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The persistent fog of war in the age of smartphones

Do all these new cameras on the battlefield help us see war any more clearly?


Patrick Howell O'Neill


Posted on May 26, 2016   Updated on May 26, 2021, 5:23 pm CDT

Over the course of 48 hours this week, a fierce battle raged in Fallujah, Iraq, between the Islamic State and a coalition of forces led by Iraqi and American militaries. After the Fallujah fight was announced first on live television, countless gunfights and bombings have been streamed live online for the world to see.

This is war in 2016. 

Thanks to smartphones and cheap drones, we now have more cameras recording our battles than ever before. And thanks to social media, those thousands of photos and countless hours of videos are everywhere instantly. Yet the fog of war—a near impenetrable atmosphere of uncertainty around the truth of the fighting—persists. 

Even in this connected age, much of the most reliable information emerging from war-torn cities like Fallujah come from human-to-human contacts who speak in secret to spread word of starvation, torture, and other dangers faced by Fallujah civilians in their daily lives.

That’s not to say the recent fighting came without warning. The war drums had been banging loudly for this newest battle. Last Thursday, as word spread that Fallujah would soon be aflame, a conspicuous crowd gravitated toward the besieged city.

A convoy of rocket launcher systems and fighters belonging to Kata-ib Hezbollah—Iranian proxies fighting as an Iraqi-sanctioned militia—recorded itself heading toward Fallujah four days before the fighting began. The group added a jihadist soundtrack and released the video online just before the battle began. It was a hype movie for the coming fight, propaganda tailor-made for 2016.

A salvo of Iraqi missiles aimed at the city opened the violence, and soldiers hiding behind 10-foot-tall dirt mounds fought against an Islamic State counter-offensive. The whole thing played out on YouTube and Twitter just a few minutes after it happened.

Everyone with a weapon also has a smartphone and an Internet connection. The bullets and missiles fly through a dense fog of cell networks beaming the battle across the globe.

All these new perspectives could mean a more well-informed public when it comes to our wars. But what do we really understand now?

Video: Iraqi soldiers on the Fallujah offensive repel an Islamic State counter-attack.

Ever since the Syrian Civil War erupted in 2011, videos and images have been available on the Web. It was the world’s first social media war. The war spread next door to Iraq when Islamic State militants rapidly conquered wide swaths of the country, including its second largest city, Mosul. 

Now ISIS is on the retreat, having lost around 40 percent of its Iraqi territory since its peak expansion in August 2014.

Almost every fight played out nearly live online through video, photos, and social media posts of all kinds.

In the 1970s, Vietnam became the first television war. The Gulf War of the 1990s was the first 24/7 cable news war. Today, the middlemen are virtually nonexistent.

Every armed group, it seems, has its own social media staff. They edit and publish their own propaganda videos. Hezbollah flies drones with high-definition cameras above the active battlefield and publishes the video just moments later to give the public an almost-live view of the war from the perspective of a bird of prey.

Cutting out the middle man sounds good. But it often means cutting out independent journalists or any third party that might cut through militant propaganda or other unverifiable claims emerging from war zones.

Militants liveblog battles the way TMZ live blogs the Oscars. Does that help us see war any more clearly?

Hours after the Fallujah offensive began, the Islamic State pushed out a new video starring bloodied kids, a ruined mosque, and accusations that American airstrikes hit Fallujah’s civilians in their house of worship.

The video is short, heartbreaking, and designed to go viral, a fact made clear by ISIS-supporting social media accounts spreading the video, retweeting, tagging Western publications, and trying to shift the world’s attention where they wanted it to go.

On top of all that, the video is hardly decisive.

There’s no discernible way for journalists and the public to verify exactly what’s happened from the video alone. Civilians in Fallujah are threatened with death if they leave their homes, so it’s unclear that even after the battle is through they’ll have any truth to contribute.

The Pentagon says it hasn’t yet sorted out what’s happened in the city. Operations in Fallujah are ongoing, a spokesman told the Daily Dot, so it may be some time before we have a solid handle on what did or did not take place. He added that the U.S. works diligently to be precise in airstrikes.

Diligent or not, that doesn’t mean the American military never makes deadly errors from above.

But what can a short Islamic State propaganda video prove on its own? There are so many moving parts in Fallujah right now—from Iran’s Hezbollah proxies to Iraq’s national military and the American support—plus almost as many distinct groups in the sky. Not to mention the Islamic State itself, which has killed scores of Fallujah’s civilians.

And yet, despite the source, it’s a video that clearly shows something bad happened that first day of fighting—one bad thing among an inevitable many. That much we can see. Little beyond that is known.

The incident can’t be discarded simply because the source is a propaganda video from a group that’s made its reputation as the most vicious online propagandists of all time.

Answers are illusory, proving that the fog of war is still thick even when thousands of smartphone cameras are recording the violence. And yet, some are trying to cut through it.

On battlefields littered with cameras, experts rely on a mix of technology and direct human testimony to find the truth.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), an international nonprofit organization that advocates for human rights, regularly combines the two sources of information. Throughout the recent wars in Syria and Iraq, HRW has reported on incidents including militia abuses in Tikrit and Amerli and chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

“Of course, when using videos or photos, for instance, there is the need to verify that it indeed shows what it purports to show—and not something from another country, another time, etc,” Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, told the Daily Dot in an email.

To verify chemical attacks in Ghouta, Human Rights Watch looked at video and photo footage from the scene of the attacks and had experts analyze high resolution photos. Satellite imagery pinpointed the attack locations, and independent journalist Eliot Higgins performed photo analysis.

All that was coupled with interviews of over a dozen witnesses, survivors, and doctors who responded to the attacks. Victims symptoms and signs were investigated and analyzed by HRW’s own experts. Only then, after a lengthy investigation, did HRW conclude that Syria was using chemical weapons against its enemies.

For the rest of us watching as the violence plays out in real time on our own smartphones and laptops, truth remains elusive. Especially during the battle chaos of Fallujah, the multitude of cameras and social media can raise questions but rarely offer definitive answers.

The Islamic State’s well-documented habit of training and using child soldiers was reinforced early Wednesday when photos emerged of a small boy, ostensibly an Islamic State soldier, aiming a machine gun off in the distance at enemies unseen.

The brutality of war remains. And here it is, available for us all to see through a dense and unrelenting haze.

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*First Published: May 26, 2016, 1:34 am CDT