WASHINGTON — When I left Washington for a week of vacation, the public clearly was patient with the way the war was being conducted. And why not? The war was only about a month long. And the president, right from the beginning, had warned that this struggle against terrorism could go on for a long time. He told us we would have to be very patient.
But when I came back, I found - from reading columnists and listening to TV commentators - the American people were beginning to lose their patience. One columnist said that "all over Washington, I was hearing unhappiness about the war's progress."
I don't believe it. I had heard no grumbling about the war at the Williamsburg, Va., historic center we were visiting. Business was off there as a result of the war, so you might well have heard some unhappiness. I talked to several proprietors who merely said their business was picking up and that they hoped it would get back to where it was before Sept. 11. No impatience. I also chatted with vacationers from various parts of the country. No impatience.
I also note that the polls show that the public still is strongly behind the president in his handling of the war. You know what I think? Some members of the media are becoming impatient with this war. And they - consciously or not - are attributing this dissatisfaction to the public.
Some in the media are charging that the president and those around him have lost some of their credibility, because they have provided misinformation on the war. The Vietnam credibility gap is even being cited as a hole that this administration may be falling into. One columnist put it this way: "One week, official spokespeople were telling us we had completely degraded the Taliban's capacity to wage war. The next week, they were talking about what tough adversaries the Taliban are."
I recall seeing, on C-SPAN, the Pentagon briefing when Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold informed reporters that "the combat power of the Taliban has been eviscerated." As I heard the comment, I didn't conclude that our bombing had accomplished more than destroying the Taliban's capacity to defend itself from the air and to launch an offensive war against their enemies. So it was no contradiction when we were told that the Taliban would continue to be tough adversaries in a ground war.
Furthermore, this so-called "contradiction" (admittedly, General Newbold could have been clearer) gained its principal life among the media. The public remains behind this president. His word is still relied on by Americans. It is almost disgraceful even to hint that we may be on a slippery slope leading to the morass of another Vietnam, when we are in a war whose goal our public has so fully embraced - and continues to support fully.
Yes, I well remember Vietnam and how our government lied to us, and how important a role the media played as they brought the truth to the public: that we were not winning the war, but, instead, were bogged down in a war we never should have entered.
It is possible, as in World War II, for the military and the press to work together in the disclosure of war-related information. There always was a basic trust of the military by those who covered that war, a trust that was destroyed in Vietnam by a military that gave false information to the media.
Late in the Vietnam war, I attended a meeting at Fort McNair of 100 or so reserve officers, of which I was one. We all had our civilian jobs - I was a working journalist - but we had come on orders and as officers in uniform.
Several of our top military and government leaders spoke to us at the week-long conference. But my main memory was how hostile they all were in their comments about the press and how, as they saw it, the press was failing our country by not mirroring the military's account of how the war was going on.
That's how wide the breach between military and press had become during Vietnam. But that was long ago, in a war where the vigilance of the press played a vital role in bringing an end to that tragic conflict.
The lesson of Vietnam to the press is clear: It must remain vigilant. It must keep a sharp eye on the government.
But this is a different war. We've been attacked. There's a national resolve. I simply don't see any cracks in that resolve or in our government's credibility. And now the advances of the Afghan rebels in the last few days should silence the impatient critics.