War on Terror in the Media

Media’s Role in Promoting the War

The pervasive exposure of 9/11 attack in the media ultimately convinced the majority of the American people that they were victims of a terrorist act, that they were innocent and therefore war was justified.1

Those who suffered from the attack were victims and the media myopically presented the animals behind the attack as terrorist, the scum of the earth out to destroy innocent American lives, without attempting to explain their motives from an outsider’s perspective (a perspective that was not contaminated with bias due to trauma) swayed Americans into believing that 9/11 was not only unprovoked but that their was no possibility of negotiation with terrorists and therefore war was the only option.2

Journalism After September 11

What is important to understand is that news media, individuals who covered the tragedy of 9/11 and those who wrote about it as journalists despite their immense effort to remain professional and impartial lost focus of their role.3 That is to provide information, a source of democracy not their personal bias, yet you have leading news anchors like Dan Rather announcing on national television, that the terrorists who attacked America were evil and because “they’re jealous of us.”4 Although terrorists are without a doubt evil for their acts, the problem with news anchors advocating their own perspectives on television affect the national mind. In this case rather than providing factual information, a specific interpretation was laid out without objectivity and due to overexposure by a handful of television networks who owned all of American news agencies, the coverage of 9/11 perspective was flawlessly limited in concept and sensationalized by graphic images of horror.5 Instead of remaining neutral, unbiased and outside the political spectrum, journalists inevitably reacted beyond their role and gave way to advocating personal biases, indeed how could they not when faced with such tragedy. Unfortunately their vulnerability ultimately made them tools for the government in their media war rather than to serve the people who needed clarification behind the reasons of 9/11. 

The reason why mainstream media, especially the representatives of news agencies, were unable to keep an objective stance is due to the nature of 9/11. Not only was 9/11 a tragedy it was also a danger and a threat to national security and these conditions made dissent impossible because of rhetorics like; “you are either with us or against us, America is good, Afghanistan is evil.”6 A linkage was created between individual’s patriotism and their stance against terrorism. “Thus, when National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice got the heads of all the network news divisions on the line and asked that they think twice before running any more Bin Laden tapes,” news network’s patriotism was in question, and the people of the network naturally caved.7 The natural or rather the supposed reaction one might expect would have been news network’s objection to government influence on news release, but the extreme view established by the Bush administration left no room to interpret the reasons behind 9/11. Because by using the label “terrorist”, it created the  condition where one should not sympathize and therefore attempt to understand the other side of the spectrum, because to do so would make one a sympathizer, in the eyes of the U.S. government a potential threat and a traitor to Americans.    

Further what was most problematic is that the U.S. news coverage immediately following 9/11 attack lacked the common sense of debating whether or not to go to war, or how best to respond to the attack itself. Instead the overall majority picture that the news media distributed was: “A benevolent, democratic, and peace-loving nation was brutally attacked by insane evil terrorists who hate United States for its freedoms and affluent way of life,” that the U.S. must boost national security, and launch military operations to hunt down Osama bin Laden and engage in a relentless battle of good versus evil to end terrorism.8 War seemed logical because there was no room to debate any other options or to analyse the justification behind the war beyond the effects of 9/11. There was not enough time for Americans to reflect, nor was there enough time for public forums to emerge and debate the consequences of war. The U.S. government used 9/11 to pass the PATRIOT ACT without any deliberation from Congress, Homeland Security was quickly established in the name of security and war on Afghanistan was decided because they were branded as the enemy who harbored terrorists. In matter of days, without the consent of the American people because their support was secured by the media parroting party lines, the U.S. government could do whatever it wanted in the name of American freedom. 

