The Smartphone War

Molly Crabapple
Syrian refugees hiding from Turkish border guards near Afrin, northern Syria, June 2015; illustration from Marwan Hisham and Molly Crabapple’s Brothers of the Gun

Every few seconds my iPhone lights up with new posts on a WhatsApp group linking doctors in the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta to journalists in the outside world. News of Russian and Syrian government bombardment comes more or less in real time: “Before three hours in Ghouta, Russian plane tracked ambulances and hit both ambulances and hospitals.” “Dr Hamza: I have treated twenty-nine cases so far, the majority are children.” Visuals are captioned in Arabic and English: “Photos of shelters that local residents dug under their homes.” The journalists, who include correspondents from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other international newspapers, use the group to clarify the numbers of casualties and check locations of attacks, while broadcast media request Skype interviews from inside the war zone.

A meticulous sifting of testimony, videos, and photographs conveyed by social media, to be cross-checked with government propaganda, satellite imagery, and whatever other sources are available, is a crucial part of twenty-first-century conflict reporting. It feels very far from William Howard Russell, usually considered the first modern war correspondent, who famously covered the Charge of the Light Brigade, describing the British cavalry in Crimea as “glittering in the morning sun in all the pride and splendour of war.”

Russell saw himself as “the miserable parent of a luckless tribe,” and those correspondents chained to computers in Beirut, Istanbul, or London feel luckless indeed. In Libya in 2011, you could drive to the war in the morning and return to your hotel in Benghazi at night because much of the fighting occurred, conveniently enough, on the main coast road. In Iraq in 2003, you could embed with invading Western troops or stay in Baghdad as Saddam Hussein launched his doomed resistance. You were always an eyewitness to something, while relying on the accounts of others to fill in the bigger picture. One might look back with even more nostalgia to a late summer day in 1939, when the young Clare Hollingworth, in her first week as a correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, borrowed the car of the British consul in the Polish town of Katowice, talked her way past the guards at the German frontier post, and happened to be driving along the right road when a gust of wind lifted burlap curtains the Germans had strung up, revealing ten Panzer divisions ready to roll across the border.

Syria is different. The government learned from the experience of Sri Lanka, where in 2009 the regime banned journalists and aid workers so it could impose a military solution to the long war with the Tamil Tigers in the north of the country with no regard for civilian life. Syria gives visas to a…

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