THE press's record in Vietnam was far from perfect. But it's good to have settled the question of whether it ``lost'' the war, at least in the minds of US Army historians. For years, many in the military have blamed journalists - especially television - for unfavorable reporting which undermined public (and therefore political) support. Watching those old Walter Cronkite clips, it is clear that journalistic portrayal could be far from neutral (as hawkish in the early days as it was dovish after the Tet offensive in 1968).
But now a study by the US Army Center of Military History concludes that ``what alienated the American public ... was not news coverage but casualities.'' The media played a key role here, of course. Even though TV coverage ``was most often banal and stylized'' (as the report puts it), seeing the anguish of one wounded soldier unloaded from a helicopter made the difference for many Americans. And when Life magazine published photos of the hundreds killed in one week, the enormity of the key question - ``Why are we there?'' - overwhelmed all else.
The Army report confirms two other points about why the US lost in Southeast Asia: With phony ``body counts,'' wildly optimistic readings of South Vietnamese capabilities, and other deceptions, the Pentagon and US administrations dug their own credibility hole. And Lyndon Johnson's war strategy - restrictions and limited goals - was an inherent failure.
The point is not to say ``I told you so'' on behalf of the press or to score points in a political debate that will go on for years. The human loss on both sides is far to great for that. But for future reference, it's good that the Army has set the record straight.