Press and Administration: Another Vietnam?

SYDNEY H. SCHANBERG

February 03, 1991|By SYDNEY H. SCHANBERG

ONE THING DEEPLY TROUBLING about this war is the feeling that here we go again, rending ourselves into hostile camps, each side hurling ever-escalating insults at the other, destroying trust and removing the possibility of honorable dialogue between differing camps of Americans.

I remember how it was covering the war in Southeast Asia, which seems to be everyone's negative model for this war.

Back then, the far left decided that Americans who supported the war, but in particular the residents of the White House and the Pentagon, were imperialistic villains who could do only bad ,, and, conversely, that the North Vietnamese and Vietcong were nationalistic patriots who could do only good.

Facing off against this stony-headed view was the equally stony-headed perspective of the far right, which held that our side was the angel of freedom and the other side the devil of oppression and dictatorship.

We Americans have developed a deep-rooted habit of seeing issues in black and white. No colors allowed in between. That seems to be the message of both sides now as the political war at home escalates.

These words may seem odd coming, as they do, from someone who has joined in a lawsuit against the government aimed at overcoming the new press controls imposed on coverage of this war.

But I did not enter the lawsuit as an anti-war spokesman, nor do I see the suit as a hostile act against our political and military leaders. I see it instead as a necessary instrument of leverage which seeks to persuade the government that censorship and prior restraint on information, for reasons other than security and protection of the safety of our troops, is a break with our democratic traditions that will in the end corrode and weaken the public trust that presidents crucially require to govern.

President Bush has shown that he is in need of such prodding, for he has assigned to his vice president, Dan Quayle, the job once assigned by Richard Nixon to Spiro Agnew -- the job of trashing the press.

The White House apparently still clings to the view that it was the press who lost the war in Vietnam, not a misguided policy whose results the press observed and reported on.

When the president says, "This will not be another Vietnam," he means, among other things, that this time the press, and therefore the public, will not be allowed a front-row seat.

In these early days of the gulf war, polls show that a majority of the public is not too displeased with this approach. The press is not popular; we are too often seen as arrogant whiners, a perception sometimes fed by instances of self-important behavior.

But to paint the press as lacking in proper patriotism, as this administration seems bent on doing, is to paint a false picture that will only sow division in the country as this war proceeds. And will the public, as time passes, be as satisfied as it seems now with the limited and controlled information it is getting?

Yet the press is hardly the central issue here, regardless of whether our political leaders seek to use us as a symbol for all those who ask questions about the war. The issue is whether the Bush administration wants to have a dialogue with questioning Americans or whether it wants instead to put its spin doctors to work doing what they did in the 1988 presidential campaign with the flag and other emotional symbols.

The president's critics must ask themselves questions, too. Depicting him as a warmongering villain is to wound the country as gravely as the ideologues of the right will wound it if they persist in making up loyalty lists of who is to be regarded as a good American and who a bad one.

It is this kind of abusive propaganda, on both the right and left, that created the riven America that was unable to welcome back its Vietnam veterans and embrace them as our sons and daughters. This time, let it not be Vietnam. We need genuine dialogue, not poisoned air.

In this spirit, let no one assume that the generals are all deceitful blackguards. The fact is that, having been given a war to prosecute, they are trying to win it as swiftly as possible. The policy that led us into war may not have been sufficiently wise, and we can debate that vigorously, but the generals' time of debate is over and they must do the job we have trained them to do.

In covering several wars as a reporter, I have met a few ill-qualified and even irrational generals, but by and large the commanders I knew were decent men trying their best to carry out their missions with as few casualties as possible. And by and large, they were not reluctant to allow reporters to see and describe what war is like -- which is neither clean nor pretty. Decisions to control and muzzle the press -- and thereby the public -- are almost always made by politicians, not by field officers.

We like to think of ourselves as a great nation, but we hardly qualify for greatness if we have progressed no further than the point where government distrusts its citizens so completely that it treats them as infants to be spoon fed and where large numbers of those citizens distrust their government so completely as to label the leaders as unfeeling warmongers.

Did we learn nothing from Vietnam?

Sydney Schanberg is a columnist for Newsday.

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