Unfortunately once the war began, problems with battlefield logistics, military conduct and the lost of life became deterrents to Americans in supporting the war. Ultimately the public opinion for war, otherwise termed as home front morale, is determined by the will of the people in believing the war’s justification, in this case 9/11 versus the negative impacts of war, death and destruction. When the American public consider the death toll to surpass the benefit of the war in Afghanistan, “that the cost of human life is too high a price to pay for the stated goals,” support for the war effort inevitably fades.9

Even at the early stages of the war in Afghanistan, the American people began to wonder whether or not the events of September 11, was a sufficient enough of a justification for declaring war in the first place. Unfortunately the overwhelming hate for terrorism and the Bush administration’s campaign for war in the media left little or no room for dissent, both the in the minds of Americans and the message that was represented in the media. While the immediate success of overthrowing the Taliban government garnered much approval, the hunt for Osama bin Laden and maintaining control over the country has led to a long list of casualties, the American public slowly began to question whether or not the mission was sound if not hopeless to begin with.

As reports of the war in the media turned negative, the American public support has waned due to the endless number of soldiers who have perished from road side bombings and ambushes by the Taliban insurgents. One of the reasons why Americans are against the war in Afghanistan is because of the high level of civilian casualties, and the media abroad have not been shy to show discontent towards the Americans.10

Demonstration Against the War in Kabul

The video describes thousands of protesters demonstrating due to the increase of violence experienced by civilians. Commenting on the ability of the Afghan governement and the coalition forces’ ability at protecting civilians when they cannot even ensure security within the city of Kabul.

As an example of the media coverage of the war in Afganistan which undermines the success and steer public oppinion agaisnt the war, the following video highlights the failure of U.S.’ strategy at defending remote regions of Afghanistan.

Battle of Wanat – 9 Dead Defending an Outpost12

A look at an attack that took place on July 13, 2008 at the U.S. outpost at Wanat, near Waygal District, in the Province of Nuristan. The battle started around 4 A.M. and lasted for approximately 4 hours. It was reported that the Taliban numbered approximately
300, attacked the base on all sides at higher elevation in the hills. On several occasions the Taliban fighters managed to breach the base defenses and engaged in close quarter combat with U.S. soldiers within the compound. The base was bombarded by mortar fire and rocket-propelled grenades on all sides, the U.S. defenders suffered 9 deaths that day, one of the heaviest casualty rate suffered in a single battle since 2001. Most the soldiers
who died that day were killed at an overhead watch post overlooking the base as a lookout against the enemy. The battle like other ambushes experienced throughout the war is an example of how poorly defended the bases are due to the lack of numbers and location of the base. The Taliban fighters were only driven back because of superior air support.

American Survey in 2009 – War in Afghanistan

The war today is seen as failing, due to Taliban resurgence, according to news reports and the United States troops in Afghanistan, the Taliban are fighting back in numbers only seen during the first weeks of the invasion back in 2001. Thus not only has the American people reconsidered their support of the war in Afghanistan, polls conducted by CNN in 2009 have shown a steady decline to support the war. Out of the 1,012 national telephone survey, only 38 respondents supported the war while 58% were opposed.13 Even in the political parties only 23% of the Democrats and 62% of the Republicans were in favor of the war while the Independents only showed 39% in support of the war.14
Read more: http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/279247#ixzz17kPs1fK7 15


Without a doubt the media war is as important as the actual war being conducted in Afghanistan and Iraq. What we must understand is that despite news media’s role as observers of facts they are often manipulated by governments. Both sides of a conflict wage war in the media to sway public opinion, although we have come to label enemy media as propaganda and refer to domestic media as campaigns, the fact is, governments actively manipulate news outlets by restricting and fielding reports to support their war effort. The use of propaganda however is not directed only at the enemy but also at government’s people to sustain political capital at home and moral for the troops. While we like to think that mainstream journalism is not a tool for the government to spread lies, their reports are more often than not in agreement with their government’s. 

