How The Media Covered The Beginning And End Of 12 Major Conflicts

List Rules

Vote up the excerpts that best captured the moment.

The Crimean War didn’t settle much in the long run, but one thing that changed forever was the way news outlets would cover conflicts. As well as photographs that captured the action, it was the first war covered from the ground as it was unfolding. The groundbreaking coverage shone a light on the less glamorous aspects of combat. Thereafter, every major war that broke out was covered in real-time by journalists at the front fighting for the latest scoop.

This collection looks at what newspapers said at the start and end of 12 major conflicts around the world, and how the media covered the action. Relations between the military and press differed greatly from one conflict to the next, ranging from broadly cooperative to outright hostility. Wars are no longer only fought with munitions - but also in print and over the airwaves.


  • World War II - 'The Most Terrible Blood-Bath In Our Generation Might Indeed Be At An End'
    Photo: Victor Jorgensen / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    1
    29 VOTES

    World War II - 'The Most Terrible Blood-Bath In Our Generation Might Indeed Be At An End'

    August 31, 1939:

    Officials, guided only by incomplete and delayed dispatches from Europe, were inclined today to take the gravest view of the situation abroad, some of them fearing war was merely a matter of hours. Only private and confidential opinions were expressed, as both the State Department and the White House maintained official silence.

    August 11, 1945:

    In New York yesterday - and this was true of the nation as a whole - there was, except for a little release of emotional steam, only discussion, speculation, sober reflection and whispered and spoken prayer that the second and most terrible blood-bath in our generation might indeed be at an end.

    Context:

    By the outbreak of World War II, the news was no longer constrained to print media; it was also dispatched over the airwaves in radio broadcasts and newsreels. Footage of such events as the Blitz could be witnessed in full detail by distant audiences across the world. Although broadly sympathetic to the British, the American public wasn’t keen to get involved in the conflict at first.

    Once the US did get involved, considerable efforts were made in media as well as material support. The Office of War Information formed in 1942 to oversee print and broadcast media in support of the war effort. American filmmakers and artists lent their talents to public education and recruitment. Disney even produced a cartoon to extol the virtues of strategic bombing.

    The war's conclusion is usually associated with scenes of wild celebration and an infamous kiss in Times Square. As reports from the time suggest, however, like the iconic photo in question, it seems there was a bit more to the story than is commonly thought. 

  • The Iraq War - 'After Nearly Nine Years, About 4,500 American Fatalities And $1 Trillion, America’s War In Iraq Is About To End'
    Photo: Tech. Sgt. John L. Houghton, Jr./US Air Force / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    2
    23 VOTES

    The Iraq War - 'After Nearly Nine Years, About 4,500 American Fatalities And $1 Trillion, America’s War In Iraq Is About To End'

    March 20, 2003:

    The ground war against Iraq kicked off tonight as United States marines, backed by heavy air strikes and artillery, surged across the border in darkness.

    The night sky was illuminated by the flashes of shells and bombs along the northern horizon, as seen from the tents and camouflage netting of the First Marine Division's headquarters base eight miles south of the border. The constant boom and crump of artillery barrages resonated across the desert and shook the sand.

    December 15, 2011:

    After nearly nine years, about 4,500 American fatalities and $1 trillion, America’s war in Iraq is about to end. Officials marked the finish on Thursday with a modest ceremony at the airport days before the last troops take the southern highway to Kuwait, going out as they came in, to conclude the United States’ most ambitious and bloodiest military campaign since Vietnam.

    Context:

    In the hyper-patriotic atmosphere of the immediate post-9/11 world, it was an especially difficult time for reporters to ask the tough questions their professions demanded. Even veteran broadcasters felt intimidated by the atmosphere and refrained from pushing back against official narratives. 

    In the buildup to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, non-American journalists were astonished at the extent of the obsequious pro-war coverage by mainstream media outlets. While there were significant protests against the incursion, the public at large backed military action and accepted the reasoning offered by the Bush administration. 

    During the conflict itself, the Iraqi minister of information, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, known in the West as "Bagdad Bob" or "Comical Ali," became a figure of fun thanks to his flamboyant and increasing outlandish broadcasts. 

    As the conflict dragged on, public support and media coverage grew more critical. According to a Pew Research poll in 2003, 72% of those polled said military action was the right decision. That figure dipped to just 38% by 2008. In more recent years, the perception of the conflict largely falls along partisan lines.

  • World War I - 'One Of The Most Terrible Wars In The History Of The World Is At Hand'
    Photo: H.D. Girdwood / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    3
    30 VOTES

    World War I - 'One Of The Most Terrible Wars In The History Of The World Is At Hand'

    August 3, 1914:

    General Nelson A. Miles on the outbreak of war in Europe:

    I am afraid one of the most terrible wars in the history of the world is at hand. Some of the countries of Europe are war mad. It will take one big war, a tremendous sacrifice of lives, and great loss of money to open their eyes to their folly.

    November 11, 1918:

    The moonlit boulevards and streets of Paris were filled tonight with joyous crowds, waiting momentarily for expected news of the armistice. In the meantime, all other good news was received with shouts, and it is coming fast. Hardly had the crowds finished cheering over the request of Prince Maximilian made to be relieved of the Chancellorship when newspaper office bulletins recorded the fact the Kaiser had abdicated.

    Context:

    General Miles's dire prediction at the outset of the Great War proved all too accurate as the world’s foremost powers soon found themselves locked in a deadly stalemate. 

    Newspapers were still the main source of information on the unfolding conflict, although they were considered unreliable at best by those at the forefront of the action. With such long periods spent without significant movement, the soldiers passed the time by producing their own newspapers. Trench papers were darkly comic and poignant, providing a creative outlet for those serving.

