers, and translators want to help because the money is good, they genuinely want the world to know of their people’s plight, or both. Just sometimes, they see in a foreigner from a wealthy country the potential for an even bigger payday.

I have met Anthony Loyd on a couple of occasions, most recently when we were on a discussion panel together in late 2012. I am not alone in considering him the best war correspondent of my generation. He, of all people, understands the potential risk.

So why do it? Loyd himself wrote about this extensively in his book My War Gone By, I Miss It So. Anyone seeking to know what draws journalists to cover armed conflict should read it.

For the past two decades, as journalists seem increasingly to have become targets in war zones, bigger news organisations have sought to mitigate the danger by offering hostile environment training. In addition to learning first aid, and how to take cover when under fire, these courses often include tips on how to behave if you are kidnapped.

Ultimately, you may have to trust someone you barely know with your life. Anthony Loyd and Jack Hill’s escape has shed light on the risks journalists routinely take to get news from dangerous places to our newspapers and screens. We would all be much more in the dark if they did not.

Telling War Stories

Who can tell us more about the reality of war, reporters, novelists or poets? On Armistice Day, and as next year’s centenary of the start of the First World War approaches, I have published a piece on the website of The Conversation considering literary and journalistic ways of describing armed conflict. You can read it here, and there is a version of the article on this page, too.

Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, Deir-el-Balah, Gaza, 2004 ©James Rodgers

Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, Deir-el-Balah, Gaza, 2004 ©James Rodgers

It is a shameful chapter in the history of journalism. Millions were killed and maimed during the First World War: about a million from Britain and its empire alone. The mechanization of war made possible killing on a scale never foreseen. Today, some stretches of trench, and craters from explosions still remain: scars on land which once was battlefield.  They help us to imagine the nature of trench warfare: terror; boredom; discomfort; despair.

What a challenge, what an opportunity this conflict was for journalists – a challenge, alas, to which they largely proved unequal. As Philip Knightley concludes in his excellent The First Casualty, ‘More deliberate lies were told than in any other period of history, and the whole apparatus of the state went into action to suppress the truth.’ The state censored; correspondents frequently cooperated.

Now, as the centenary of the start of the war draws near, it is the poets, and not the reporters, whose writing is remembered.

There must have been some uneasy encounters. In ‘Editorial Impressions’, Siegfried Sassoon shows us a correspondent recounting the ‘glorious time he’d had/ While visiting the trenches.’  The reporter rabbits on before a wounded soldier’s bitter words end the poem, ‘Ah, yes, but it’s the Press that leads the way.’

The history of the reporting of conflict is not a story of steady and certain progress. Much of the journalism from the First World War failed to match the standard set by William Howard Russell’s despatches from the Crimea more than half a century before. Russell’s account of the Charge of the Light Brigade is unlikely ever to replace Tennyson’s evocation of the ‘Valley of Death’ in the popular imagination. Yet his description of the aftermath of a later action in the Crimea campaign,

    It was agonizing to see the wounded men who were lying there under a broiling sun,       parched with excruciating thirst, racked with fever, and agonized with pain – to behold       them waving their caps faintly, or making signals towards our lines, over which they could   see the white flag waving.

is so hard-hitting in its eyewitness realism that the reader can almost feel the dying soldiers’ blinding headaches.

After the failures of the First World War, journalism’s reputation was restored in the Second by reporters such as Richard Dimbleby; Ed Murrow; and Vassily Grossman. Michael Herr’s Dispatches, written about his experiences in Vietnam, combines reportage with literary style. It still has a punch and freshness almost 40 years after publication.

The Second World War also inspired the poetry of Keith Douglas – even though one of his most memorable, ‘I listen to the desert wind,’ takes as its theme desolation and heartbreak, rather than soldiering.

Before being killed in Normandy in 1944, Douglas had fought in the Middle East. The region was a battleground in both World Wars — and, in Syria and Iraq, has been much more recently.

From 2002-2004, I was the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza. In December 2003, I travelled to Iraq for a reporting assignment. A couple of weeks before I left, there was supposed to be a Remembrance Service in one of Gaza’s two Commonwealth War Cemeteries – the final resting place of soldiers engaged in a campaign against Ottoman forces in the First World War. That year, as the second Palestinian intifada – or uprising against Israel – wore on, the ceremony was cancelled. It was too dangerous. I remember, on a later visit to one of the cemeteries, finding gravestones chipped by recent bullets.

In Iraq, officially at least, I encountered optimism among the occupying powers. While I was there, Saddam Hussein was captured. I thought then of Siegfried Sassoon’s character, a ‘gross, goggle-eyed’ father, whose ‘eldest lad/ Writes cheery letters from Bagdad.’  I wondered if another father, perhaps somewhere in the shires, was now, some ninety years later, saying something similar.

