Media's New War Role

US military learned from past mistakes - can the press?

AS the war in the Gulf winds down, there can be no doubt that television was part of the military strategy on both sides. Just as General Pershing was the first military officer in the west to realize that modern warfare was, above all, a management affair, the military machine in the Gulf demonstrated with remarkable unity of purpose and professional commitment, an understanding of the media as an essential component in the successful conduct of the war.

Joshua Meyerowitz, in his new book ``No Sense of Place,'' has argued that when you add a new technology to the environment, you do not get simply the old environment plus a new technology. You get a new environment. The television camera in concert with satellite uplinks created a new environment for the conduct of war. Once television and satellites make information accessible to anyone with mass-produced receivers, the press must be used to further one's military and political objectives.

This was understood by both belligerents in the war. For the first time in history reporters covering allied movements did so from within enemy lines, in advance of allied armies. When the going got tough, Saddam Hussein expelled all American media organizations except the one with a multinational audience. He too understood that war in postmodern times would be conducted in the presence of a civilian audience, rather than simply a civilian population.

The first Scud missile attacks on Israel demonstrate my point. ABC's correspondent in Tel Aviv had access to a ``top government official.'' As he was being interviewed by telephone on the air, the official realized a bit too late the psychological advantage given to the Iraqis if he conceded that chemical weapons had rained down upon his land. Consequently he backtracked on air. Confusion marked the first reports of the Scud attacks by the US networks.

Allied strategy required taking out the enemy's ability to ``see'' what was going on. The air campaign partially blinded the eyes of Saddam, but so too did press restrictions. Using classic strategy found, for example, in the landing on D-Day in World War II, and updating it with cooperative offensives between land and air units, General Norman Schwartzkopf organized deceptive troop maneuvers and shifted the focus of the allied strike at the onset of the ground war. From the point of view of the militar y, if the audience had been present the stakes would have risen dramatically.

The press, of course, does not cotton to such beliefs. Complaints about military restrictions on their movements became vociferous when the ground war began. ``Pooling'' - that is, organizing teams of reporters whose material is available to journalists remaining behind the lines - was practiced in the second World War. But reporters like Malcom W. Browne, correspondent for the New York Times, reached journalistic maturity long after that conflict ended. He observed, ``It was soon evident that the Unite d States military means to take care of me as I have never been taken care of in previous wars.'' What was a new experience for him, however, has been par for the course for many in the pantheon of war correspondents, such as Ernie Pyle or Robert Casey or George Seldes.

This is not to say that the conditions for reporting war in the Gulf followed the World War II example. They did not. Press units went in on the first wave of assault. Mobile press headquarters were set up immediately. Press movements were no longer closely monitored once the main battles began. But then television and satellites were not present either.

BESIDES taking the press into consideration in planning war operations, the military also used it to its full advantage. This was demonstrated at televised press conferences. The most dramatic example occurred Feb. 27 when General Schwartzkopf apprised the press of allied strategies in the aftermath of an impressive assault on the enemy. Combining the bombastic qualities of a P.T. Barnum with the sensitivities of a '90s man, the general made it clear who was in charge.

What is significant about that press conference, I think, is not so much his theatrics, as his ability to undermine the legitimacy of press conventions, the journalistic rules for proper conduct in reporting war. Someone asked whether the allies had overestimated Iraqi fortification. The general replied ``Have you ever been in a minefield? ... Not a fun place to be.'' When a reporter said he wasn't trying to diminish the accomplishments of the armed forces, Schwartzkopf cut him off with, ``T hank you sir. I hope you don't.''

In short, television made it possible for the general to eliminate the press as an interpreter of events.

At televised press conferences, the military had direct access to the people - and at the same time was able to undermine the credibility of journalistic interpretations. It was a stunning reversal of roles from Vietnam, where the press called military credibility into question.

THE reporters asking questions at press conferences were following their profession's agreed-upon rules for extracting information from government and military officials. The Schwartzkopf incident casts an important lesson of the Gulf war in bas-relief. When the conventions of conducting warfare change, the conventions for reporting it had better change too.

This lesson can be applied to the political arena as well. Since the 1972 presidential election, the conventions for conducting presidential politics have changed. Yet press conventions have been slow to respond. Witness the coverage of the 1988 elections in which the story often became ``how do we report this story?''

While politics is with us on a daily basis, war is not. It comes along only once in a generation - hopefully - and so the Gulf experience seems novel. Professions are like people. As they mature, they turn corners. But in turning corners they often run into the past. In the Gulf, war correspondents turned a corner and ran into Vietnam. The military have learned the lessons taught them from fighting a war in a jungle. The question now remains: Will the press learn their lessons as well?

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Media's New War Role
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today