The Media Muzzled

Vietnam and Afghanistan Show why Limiting Press Access to War is Unpatriotic

Back in October, the president of MSNBC, Erik Sorenson, asked whether he thought the media would be able to give Americans an accurate accounting of the war in Afghanistan, replied, "We'll find out in five or 10 years what the real truth is." Last week, the conflict there all but over, Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post, concurred. In a live online discussion with him, a reader observed: "My impression is that the media have had less access to the facts about activities in Afghanistan than to the facts in any prior American military engagement since World War II." Downie responded: "Time will tell whether important information has been hidden from the American people by the administration."

Time will tell. I'd rather be told by The Washington Post.

Sometimes the government lies to us. Sometimes it is simply incompetent and hides the fact. And sometimes the institutions of the media cooperate. It's even worse in wartime. That's as American as jazz. And now that the Afghan phase of the war on terrorism appears all but over, it's fair to begin to wonder: Have any lies, any incidences of systematic incompetence or worse, been hidden from the American people during this war?

Illustration by Nathan Fox

It's impossible to say—and hardly just because of the Afghan engagement's supposed unorthodox and decentralized nature. The Pentagon, of course, has been perfecting its techniques for choking off information at least since the Vietnam War. The exact nature of the restrictions placed on the American press remain vague, but the patterns are clear. Reporters have had some access to U.S. warships, none whatsoever to high-level decision making—unsurprising for this administration, which was already the least open in memory before September 11. And in the field of battle? Said NPR's Steve Inskeep to the Washington, D.C., City Paper, "Nobody has really had any decent access to U.S. forces."

Even harder to discern is the extent to which media organizations are censoring themselves. It's happening, of course: the conservative Weekly Standard ran a December 3 cover article positively boasting of how many journalists (Dan Rather, Geraldo Rivera, Thomas Friedman) have been willing to cast aside the ethic of objectivity in service to the cause of patriotism.

To which most Americans seem to be replying: all to the good. The Pentagon says it's for the safety of the troops, for the integrity of our military operations. And in an era of patriotism, it seems a self-evident conclusion. But it ain't necessarily so. Cast your eyes over history, in fact, and it is relatively unencumbered access to what happens on the battlefield that looks more and more like the patriotic act.

Soldiers in Vietnam knew this. There, explains John R. MacArthur, Harper's publisher and author of the hair-raising 1992 study Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War, "The reporters took care of the soldiers, and the soldiers took care of the reporters." Whatever the myths that the relationship between the two groups was adversarial, MacArthur says, the soldiers knew their superiors were doing a poor job. They wanted to win. So they wanted something they knew would help their cause: independent observers—journalists—keeping tabs on their betters. Of course Vietnam seems now to be a special case; they "needed independent witnesses to protect them from the crazy second lieutenant leading them on a suicide mission," recalls MacArthur. No hint of crazy second lieutenants in Kandahar, no My Lais in Mazar-i-Sharif, as far as we know. The military's conduct and efficiency in Afghanistan appear sterling. But that doesn't vitiate the point. Once, the war in Vietnam appeared to be going well, too.

Throughout history many governments have agreed: blacking out battles from prying reportorial eyes has never been militarily self-evident. In-the-field war correspondence was invented during the Crimean War, by William Howard Russell of the London Times. It was the 1850s, and the British government was secure enough in its sense of right in their conflict against the Russians to let Russell wander where he might once the battle was joined. They were also secure enough to read what he found out. And what he found was entirely preventable starvation, misery, and sickness among the British troops. Parliament demanded an investigation. They ended up forcing the resignation of the Earl of Aberdeen, the incompetent prime minister. Russell found out what the truth was in the heat of battle, not five years later—and it helped Great Britain win the Crimean War.

During the Gulf War the leaderships of many countries in our coalition behaved the same way. While the White House pressured The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times to pull their war correspondents out of Baghdad, and the papers acquiesced, reporters from other countries stayed. And if anything, their militaries, though it may have pained them to admit it, may have been better off for it.

Our military might have been better off for the scrutiny as well: If we are not able to maintain the trust of other nations long enough to keep the viable coalition against international terrorism that George W. Bush says we need from Afghanistan onward, it will likely have something to do with the awful mistakes that happened under his father's watch in Iraq in 1991—and that were hidden from world opinion until 1992. Things like the cover-up of the savage dumbness of all too many of our "smart" bombs and the belated press discovery that the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton was behind the fabricated stories about Iraqis pulling babies from incubators to convince the world that Kuwait was a democratic innocent worth saving from Iraqi aggression. Why does the world hate us so much? One reason may be that no one likes being lied to.

I wish our country were psychologically secure enough to be willing to scare the military into more accountability by making their activities more public. It would end up making our democracy more secure. It might help us do better in wars. Once, the Supreme Court seemed to agree.