If he was, it was premature. Ten years on, there are far fewer people who think the invasion was wise. Iraq produced some memorable war reporting, especially once the insurgency began in 2004. The coverage of the run up to the invasion was less creditable. The New York Times was just one of the news organizations ‘fell for misinformation’. At least they had the courage to admit it.

Where will future generations look for their first-hand accounts of that conflict, to reporters’ despatches, or to writers’ poetry and prose? Perhaps to Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, widely praised on publication last year.

Powers himself addressed the journalism or fiction issue in an interview with Jonathan Ruppin of Foyle’s bookshop. His answer was that fiction worked ‘in a different way,’ and, he concluded, ‘The work that journalists do during wartime is utterly essential and, to me, incomprehensibly difficult.’

‘Essential’ and ‘difficult’: words to describe any great writing about war: journalism, or literature.

If you want to read more about my time in Gaza, or Iraq, please see details of my books ‘Reporting Conflict‘ and ‘No Road Home‘ on the ‘About‘ page of this site.

1864: Denmark’s darkest day, and a chapter in Journalism History

The battlefield at Dybbøl today.

The battlefield at Dybbøl, August 2013.

A small country embracing new ideas of democracy faced a much larger, and militarily more powerful, neighbour.  The cause was disputed territory. They may have been counting on the support of global powers. It was not forthcoming. Defeat, and loss of land, soon followed.

Five years ago this month I was reporting on the aftermath of Georgia’s war with Russia – recently ended then – over South Ossetia.

I was reminded of that last week when, spending this August in a more relaxing way, I was in Jutland, visiting the site of Denmark’s catastrophic military defeat against the military power of Prussia in 1864.

For there seemed to be parallels between Denmark’s experience of defeat then, and Georgia’s, almost a century and a half later. I also came across some names in the history of reporting conflict which were new to me, and about which it would be interesting to learn more.

The disputed territory in this case was Schleswig-Holstein; the political system, a new constitution which Denmark decided should apply to Schleswig as well as to Denmark itself. Prussia and Austria said this breached an earlier treaty, and launched a military campaign in response. (You can read more historical detail on the Encyclopaedia Britannica website).

A series of political and military blunders, as well as their enemies’ superior weaponry, saw the Danish forces crushed, and the territory lost.

The Danish Army's defences were left in ruins

The Danish Army’s defences were left in ruins.

Even today, 1864 is considered a seminal moment in Danish history: influencing the country far beyond the century in which it suffered the defeat at Dybbøl. Next year, the 150th anniversary of the battle is likely to be marked with ceremonies and mass media coverage. This is not history lost in the past.

In Denmark, recent books by Tom Buk-Swienty  have complemented school history lessons, as has the 1864 museum I visited last week.

Mr Buk-Swienty seems to have done impressive archive research of both written sources and photographs – the latter the major leap forward in reporting on war in that era. Contemporary newspapers could not yet carry their work, but the photographers were there.

So were the correspondents. A small part of the museum’s exhibition is dedicated to their work, and I came across two new bylines: William E. Hall, and Auberon Herbert – both apparently sent out from London to cover the war.

They were a new breed, then – presumably inspired by William Howard Russell’s trailblazing journey to the Crimea the previous decade, and helped by the advent of the telegraph. As advances in military technology shaped the conflict, so advances in communications technology shaped the way it was reported.

The novelty of war correspondents was even reflected in fiction. Herman Bang’s Tine, set in a village on the edge of the war zone, includes as minor characters two British reporters: referred to, using the English word in Danish, as ‘gentlemen’.

In journalism history, especially the reporting of conflict, the 1860s are more often remembered for the changes which came with the American Civil War – but the growth in the number of correspondents, the arrival on the battlefield of photographers, and the advent of the telegraph were all factors in this European conflict, too.

Part of the reconstructed stockade at the 1864 historical centre.

Part of the reconstructed stockade at the 1864 historical centre.

Photographs ©James Rodgers

On McCullin

This entry is more personal than most I plan to post on here. I wanted to write not only about a great film about a great photographer, but also to think about how the work of one journalist can inspire another.

I was not expecting the parcel, but I thought I recognized the handwriting.

It was from a friend who had posted on social media earlier that week that he had been to a book signing. The parcel contained a book of Don McCullin’s photographs. It was inscribed to me. I was so pleased.

In 1992, back from my first experience of reporting on armed conflict – the civil war in Georgia at the beginning of that year – I bought McCullin’s autobiography Unreasonable Behaviour. For more than two decades, I have treasured it.

His account of his experiences made such an impression on me that I even considered giving up my career as a TV journalist, and retraining as a photographer.

I stuck with TV because it was getting me to the places – the Caucasus and the Middle East – where I wanted to go then.

Don McCullin’s work has for me an enduring power.  For years, on the walls of various flats where I lived around the world, I had a poster of his picture of a ‘shell-shocked’ U.S. Marine. You can see a detail of it here, on a Guardian review of a recent exhibition.

