The military and the media

Harry G. Summers

February 08, 1991|By Harry G. Summers

TAKE HIM out and shoot him," roared Gen. Dreedle about a briefing officer who told him things he did not want to hear in "Catch 22," Joseph Heller's satirical novel about Army Air Corps operations in Italy in World War II.

In more recent wars, that scene often could have served as a caricature of military attitudes toward the media. Like all caricatures, it was overdrawn. But as a member of a 1985 Twentieth Century Fund task force on the military and the media following the 1983 invasion of Grenada, I found there was too much truth in it for comfort.

Some dynamic tension between these two groups is inevitable, for there are fundamental contradictions involved. As Army manuals on military doctrine note, the need for military security, an essential for successful battlefield operations, must be balanced by another essential for battlefield success, the need to preserve public support.

Thus, as the Twentieth Century Fund report emphasized, "the presence of journalists in war zones is not a luxury, but a necessity. Imperfect though it is, our independent press serves as the vital link between the battlefield and the home front, reporting on the military's successes, failures and sacrifices. By so doing, the media has helped to foster citizen involvement and support, which presidents, admirals and generals have recognized as essential to military success."

Of course, the media is faced with its own set of built-in contradictions. For starters, its claim to press freedom under the First Amendment to the Constitution must be squared with its responsibilities under the Preamble. As with every other American citizen, members of the media also have a duty to provide for the common defense.

If they reject those responsibilities in order to stand sanctimoniously above the fray as neutral observers, they can hardly hypocritically demand their rights to protection under the First Amendment.

However, the media cannot be reduced to merely serving as cheerleaders for military operations, for their value in a free society is to serve as independent observers and critics.

Perspective helps understand this important function:

Sir William Howard Russell of the Times of London, the "father" of modern war correspondents, won his reputation with his reporting from the Crimean War from 1853-56.

The British government was livid over his reports of inefficiency and mismanagement at the front. He was denounced by Prince Albert, the prince consort, as "a mere scribbler." The secretary of war hoped that the army would hang him. Lord Clarendon, the foreign secretary, despaired that "three pitched battles gained would not repair the mischief done by Mr. Russell," and Queen Victoria demanded to know by what right the editor of the Times tried her officers.

But after this initial outrage, the value of the links provided by Russell's dispatches came to be appreciated. Lord Clarendon, one of Russell's severest early critics, said: "It was by the power and enterprise of the press that the deplorable state of the army was brought to the knowledge of . . . even the ministers themselves."

Like Queen Victoria, President John F. Kennedy railed against the reporting of New York Times correspondent David Halberstam in the early days of the Vietnam war. But as Neil Sheehan has detailed in his book "Bright Shining Lie," the conflict was not between the military and the media. Halberstam was actually serving as a conduit for then-Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, a military adviser in the field, whose accounts of the woeful performance of the South Vietnamese Army were being shortstopped by the U.S. commander, Gen. Paul Harkins, in Saigon. Thus, the media became the only means of communication between the field and Washington.

With some 700 U.S. media representatives in Saudi Arabia, it is doubtful, regardless of military censorship, that Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the U.S. commander there, could get away with anything, even if he was of a mind to do so. Reporters are determined to preserve their independent role despite efforts to corral them, as the sad example of the missing CBS news team that struck off on its own seems to indicate.

A few news people are so eager to create a credibility gap that they end up sounding silly. One anchorman scoffed that although the military claimed they had air superiority, they still had lost three aircraft to enemy AAA (anti-aircraft artillery) fire over Iraq.

He didn't seem to understand that air superiority -- which means superiority over enemy aircraft -- does not mean the enemy has no air defense capability.

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