Monday, March 21, 2011

The perils of war coverage in the media

Rebel MiG-23 shot down over Benghazi on March 19

Trying to get an accurate sense of what's going on in a combat zone from the mass media is not a new problem, as a moment's perusal of newspapers from the U.S. Civil War or World War II reveals.

To a large extent this is a problem without a solution. The inherently limited viewpoints available from professional journalists and the random eyewitnesses that pop up are guaranteed to miss the critical parts. Even historians working long after the fact -- or even actual participants -- can't know the whole story. This isn't an excuse for simply dismissing news accounts of a military crisis whole, but merely a caution that the inherent limitations are kept in mind. One hopes that the U.S. government's intervention in Libya relies on more than what's appeared in news accounts -- but recent history isn't too comforting in that regard.

But it does make it very hard for an interested observer to know what's really going on. To the extent that the news media could do a better job of explaining what is knowable about the situation they are failing miserably. Overall the quality of the military analysis of this conflict, just like Iraq and Afghanistan has been awful -- much less informative than it was during the 1991 war for example. It really seems like the vast majority of news people have no clue about the basic military facts on the ground.

For example, I have yet to see any cogent discussion about the logistics of organizing and supplying effective military forces in the midst of a civil war, especially won fought across vast desert distances. Interestingly, the current civil war involves fighting over the same ground as the World War II desert war -- so there's precedent.

My guess is that Gadhafi's forces will find it impossible to sustain any kind of offensive military potential in the face of Allied air power's ability to interdict his supply lines. But conversely, its hard to see how the rebel forces could organize and supply a counteroffensive that could dislodge the dictator in a time frame that's measured in anything less than months or even years. But this is just a guess. It would be nice to hear more details about what the reporters on the ground are seeing in order to judge.

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