The attack on Iraq is set to be the most censored conflict of modern times. Coverage in mainstream media is being controlled as never before. The United States is determined to eliminate independent reporting and will go to unprecedented lengths to ensure its propaganda dominates media agendas.

The American and British Governments have shown themselves adept at learning propaganda lessons from successive conflicts. In both Suez (1956) and, most importantly, Vietnam they came to believe that propaganda and media control were key to winning wars.

The role of the media in Vietnam is believed by many to have been a key factor in the defeat of the US. But, in fact, the American media started to feature dissent only after the American ruling elite became split on the war.

Nevertheless, the US' future war planners decided not to risk uncensored press coverage of their own conflicts. They determined - evidently beginning in the Reagan Administration - that reporters would never again have the opportunity to "confuse" the public about the Government's war aims, whether deliberately or by accident.

The lessons of Vietnam were put into effect in the Falklands War in 1982. There was close control of the 29 journalists allowed to accompany the military to the South Atlantic, and no independent facilities for reporting. A dual system of censorship operated, which ensured that journalists' copy was censored on naval vessels in the South Atlantic and then again at the Ministry of Defence in London before being released.

Lieutenant-Commander Arthur Humphries, of the US Navy, commenting on the British policy, noted: "In spite of a perception of choice in a democratic society, the Falklands War shows us how to make certain that Government policy is not undermined by the way a war is reported ... Control access to the fighting, invoke censorship, and rally aid in the form of patriotism at home and in the battle zone." This policy was followed in the invasions of both Grenada (1984) and Panama (1989).

Commander Humphries also noted that if there was one deficiency in the policy, it was in failing to fill the resulting information void with pictures.

By the time of the Gulf War in 1991 this lesson had been well learned. In the Saudi desert journalists were isolated from the fighting and newsrooms were supplied every day with new footage of "precision" bombs hitting their targets.

This was the new clean war in which civilians would not be harmed as "smart" technology enabled "surgical strikes". This was a systematic charade. Only 7 per cent of the ordnance was "smart". The other 93 per cent was indiscriminate weaponry, including weapons of mass destruction.

The smart technology turned out not to be so smart and missed its target in 40 per cent of cases, according to official figures. Needless to say we did not see any of the footage of either the dumb bombs or the smart bombs which missed.

This time the US and Britain are claiming that most bombs will be of the smart variety and that the technology has been improved. According to the British Ministry of Defence, "greater attention to precision-guided weapons means we could have a war with zero civilian casualties". This statement was falsified on the first night of bombing when several Iraqi civilians were hit by shrapnel.

The emphasis on a clean war again is an attempt to divert attention from the fact that weapons of mass destruction, such as depleted uranium-tipped shells and bunker-buster and daisy-cutter bombs, will be used.

In past wars, including the 1991 Gulf War, the pool system has been the main means of control of journalists "in theatre". The pool allows the military to control the movement of journalists as well as almost everything they see. In 1991 the Pentagon tried to bully journalists not to operate outside the pool, and some adopted the value system so fully that they turned in any journalists who tried to report independently.

This time the Pentagon has become more sophisticated and more determined to eliminate the possibility of independent reporting. The pool has a new feature known as "embedding", which entails reporters operating in close proximity to military units. They are not allowed to travel independently.

These new rules mean that journalists don military uniform and protective clothing and, the Pentagon hopes, start to identify with the military. According to reports there are 903 journalists "embedded" with US and British forces, six times the number of journalists in Baghdad.

In an interview on Irish radio, veteran BBC war correspondent Kate Adie argued that the Pentagon was "entirely hostile to the free spread of information ... I am enormously pessimistic of the chance for decent on-the-spot reporting".

But the threat to independent journalism is potentially more severe. Adie reported being told by a senior officer in the Pentagon that if broadcasters' satellite uplink signals were detected by the military, they would be "targeted down", even if there were journalists there.

War does strange things to both military and media. Journalists suffer from the malaise of getting too involved. Former Daily Telegraph editor Max Hastings admits he got too close in the Falklands War. "I was accused of getting too involved with the troops - I have to plead guilty to that."

In Iraq now he worries for younger colleagues. "TV stations and newspapers tend to get overexcited in wars ... It's a case of boys with toys, but the hardest thing to remember is that this is ultimately all about lives."

On the first day of the attack, Iraqi missiles fired into Kuwait were unequivocally reported on the main BBC bulletins as consisting of Scud missiles, although this had not been confirmed and doubt was cast on the hypothesis by minority audience BBC programmes.

BBC News 24, the globally available service, continually repeated the propaganda. Just after midnight (GMT) on the morning of the March 21, BBC reporter Ben Brown repeatedly used the word "Scud" without any qualification.

As many news outlets pointed out, the use of Scuds would be a material breach of United Nations resolution 1441. But, in fact, the missiles were not Scuds, as was confirmed the next day. But by then the damage was done and the correction did not gain the prominence of the original reports.

A hackneyed phrase maintains that truth is the first casualty of war, but this does not suggest nearly clearly enough that it is a casualty because the US and British Governments are making a concerted attempt to destroy it.

* Dr David Miller is a member of Stirling University's Media Research Institute in Scotland.

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