Imagery and Atrocity: The Role of News and Photos in War

Technology is changing the 150-year-old relationship between a war and the images it produces.

homs march30 p.jpg

Relatives mourn next to the body of Waad Abdullah in Homs. Reuters

Warning: This blog post contains graphic images.

Last week, I was fortunate to attend a workshop at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, "Power of Witness: The Use of Technology in Preventing Mass Atrocities." Among the topics discussed were the current and potential use of journalists, victims' reporting, satellites, aircraft, and drones (presented by myself) to reveal to the outside world what is happening on the ground. It was remarkable to hear from a wide range of dedicated people who utilize innovative technologies and collaborative arrangements to document prospective war crimes for dissemination to the media, people in the target country, foreign leaders, criminal tribunals, the global public, and others.

Of course, harnessing the power of witness is not a new endeavor. As Martha Finnemore notes in her book, The Purpose of Intervention: Changing Beliefs About the Use of Force, the domestic debate surrounding intervention for humanitarian purposes is highly contested. Finnemore describes the influence of the media to "arouse public opinion and influence policy...by increasing exposure and creating familiarity where little existed previously."

Over the past 150 years, intervention proponents have increasingly relied on vivid and graphic imagery from the target country to rally support to their cause--including U.S. policymakers, for better or for worse.  In 1995, U.S. ambassador to the UN Madeline Albright fought to declassify three CIA satellite photographs of Srebrenica in order to show them to a closed session of the UN Security Council. Of course, such imagery is subject to interpretation and exploitation by internal opposition groups, exiles, or foreign governments to justify military interventions. On February 5, 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell briefed the UN Security Council on "Iraq: Failure to Disarm," which included photographs (remember the "mobile biological warfare agent production plants?") and audio clips that purportedly confirmed the existence of Iraq's WMD program, which did not exist.

Consider this brief survey of how powerful imagery emerged from foreign conflicts or major wars, and the impact it had on the homefront, policymakers, or the international community.

Crimean War (1853-1856)

The Crimean War is considered to be the first media war, in which the telegraph and camera enabled news and images from battles to be transmitted to the homefront in hours instead of weeks. For the first time, the British public saw photographs of the front line that brought far-off battlefields to life.

Armenian massacres (1915-1916)

The Ottoman Turks deported hundreds of thousands--some argue more than a million--of Armenians to the desert of Syria. Western news organizations captured the unfolding events, as many Armenians died en route from starvation or were killed by Ottoman forces. Today, most scholars and historians consider this a clear act of genocide, although the Turkish government strongly rejects the claim and resists the use of the word by any government to describe the Armenian mass deaths.

New York Times, December 15, 1915

Times of London, 1915

World War II (1939-1945)

World War II was a watershed in the global understanding of atrocities and genocide (a term coined in 1943 by Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, which combined the Greek prefix genos, meaning family or race, and the Latin suffix cide, meaning killing), largely due to the horrific images that emerged from concentration camps in Europe after the arrival of Allied soldiers. The construction of a new global human rights regime was a direct response to the Nazis' Final Solution, in the hopes that signatories to the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide would ensure that the five specific acts that comprise genocide wouldn't happen again:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Vietnam War (1960-1975)

The Vietnam War was the first fully televised war, in which the American public received regular updates on the conflict through photographs and videos. (For just one example, see the real-time CBS News video that captured an Army platoon under fire from mortars and sniper.) Photojournalism played a large role in shaping public opinion on the war, particularly through its more graphic images. Now-infamous images, such as the photograph by Eddie Adams of a general shooting an unidentified man in the head, defied the U.S. government's portrayal of the war effort fueled the Vietnam protest movement in the United States.

Presented by

Micah Zenko and Emma Welch

Micah Zenko is a Fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World. He writes at Politics, Power, and Preventative Action. Emma Welch is Zenko’s research assistant.

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