Fact is U.S. reporters especially in wars do not roam about without military escorts and helicopter transports, we see in ‘combat’ footage that they are wearing Kevlar vests, protective headgear and are protected by a squad of U.S. soldiers standing nearby. Hence it would be logical to assume that ultimately U.S. media news network do not always report news as they happen. Instead they report it hundreds of miles away from the actual location, only when after the fighting is over, or at the dictate of the military, because frankly they would die left and right or be taken hostage. The U.S. media rarely publishes actual footage of civilian deaths, although you are inundated with footage of combat, which really are just scenes of American soldiers walking about patrols, sometimes shooting off their weapons, rarely do you see an actual enemy fire at American soldiers or dead bodies. 

U.S. Air Campaigns and Civilian Casualties

Throughout the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, the way the U.S. government managed to maintain public support was perhaps due to the use of bombing raids. More often than not, U.S. military have been conducting successful air raids against the Taliban while maintaining low civilian casualty.16 How much truth is there to the claim that the U.S. led coalition forces are successful can be reflected by the latest trend in military operations. According to Deb Riechmann in The Associated Press of Washington Post, the coalition has ramped up air war over Afghanistan, this year (2010) thus far, they have dropped 4,615 bombs and Hellfire missiles when last year’s total was only 4,184 (2009).17 

If anything this suggests that the war in Afghanistan is not going as well as the Bush administration had hoped. Especially when the military is now trying to reconcile the Taliban with the Afghan government when at the beginning of the war in 2001, the mission was to eliminate the Taliban from controlling the government. Recently there have been news reports of back channel negotiations with Taliban representatives,a failed negotiation, nevertheless signals how desperate the U.S. is for ending the war.18

Operation Iraq Freedom

Was the name given to the mission where the U.S. invaded Iraq for supposedly possessing weapons of mass destruction. At the beginning of the war, the U.S. military engaged in an air bombardment campaign, “Shock and Awe” to take out enemy strongholds like government building and military facilities operated by the Republican Guard.19 Of course the U.S. military promised to prevent civilian deaths as best it could. The reason why Americans would believe such statement is due to their idea associated with high-tech weapons like “smart bombs”.20 Not only can these weapons be delivered accurately without endangering civilians but it would also remove the possibility of taking heavy U.S. casualty. But then one must consider how the U.S. military differ between military targets and civilian shelter if there are no U.S. troops on the ground to confirm what’s what?

A Live Television Broadcast of Operation Shock and Awe in Baghdad21

Despite U.S. military assurances of keeping civilian casualty down, in less than two years into Operation Iraqi Freedom, British news reported a conservative figure of 25,000 dead.22 Keep in mind, there is often no way to document actual casualty figures at sites destroyed by bombs, since it is continuously bombed and reporters have little access to such dangerous sites. The figures published by the British was based only on published sources, then what about places where it is physically impossible to reach, are those civilian casualty numbers simply forgotten or not reported? 


American Perception of Civilian Casualty

The above chart shows that there was no television news report on civilian casualty. This in effect perhaps lead the American public to believe that no civilians have been killed between March 19 to April 14 in year 2003 when in fact the casualty rate was the highest considering the heavy bombardments that initiated the invasion. Why than were no civilian casualty reported? The only logical answer is that there was not access, no sane reporter would document a story of civilian deaths on site when bombs are going off, nor would U.S. military allow journalists free range while fighting is occurring, hence most stories are about interviews with military commanders and experts explaining the strategy of the Iraq war and why footage are captured with telescopic cameras tens and hundreds of kilometers away from the firefight. 

Tools of Attack


Americans seem to think that the better the technology, the more precise U.S. missiles and their delivery mechanism are, thus less civilians casualty result from bombardments. Unfortunately they are not aware of the regulations or the conditions behind the decisions made by operators hundreds of miles away when they push the button that launches thousands of payload of explosives to take out a supposed military target. Just because weapons are made more deadly and more accurate does not mean that the target location is valid. In effect all death related to bombings are intended targets whereas all civilian casualty are accidents, 6,000 civilians died in the early phases of Operation Shock and Awe.25 Although not all casualty can be contributed to missile strikes, that is still a significant number of accidents. 

