Changing Perceptions

During the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, people had access to scenes of war in a way never experienced before. Both campaigns occurred when 24-hour rolling news has become the norm, and Twitter is some people’s first port of call for breaking news. To churn out this level and amount of coverage, the media have had unprecedented access to the armed forces on the ground.

“During the recent war in Iraq from 2003 to 2011, a major issue was the embedded reporters,” explains Stephen Badsey, Professor of Conflict Studies at the University of Wolverhampton.

“You have to consider the extent to which having reporters so closely attached to the armed forces was a good thing, or whether they became institutionalised by the military organisation. There are also issues about whether having someone with a digital camera, who is able to instantly upload images to the internet, is the best way of covering the activities of war.

“There have been massive technological advances making it possible to beam pictures straight back from a war zone, but that doesn’t necessarily help people understand what is going on.”

Propaganda and the relationship between the media and armed forces during times of war is one of the areas of research that Stephen is best known for internationally.

He says: “One of the things we have found as far back as we can trace it, right back to the modern emergence of newspapers in the early 19th Century, is that the normal relationship between the news media and the armed forces is one of wary collaboration, and co-operation with each other through negotiation.

“The great generals and war leaders, and the great journalists of the day, have been people who have understood that. It is a relationship to be managed, not a problem to be solved, and is one that will continue into the future.”

This may not be the common view of the relationship between the media and the military, but as Professor Badsey says, a lot of his work involves overturning people’s ideas of conflict.

“We spend a lot of time investigating and ruining other people’s myths. One of the most common since the end of the Cold War has been the ‘CNN Effect,’ which suggests that the development of the 24-hour news channels has driven demands to send troops into troubled areas, after which fatalities among the same troops drives media demands to bring them home.

“But this is not a true reflection of what happens. Governments and armed forces have become much more sophisticated in their understanding of their role in the news.”

Stephen, from the University’s School of Law, Social Sciences and Communications, has been writing for more than 20 years about the media and the art of war. His expertise has led him to be invited to share his research findings and knowledge with some important figures. In the 1990s his work was used by UN peacekeepers in Bosnia, and a decade later he helped advise the headquarters of NATO armed forces in Afghanistan. He has also advised the US and Australian armies on the history of media issues.

A different viewpoint

Professor Badsey’s other main area of research is military ideas and practice since the mid-19th Century. Last year he advised the Japanese government on the importance of the Falklands War in expeditionary warfare.

Much of his research, including his last book and his next one, is about the First World War. The year 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of this major event in world history. He explains that historians’ views on the war and Britain’s role in it have changed dramatically since the 1960s; but that the popular and media view of the war has not moved at all with the latest historical findings.

“History is never fixed, but television documentaries and journalists have failed to convey the last decades of research – they have helped change public perceptions of the dinosaurs and particle physics, but they have failed with the First World War.

“Historians are rather like physicists. We spend a lot of time explaining to people – in our case mainly politicians, economists and others – why their cherished ideas are out of date. Our knowledge of our history establishes who we are – what happened in the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan helps inform our everyday life and what kind of society we are. So to have a false image of a major event like the First World War is much more significant than people realise.”

Part of the problem, Professor Badsey explains, is the role over decades of fictional portrayals of the war in shaping people’s views. He lists Oh! What a Lovely War in the 1960s, Blackadder Goes Forth in the late 1980s, and the recent play and film War Horse.

He says: “They are wonderful fiction, but they are about as accurate as Shakespeare’s Henry V! “The First World War was a dreadful experience. It was Britain and the world’s first experience of a mass industrialised war, and nothing had happened before on such a scale and intensity. But what kind of experience was it? Like other events in history, some of the folk myths don’t hold up to investigation.

“Were all the generals really idiots? Is it true that there was complete trench deadlock and no-one knew what to do about it? Did women get the vote because they worked in munitions, and did every family lose a loved one? These are common perceptions of the war, but none of them are actually true.”

Stephen, who joined the University five years ago as Reader in Conflict Studies, explains that there are a number of reasons why understanding has changed. There has been the release of official documents since the 1960s, and a rise in interest in the First World War. People who have taken holidays in France have driven past the graveyards of soldiers and wanted to find out more about what happened. There is still a mass of information for historians to work through.

Military history is now established in British universities as a respected academic discipline. Professor Badsey explains this wasn’t always the case, and in the 1960s there was a prevailing view that the subject was all about studying uniforms and battles.

But Stephen’s research encompasses a mixture of the history and modern issues such as defence and security, taking him to places all over to world to share his expertise. And it is his clear view that history has a vital role in broadening our knowledge and understanding of today’s major political and social challenges.

He says: “Human knowledge of history and how it can help us is still in its infancy. We know how to build nuclear bombs, computers and smart phones, but we’re only just at the start of learning how to abolish war.”