War and Journalism

When I see an embedded reporter like, say, the late David Bloom of NBC (a great reporter and sorely missed), green in night-vision light, crouched behind a berm, whispering into his mike while guns and bombs fire and explode in the background, I think, this is great. This time you see it for real.

I have a friend in New York, Joe, a former journalist. He e-mailed me a few days ago that he isn't sure that the "embedded" reporter is a good idea. He thinks maybe this type of reporting "obscures the big picture."

Which big picture? Donald Rumsfeld's? Saddam Hussein's? There is no big picture. The big picture is a lie. There is only a mosaic of small pictures, a heart-in-the-mouth charge on a machine gun here, a funeral in Iowa there, a weeping American mother, a weeping Iraqi mother, a sucking chest wound, a palace dissolved to dust by a 2000-pound bomb.

I cannot help contrasting this reportage with the specter that still haunts my dreams and ruins my disposition: press coverage of the Vietnam War.

I met some great reporters in Vietnam and Cambodia: Michael Herr, Haney Howell, Al Rockoff. Some of them are among my best friends today. They were brave, smart, and dedicated. But none of that led to fair, accurate, or truthful reporting of that war.

Here are some stories America saw, and some they didn't see.

They saw a Marine unit burn a village. They didn't see a Marine bleed out on the ground with too many holes to stanch because his unit had been ordered to take an enemy-occupied village without artillery or air support, without even their own mortars, because of fear of civilian casualties.

They saw bombs fall on Cambodia, or rather heard about it. But since no reporter could get to those areas, they didn't see that there were no Cambodian civilians out there, except those who had been impressed as slave labor by the North Vietnamese army to serve their miles-long network of heavily camouflaged military installations.

Tet is the Vietnamese word for the Chinese New Year. It's the most sacred holiday in Vietnam. For Tet of 1968 we had word that something was up. The Americans were on alert, but the South Vietnamese couldn't quite make themselves believe that the enemy would violate the holiday truce on a large scale.

Pretty much simultaneously throughout the country, the Viet Cong main force guerrilla units -- originally South Vietnamese, but by 1968 largely staffed by North Vietnamese replacements -- instead of invading North Vietnamese army units, attacked the cities, and we just kicked their asses from hell to breakfast. The Tet Offensive was the end of the Main Force Viet Cong units. They ceased to exist.

South Vietnamese units that had never fought well before became wispy Sergeant Rocks.

I was all over the country from Saigon north in the week after that, and morale was sky high. The enemy had done what we had wanted them to do, come out to fight in large units in the open, and we had prevailed...big-time.

The North Vietnamese leadership was in despair. They had lost the battle, and it was such an important battle that they thought they had lost the war.

There was a lag before we got the American civilian press in Vietnam. The "controlled" GI paper, the Stars and Stripes, got it right. Then came my rice paper Far East edition of Newsweek. I read it with a dawning sense of...I don't know what. It was like one of those Road Runner cartoons where Wyle E. Coyote is sailing through the air like a rocket and happens to glance down at the desert a thousand feet below and immediately plummets toward it.

The big story was that six VC sappers (commandos) got over the fence at the American Embassy in Saigon and lived about three minutes before they were killed by Marine guards. Oh, the cries of despair! How could this happen? Hey, you can commit suicide anywhere!

Another big story was built around a picture of Major General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, of the Vietnamese National Police, executing a VC sapper in the middle of the street. It was a great shot. There's Loan, from the back, arm straight, firing his pistol. You can see the VC, his face resigned and imploding. It's a well-balanced shot, with Loan's pistol on the left and the guy's brains erupting on the right.

Enough was written about the horror of that shot in the following two weeks to fill every encyclopedia in the world. And nobody mentioned that the VC had been caught just after he killed a South Vietnamese Air Force major and his whole family, wife and kids, six people. Nobody mentioned that the major was a friend of Loan's.

Eddie Adams, who took the picture, is a former Marine. He thought what Loan did was perfectly understandable.

The Tet Offensive was one of the most lopsided military victories in American history, and the American nation was led by its own press to believe we had been defeated.

If you believe that we "lost" the Vietnam War, as opposed to simply canceling it like a TV series that has dropped in the ratings, then you should know we did not lose it to Ho Chi Minh. We lost it to Walter Cronkite.

War correspondence tends to be pack journalism. War correspondents are clannish. They are smart; they are brave. I like them. But objective? They favor the poor over the rich, civilians over the military (even their civilians over our military), Left over Right.

Most combat correspondents have no military experience and frequently no idea what they are looking at. Things are often misidentified. My favorite was a picture I saw in the New York Times of an armored personnel carrier on the streets of Beirut. The caption referred to it as a "tank." That may not seem like such a big error. An APC is, after all, a tracked armored vehicle. But to call it a tank is precisely analogous to calling a school bus a dump truck.

When the 173d Airborne Brigade jumped into northern Iraq, Tom Aspell of ITN referred to it as the "173d Airborne Division," inadvertently increasing it from a 3000-man unit to a 15,000-man unit.

Jim Graves, former managing editor of Soldier of Fortune, and the only member of his Marine squad in Vietnam who was not killed or wounded, remembers boarding a Guatemalan army helicopter with a young lady, a reporter for a large metropolitan daily. They were going out to the combat zone, but she wore heels and a skirt. As they ducked under the rotors she turned to him, giggled, and said, "Is this what they call a 'chopper'?"

An adversarial relationship grew up between the military and the press after Vietnam. The military realized that in its 200-plus-year history they had only fought one war with no censorship, and they had only lost one. The same one.

For a time -- Grenada, Desert Storm -- they simply stonewalled the press, treated them like mushrooms. You know, kept in the dark and fed bullshit.

Now the pendulum has swung the other way. An embedded report can be spun, but not spiked. An example of spin is the brouhaha over whether we'd gone in heavy enough. From the amount of verbiage you'd have thought the Iraqis were pushing us into the sea. Coalition forces, the Americans, the Brits, some Aussies -- and here's one you don't hear much about, some Polish Spec Ops people -- had advanced from Kuwait to Baghdad in two weeks with fewer than 50 battle deaths. On Iwo Jima some 200-man Marine companies lost more than that in the first ten minutes.

What this commentary showed was that there are two schools of thought in the Pentagon, usually represented by tankers and jumpers. The tankers believe we should go heavy, deliberately. The jumpers opt for light and fast. This time the light-and-fast guys won, and they came out looking mighty good.

What I really love about embedded reporting is that it shows our GIs as they really are, bright, dedicated, courageous, self-sacrificing. Like the young Marine squad leader, wounded and in the hospital, desperate to get back to his men, lest any die without his guidance. Like Jessica Lynch, Palestine, West Virginia's Miss Congeniality of 2001. She fired up all her ammo against a vicious ambush, and when her first rescuer identified himself as an American soldier, she's reported to have replied, "I'm an American solder, too."

My first two years in the Army were spent teaching basic training, and I came to love GIs. I thought then that they were the greatest kids in the world. I'm glad to see they still are.

But don't be deceived that from TV you can experience war. In war there are no jump cuts, no station breaks, no instant analysis. When you have seen war, you have seen death up close and personal. When you have seen war on television, you have seen a pattern of colored dots on a cathode ray tube.

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