Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Waging War on the Mind; the Founding Father of Psyops Was a Freebooting War Reporter with Red Hair

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Waging War on the Mind; the Founding Father of Psyops Was a Freebooting War Reporter with Red Hair

Article excerpt


TELEGRAM FROM GUERNICA: The Extraordinary Life of George Steer, War Correspondent

by Nicholas Rankin

Faber, u14.99)

THE war in Iraq is billed as the most formidable campaign of Psychological Operations, or psyops, in the history of arms. Millions of leaflets have been showered across Iraq from aircraft, and planes have pumped out non-stop propaganda broadcasts from "Radio Free Iraq".

Emails of apparatchiks of the Ba'athist regime have been intercepted and disrupted, and text messages about how, where and when to surrender, have been relayed to the mobile phones of Saddam's chosen generals.

One of the unlikely founding fathers of the black art of psyops was George Lowther Steer, a formidable war reporter and adventurer who died serving General Bill Slim in Burma. He was the genius behind Slim's black propaganda in the field. The Army unit he helped set up, the 15th (UK) Psyops Group, is now working in Iraq. Its badge is the head of the sambur, the Burmese golden-antlered deer, which Steer himself chose.

His story, beautifully told in a new brief biography by Nicholas Rankin, is an unlikely one, given what psyops have become. Today the term covers all aspects of information operations, including the handling of media and news.

The embedding of hundreds of journalists and media folk with the British forces now in the Gulf is part of the process.

In his former existence as a brilliant freebooting war reporter in Ethiopia, the Spanish Civil War, and the Winter War in Finland in 1940, Steer would have hated the restrictions and management that are now the official war correspondent's lot. And, for the legions of functionaries and minders, ancient and modern, the young Steer would have been a nightmare.

Steer is an almost forgotten figure now, and even in the annals of journalism is barely given a footnote. Like William Howard Russell he worked for The Times, and like Russell he is noted for one dispatch above all, though he deserves fame for a lot more besides.

His report on 27 April 1936 for The Times, under the headline "The Tragedy of Guernica, Town Destroyed in Air Attack", achieved wider immortality even than Russell's account of the Charge of the Light Brigade in his dispatch from the field of Balaclava. Steer's graphic, but careful, account of the devastation of the Basque capital, was read by Pablo Picasso in Paris, and was the inspiration for his single most celebrated work.

The dispatch from Guernica is worthy of study in itself.

Fastidious, detailed and angry, it catalogues the effects of the raid - Steer does not commit the frequent hubris of journalists of claiming they were there when they were not - and rightly identifies it as a turning point in the mechanics of war, and history itself. …

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