In response to civilian casualty, U.S. military representative would often say that they do not classify civilians as military targets. Although the intent is not to kill innocent civilians whom some controversially consider as a dose of 9/11 for Afghanistan and Iraq, the fact remains that a great number of civilians get caught up in the crosshairs of smart bombs.26 Even back in 2003 NBC correspondent Jim Miklashzerski, commented on Pentagon’s dilemma of killing thousands of Iraqi civilians by accident due to the bombing campaign.


While media broadcast U.S. concerns for civilian casualty, at the same time it depicts weapons as precise, smart and deadly to legitimize the morality of employing bombs despite the consequences of innocent deaths. The contrast of the two notion between civilian deaths and smart bombs awkwardly reflect American’s odd perception of war. Americans know very little of what goes on in terms the consequences of bombings by the U.S. military. During Shock and Awe the death of 60 people by a missile at a market in Baghdad in March of 2003, the New York Times reported that “it was impossible to determine the cause.”28 No U.S. news outlets even reported on an investigation, rather The London newspaper later found out in the wreckage that the missile not only belonged to the U.S. but that the type of missile employed “had a tendency to go off-target.”29 Such report does not surface in U.S. media because it is considered damaging to the war effort, only alternative media outside of U.S. influence would report cases of civilian casualty.30



1) “September 11 Have You Forgoten.” Austin High Schoo. 15 Nov, 2010 <http://www.ahsreunion646566.org/class_custom3.cfm>.

 2) Allan, Stuart, and Barbie Zelizer. Journalism After September 11. London; New York: Routledge, 2002.

 3) Stuart & Zelizer, 10.

4) Stuart & Zelizer, 15.

5) Stuart & Zelizer, 4.

6) Stuart & Zelizer, 14-16.

7) Stuart & Zelizer, 15.

8) Stuart & Zelizer, 14.

9) Andersen, Robin. A Century of Media, A Century of War. (New York; Peter Lang Publishing, 2006) 21.

10) Eric, Larson, and Bogdan Savych. Misfortunes of War. (California; RAND, 2007) 125.

11) AlJazeeraEnglish, “Alarming Rise in Afghan Civilian Casualties.” YouTube, 09 Mar. 2009, 12 Dec, 2010 <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9dV6RHNE76s&gt;.

12)CBSNewsOnline, “U.S. Troops Ambushed” YouTube. 05 Oct. 2009, 13 Dec, 2010 <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OnYb83so8GA&feature=related>.  

13) Andrew Moran, “Support for war in Afghanistan at an all-Time Low.” Digital Journal, 15 Sept. 2009, 15 Nov, 2010 <http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/279247#ixzz17kPs1fK7>.

14) Ibid.

15) Ibid.

16) Andersen, Robin. A Century of Media, A Century of War. (New York; Peter Lang Publishing, 2006) 259-260.

17) Deb Riechmann, “Coalition Ramps up Air War Over Afghanistan.” The Associated Press, The Washington Post. 30 Nov. 2010, 12 Nov. 2010 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2010/11/30/AR2010113002746.html>.    

18) Joshua, Partlow & Karen DeYoung, “Taliban Imposter Reveals Perils of Negotiation.” The Washington Post. 23 Nov. 2010, 13 Nov. 2010 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp dyn/content/article/2010/11/23/AR2010112307752.html>.

19) Andersen, 261.

20) Ibid, 260.

21) Orellabac, “Shock and Awe.” YouTube. 05 April 2006, 14 Nov. 2010 <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TKv7OFmwV0k&gt;.

22) Andersen, 160.

23) Larson & Savych. 166.

24) Dita Smith, and Seth Hamblin, “Tools of Attack.” The Washington Post. 08 Oct. 2001,  14 Nov. 2010 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/graphics/attack/response_2.html>.  

25) Larson & Savych. 160.

26) Andersen, 262.

27) “High-Tech Munitions.” The Washington Post, 13 Dec. 2001, 14 Nov. 2010 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/graphics/attack/response_19.html&gt;.

28) Andersen, 265.

29) Ibid, 261.

28) Ibid.