Key lessons from Vietnam

Dan Rodricks

January 11, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

What have we learned since Vietnam?

1. Keep the TV cameras away.

Should there be war with Iraq, the Pentagon has a new set of rules for media coverage of the confrontation. There will be groups of reporters and photographers working in pools under the close scrutiny of the military. These pool reporters will report to other reporters what they see and hear at the front. But it doesn't appear they are going to see very much.

Not as much as they saw in Vietnam, anyway.

This time around, the Pentagon will ban television coverage of "personnel in agony or severe shock" or "imagery of patients suffering from severe disfigurement." The military said its primary concern in setting the restrictions was to protect the privacy of wounded troops and to protect family members of those wounded or killed.

It sounds noble and high-minded but let's be perfectly grown-up about this. The Pentagon doesn't want horrific images flashing across millions of TV screens across the United States. It knows that, should a supportive public see such images, the supportive public will start turning against the effort -- especially if a military strike against Iraq does not go well and does not end swiftly and decisively.

Many people credit television coverage of the Vietnam War with ending the war. That might be giving TV too much credit. Vietnam was unwinnable for large and complicated reasons, though TV coverage certainly fueled public sentiment against the war.

Paul Fussell, historian and essayist, author of "Wartime" and "The Great War and Modern Memory," says the public will support a war it thinks is justified. Graphic images of war do not necessarily turn public sentiment. During the aerial bombings early in World War II, British citizens saw first-hand the horrors on the streets of London, yet support for the effort against Germany did not diminish in the slightest.

Still, there is this fear that we are not going to stand by and watch young Americans shed their blood for oil.

So the Pentagon wants to restrict media coverage at a time when technology allows that coverage to be broader and swifter than ever before.

During Vietnam days, journalists were able to travel relatively freely to combat zones and were not routinely escorted by military officials. In the Persian Gulf, the reporting pools will be tightly restricted by military escort. All interviews with servicemen and women will be on the record. News reports will be subject to a formal "security review" by public affairs officers in the field.

L 2. Make sure your bad guy is an easily identifiable bad guy.

No problem there. Saddam Hussein, the Wacky Iraqi, was already one of the world's best-known bad guys. The invasion of Kuwait not only threw him into the international spotlight, it created a storm of press over his previous evil exploits. We learn more about him each week. And, just to make things perfectly clear, George Bush keeps comparing him to Hitler. Ho Chi Minh never suffered from such a comparison, and the enemy in Vietnam never came out of the bushes for photo opportunities.

3. Have a goal that every American can understand, even if you don't come right out and state it clearly.

Oil is much easier to understand -- and probably more appreciated -- than the communist domino theory. Nothing vague or ambiguous about oil. After a few years of Vietnam, Americans started missing the point. As dependent as we are on oil -- thanks, in large measure, to the Reagan administration's complete dereliction of the duty to abate the nation's dependence on Arab oil -- we'll probably never lose sight of our main reason for Operation Desert Shield: Relatively cheap gasoline.

4. Keep college campuses from becoming hot-beds of dissent.

Not a big problem this time. Bush sent a "presidential letter" asking support for Operation Desert Shield to 500 college newspapers this week, but it probably wasn't needed. Ronald Reagan left a generation of young, true-believers for him. The kids who are in college today were between 10 and 12 when Jimmy Carter left office. All they know is what they've been taught: Carter was a wimp, Reagan saved the country. The kids are conservative and complacent. And they're worried about finding jobs. A draft is the only thing that might change their thinking. Right now, campus dissent doesn't appear to be anything for Bush to worry about. At one of the leading Ivy League universities this week, they weren't staging anti-war demonstrations; they were staging the nude olympics in the snow.

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