    For the US, the general sentiment was of neutrality, though the Wilson administration backed the Allied war effort. The American entry into the fray in 1917 was deeply controversial and led to major crackdowns on civil liberties, lest the war effort be undermined.

  • The American Civil War - 'The Ball Has Opened'
    Photo: Thure de Thulstrup / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    April 13, 1861:

    The ball has opened. War is inaugurated. The batteries of Sullivan's Island, Morris Island, and other points, were opened on Fort Sumpter at 4 o'clock this morning.

    April 10, 1865:

    The great struggle is over. Gen. ROBERT E. LEE and the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered yesterday to Lieut. Gen. U.S. GRANT and the Army of the Potomac.

    The thrilling word PEACE -- the glorious fact of PEACE -- are now once again to be realized by the American people.

    Context:

    Such technological breakthroughs as the railway, telegraph, and major improvements in the efficiency of printing meant that by the 1860s, news traveled fast and widely. The scramble to get the news out quickly during the American Civil War was almost as frantic as the conflict itself. During the major battle of Antietam, correspondent George Smalley got so close to the action that his horse was struck by a bullet. He borrowed another and completed his account of the battle on the train. His report went out the following morning. 

    The public’s insatiable desire for news saw the larger papers employ dozens of on-site reporters to get the latest scoop. The New York Herald alone had 40 correspondents on its payroll. Journalistic standards at the time weren’t exactly rigorous, and though some reporters tried to stick to the facts, others leaned into sensationalist gossip and rumors. The many editorials printed over the course of the war made no attempt to appear even-handed. In the north, Republican papers were generally supportive of the president, while the Democratic outlets were far more critical.

    Most generals disliked the press, but William T. Sherman was perhaps the most vocal of all in his disdain for reporters. Quite a few quotes of dubious reliability about the press are attributed to him, but one that's actually verifiable is his denunciation of reporters as little better than spies:

    A spy is one who furnishes an enemy with knowledge useful to him and dangerous to us. I say in giving intelligence to the enemy, in sowing discord & discontent in an army, these men fulfill all the conditions of spies.

  • The Soviet War In Afghanistan - 'Even The Poorest Land Should Be Granted The Dignity Of Being Viewed As Something More Than A Domino'
    Photo: erwinlux / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0

    December 23, 1979:

    The Western, and particularly American, mass media have lately been spreading patently inspired rumors about some kind of "interference" on the part of the Soviet Union in the internal affairs of Afghanistan... They have gone so far as to allege that Soviet "combat units" have been moved into Afghanistan's territory. All this, of course, is pure invention.

    February 15, 1989:

    For the superpowers, the main lesson surely is the need to distinguish with greatest care between peripheral and vital interests before plunging bloodily into third world conflicts. Even the poorest land should be granted the dignity of being viewed as something more than a domino.

    Context:

    The 1979 Soviet intervention in Afghanistan was seen as the "hidden war" by foreign journalists unable to gain access to the unfolding conflict. While Vietnam had hundreds of journalists covering the ongoing crisis at any given time, only around a dozen made it into Afghanistan. The Western impression of the conflict tended to revolve around narratives of the plucky Mujahideen fighters battling Soviet oppressors. 

    It wasn’t just stinger missiles that the US armed Afghans with, but also camcorders. The US Information Agency was given the funds to equip and train Afghan journalists in 1985. 

    As the initial Russian denial of involvement shows, the Soviet Union was reticent when it came to covering events in Afghanistan. The few stories that did come focused on the apparently humanitarian mission of the USSR in Afghanistan. By the mid-1980s, with far too many returning veterans to contest the non-combat narrative, the emphasis shifted toward stories of heroism by the young conscripts. The withdrawal was long in the making; Mikhail Gorbachev described the war as a "bleeding wound" in 1986. The withdrawal of Soviet troops began the following year and was completed in February 1989. 

  • The Crimean War -  'The British People Will Be Discontented With The Peace That Is About To Be Declared'
    Photo: Roger Fenton / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    6
    20 VOTES

    The Crimean War - 'The British People Will Be Discontented With The Peace That Is About To Be Declared'

    October 17, 1853

    The Atlantic, which arrived yesterday at noon, brings important intelligence from Eastern Europe. It is reported that a grand council of the Sultan's advisers had been held at Constantinople; that they had agreed in recommending and in drawing up a declaration of war against Russia; and that this declaration had been signed by the Sultan.

    April 17, 1856:

    The 1856 Treaty of Paris officially brought the conflict to a close on March 30. The London Times (quoted in The New York Times) expressed the general dissatisfaction felt by the British over the terms:

    We conceive it quite possible, therefore, that the British people will be discontented with the peace that is about to be declared.

    While acknowledging the lack of territory and monetary compensation, the paper tried to put a positive spin on the outcome:

    Our victories and undiminished resources are their own reward. 

    Context:

    The Crimean War saw an alliance of Britain, France, and the Ottomans overcome the Russian Empire in a grueling conflict that first broke out in 1853. It was the first major war to be covered from the ground as it was happening.

    William Howard Russell’s groundbreaking on-site coverage of revealed the less glamorous side of warfare and exposed the state of the medical conditions and the lack of organization in the upper echelons of command. Publicity of the unsanitary conditions in military hospitals led to major reform efforts in nursing led by Florence Nightingale. Another less-celebrated pioneer was the British-Jamaican nurse and businesswoman Mary Seacole

    The war failed to settle the so-called "Eastern Question" or even to secure peace between Russia and the Ottomans in the long term. The two powers would be back at war in 1877, and for the 12th and final time in 1914.