I've been reading the Pentagon Papers recently. You may know something about this astonishing document: A mammoth analytic history of America's involvement in Vietnam since the U.S. began its commitment to defeat the Communist insurgency in the '40s, it was commissioned by a disenchanted then Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in 1967, desperate for insights into how to redeem a situation he already knew to be an irredeemable disaster (he resigned from the government soon after). The documents began to be published in the Times and The Washington Post in 1971, until the Nixon administration legally ordered the papers to stop on grounds of national security; it took a 6-3 Supreme Court decision to allow them to continue. The decision should have, but didn't, set a precedent: that the government can exercise censorship only if it demonstrates that revealing the information may harm the security of troops in the field. It wasn't a decision about war reporting per se; the Pentagon Papers were a history covering events at least three years old by the time they were released. But between the lines of the ruling, the justices seemed to be upholding a grander principle: that, other things being equal, more information about ongoing wars can better serve the national interest than habits of utmost secrecy.

The Court may have been convinced not merely by the First Amendment issues involved but by the contents of the Papers themselves. For a big part of the story they tell is about the U.S. government keeping secrets from the press—first and foremost the secrets behind the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the extraordinary action that gave President Johnson carte blanche to wage war unchecked by Congress. When U.S. destroyers were apparently fired upon by North Vietnamese PT boats in the Gulf in August of 1964, Johnson sold the action as a viciously unprovoked attack. It wasn't. It actually was a response to six months (or, if you interpret it another way, five years) of U.S. covert warfare: "destructive undertakings"—as one secret document revealed in the Times—aimed at "targets identified with North Vietnam's economic and industrial well-being." Which was quite something, for North Vietnam, a marshy agricultural nation, had hardly any industrial well-being to speak of. Bombing North Vietnam never helped end the war one bit. And the Papers reveal that experts were explaining all along that bombing could have no measurable effect on getting the insurgency in South Vietnam to stop.

The astonishing thing about the Papers is that it reveals that there was never a moment since World War II in which some intelligence agency (often the much-maligned CIA) wasn't giving warnings like this. In '48 the message was that Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the insurgency, didn't take orders from any international Communist conspiracy; in '54 it was that the entire region was "devoid of decisive military objectives"; in '65 through '67 that ground troops wouldn't work where bombing had already failed. American presidents kept escalating the war anyway, lying and lying and lying about it. "The president desires that with respect to the actions in paragraphs 5 through 7," a 1965 document revealed, "premature publicity be avoided by all possible precautions. The actions themselves should be taken as rapidly as practicable, but in ways that should minimize any appearance of sudden changes in policy. . . . The President's desire is that these movements and changes should be understood as being gradual and wholly consistent with existing policy."

Paragraphs 5 through 7 was the presidential order to send 20,000 soldiers to fight on the ground in Vietnam: a change in existing policy of whirlwind suddenness, the whereabouts of 20,000 soldiers risking their lives shrouded as if they didn't exist. (Some way to support our troops.) By the time the irremediable depth of our commitment to winning an unwinnable war became evident when reporters finally began figuring things out (and later when the Pentagon Papers were made public), the president felt far too committed to pull out.

The parallel to the current war, of course, is not entirely apt. Vietnam was fought over abstractions—as the Pentagon itself admitted. (A 1965 secret memo listed U.S. aims in Vietnam as 70 percent to avoid a humiliating U.S. defeat, 20 percent to make a point to the Chinese, and 10 percent to permit the South Vietnamese "to enjoy a better, freer way of life.") This time, we were attacked. And of course the Pentagon Papers were not a product of dogged journalism, but of the fact that a government report happened, fortuitously, to surface from the actions of a disgruntled defense analyst, Daniel Ellsberg. The war never seemed to end; this one seems over already.

But rescue last week's papers from the recycling bin, read the stories again, and ask yourself: Can we really be sure of what's going on? A Web tease for an article in The New York Times from December 6 on Kandahar notes an "an unconfirmed report that the Taliban leader has decided to surrender the city," as if the paper of record was getting its information from the barking chain in the movie 101 Dalmatians. The New York Post attributed a story that—fasten your seat belts now—Osama bin Laden is hiding in caves to a "widespread report" that "intelligence sources" have said so. The deficit is made up with media stenography of the two things the Pentagon is happy to talk about: first, military successes ("Yesterday, the Pentagon showed a video clip of a bomb taking out an entire building where prisoners were fighting," as reported by the New York Post); second, gee-whiz gadgetry ("greatly improved in recent years by the same digital revolution that has drastically increased the power of video recorders and computers," as reported by The New York Times).

Maybe the U.S. military can get out of Afghanistan without incurring any regional disaster, any national embarrassment, any further sundering of the international order, without atrocity, and without making Americans cynical—even without benefit of a robust press watching over their work. I pray that it may be so. And maybe the new mayor of some midsized Jersey burg with a record of public mendacity going back to his days as dogcatcher will get through his term in office without doing anything wrong, even without the Bergen Record going over his ledgers.

My fellow Americans: Trust them at your own risk.

War needs journalistic watchdogs as much as or more than any city hall, because human beings, even those responsible for safeguarding lives, may lie mercilessly if there is no one to watch over them. Even in what we are told are "extraordinary circumstances," in which "everything has changed," and the country is "more united than ever before."

"We'll find out in five years what the real truth is": Do you really want to stake your patriotism on assurances like that?

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