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A Vietnam Leftover: Military-Press Friction

By Richard C. HotteletRichard C. Hottelet, former UN correspondent at CBS, writes on foreign affairs. / January 30, 1991



THE Gulf war shows that the ghost of Vietnam has not been completely laid to rest. It has risen in relations between the military and press. On Jan. 20, Malcolm Browne of the New York Times, reporting from Dhahran on the problems of news coverage, wrote, ``A senior Air Force officer opened his briefing here last week by telling an auditorium filled with reporters: `Let me say up front that I don't like the press. Your presence here can't possibly do me any good and it can hurt me and my people.''' An extreme view, perhaps, but the tip of an iceberg of suspicion.

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Pentagon planners and national leaders have learned from Vietnam that a war, once begun, must be fought without equivocation. But Pentagon information policy, manifestly approved by the Reagan and Bush administration, has retained the assumption that the press can't be trusted. In Grenada, 1983, reporters were restricted to an official pool, ostensibly for their protection. In fact, the pool ensured their exclusion from field coverage of the landing. Panama, 1989, saw the press pool, by now a Pentagon institution, not only keeping reporters away from the action but feeding them disinformation.

In Saudi Arabia, reporters are admitted to military sites in tight, selected groups. They are limited in what they can see. The service men and women they speak to are chosen by information officers who must clear the reporter's material. This censorship can be amended for better or worse up the military ladder. Browne speaks of conflicting and confusing rules and adds, ``For the first time since World War II, correspondents must submit to near-total supervision of their work.''

The effect, in the first week of the Gulf war, was a jumble of events seen through a glass darkly and the emotional swings always more likely in the absence of factual detail. The first spectacular pictures of precision bombing and the low allied casualties stimulated elation, which then gave way to gloom when weather closed in and Scud missiles landed in Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The Pentagon's rationale is security. But the press has never challenged the need for security. In World War II, censorship was accepted and, as I remember, while often annoying was not onerous. In Vietnam there was no censorship at all but also no violation of security, namely the planning of operations and the location of units and bases. As in Vietnam, correspondents in World War II had complete freedom to move around and access to people who would talk with them. They were everywhere, on bombing and parachute missions, in the great European and Pacific amphibious landings.

Before the Normandy invasion, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower ordered all unit commanders of the Allied Expeditionary Force to give accredited correspondents ``the greatest possible latitude in the gathering of legitimate news.''

It would not be fair to equate Gulf War circumstances with those of World War II. In today's small and static theater the newsworthy activity is in the air. There is no room in the fighters and fighter bombers for a reporter. Word of their work comes from pilots (fragmentary), headquarters (homogenized), and released videos (superb to meaningless).

Meanwhile, at last count, 706 press accredited to the Joint Command in Saudi Arabia scratch for news or suck their thumbs. Given the shortage of fact and pressure of competition, rumor can reverberate for hours. At home, the airwaves and newspapers are filled with war babble. Support groups are welcome as human interest. Protest demonstrations fill time. The world sees Americans protesting, so do soldiers in the Gulf. The military fumes.

Tension between press and authority, both military and civil, is most useful in a democracy as long as it does not burst the bounds of mutual advantage. People who have served at the highest levels say that government gets some of its best information from the press; which goes doubly for the public.

The cat that Malcolm Browne's general let out of the bag is that he would rather confine the press to official handouts than help it roam and do its job. If this goes for the administration and military as a whole, then even when the war is won, we shall all be losers.