I could not wait to see the recent documentary about McCullin’s life, directed by Jacqui Morris. I was disappointed to miss it during its brief time in the cinema here in London. I finally saw it this week. At the time of writing, you can still watch it on BBC iPlayer if you’re in the UK.

I was blown away. It was inspiring and heartbreaking by turn. Although famous for his silent images, McCullin is rewardingly articulate. He is also disarmingly honest.

‘My duty is to be there for a reason, not just to have a bloody good time,’ he says at one point in the film. To a question from Michael Parkinson, about whether his photographs made a difference, he replies, ‘Actually, I don’t think they do.’

Many of us who have reported on conflict might suspect this about our own work; few would have thought Don McCullin would say it of his. It may seem that way to him. It does not to the rest of us.

Then there are the personal elements. Compared to Don McCullin, I have just tiptoed around the edge of reporting on armed conflict – yet I recognized the feeling of compulsion he described (even if I had it in much lower doses than he), and the cost to family and relationships. I have lost count of the number of times I have been with a group of colleagues, and realized that more than half the company was divorced.

He understands humanity in the midst of what he calls in Vietnam, ‘total madness and insanity’. The only picture he admits to preparing is one where he rearranged the few remaining possessions of a Vietcong soldier after he had been robbed as he lay dead.

The result is a Vietnam version of Keith Douglas’ Second World War poem Vergissmeinnicht, remade in a photograph.

Watch the film, see the picture, and hear McCullin speak about it.

Countless thousands of words have been written about why journalists want to report on war. It is a question many frequently ask themselves. McCullin – the photographer, and the film – give the answer.

‘I’m meant to be doing this.’

Talking to ‘terrorists’ – trying to tell the full story

‘You only report death or glory and nothing in between. And it’s just not like that.’  

These words, spoken by Richard Streatfeild, then a major in the British Army, came back to me this morning when I heard him on the BBC’s morning current affairs programme, Today, here in the UK.

No longer in the Army, he has nevertheless returned to Helmand province for a final visit. His contribution to the programme this morning discussed the changing role for British troops as they prepare to hand over to the Afghan Army – and at a time when talks with the Taliban are planned.

Major Streatfeild’s line about death or glory was said not in the heat of Helmand, but in a cafe on a January morning in London – a morning so wet and grey the cafe lights struggled against the gloom. He was recounting a conversation with a journalist friend about the way war was reported.

My interview with him was for Reporting Conflict. I had asked to meet him because the reports he had previously done, as a serving officer, seemed to me a new departure in covering military campaigns – for the BBC, at least. Here they were handing airtime over to a member of the armed forces.

In part, technology had created the opportunity. Where once cumbersome equipment would have been needed to get broadcast quality material to London on air, Major Streatfeild was now working with a small recorder, a USB cable, and a laptop.

The change was editorial, too. In the interview, Major Streatfeild described the negotiations which had led to his despatches getting from idea to air. He wanted, he told me, ‘to give a flavour of the absolute reality of how soldiers behave on operations.’

Current editorial thinking – influenced by the multiplicity of voices on social media – is more open to reporters who are not themselves journalists than once it might have been.

At a time when much of the news about Afghanistan is dominated by what the BBC recently called the ‘Troubled path to talks with the Taliban’, there are important lessons here for reporting armed conflict.

The planned talks rightly received widespread coverage, but the idea was not new. In 2011, the then U.S. Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, told CNN that ‘preliminary’ talks were underway, noting then, ‘a political outcome is the way most of these wars end’.

Mr Gates was right, of course. It is hard to think of examples to the contrary. The British intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000 might be considered one where military force rapidly achieved its objective – so too might Kosovo in 1999. But in both cases there had to be talks too. In the case of Kosovo, the European Union is still leading negotiations.

So when political and military leaders insist, as they so frequently do, that there can be no talks with ‘terrorists’, journalists should remind them of recent history, and of Mr Gates’ words.

One reporter who was not afraid to point out that the military solution only approach could be counterproductive was Anna Politkovsakya. She concluded, of Russia’s campaign against Chechen separatists, ‘The only thing the methods of this war accomplish is to recruit new terrorists and resistance fighters, and to rouse hatred, calling for bloody revenge.’

Russia troops on campaign against 'terrorists' in Grozny, Spring 2000 ©James Rodgers

Russia troops on campaign against ‘terrorists’ in Grozny, Spring 2000 ©James Rodgers

In the end, of course, Russia too concluded that it was better to talk to those it had once labelled ‘terrorists’. Chechnya’s current leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, like his father Ahmad before him, both once rebelled against Moscow.  Mr Kadyrov senior was blown up after he agreed to head the pro-Kremlin administration — presumably by people who had once thought of him as an ally.

The situation in Chechnya — as in Afghanistan, or Iraq — is not as simple as death or glory. Good journalism will reflect that.