Where Military Needs Meet Political Needs WAR IN THE GULF

February 10, 1991|By FRANK STARR

WASHINGTON — Washington.

SOME OF THE CONTROLS that Desert Storm commanders put on news people seem to have nothing to do with security or with protecting soldiers' lives but a lot to do with how the war looks at home.

That seems to collide with the strict distinction military officers are taught to make between their tasks, which are military, and politics, which is civilian.

For example: reporters and photographers are barred from Dover Air Force Base where the remains of dead servicemen and women arrive; there have been no photographs of American casualties and almost none of allied casualties; no estimates are given of enemy casualties; a reporter was hustled away from cheering pilots who just learned the war had started; a censor changed the description of returning and successful pilots from "giddy" to "proud."

Unlike previous wars, reporters in this one are not allowed on the battlefield without a controlling military escort, though some have broken the rule.

After three weeks of war, and one notable ground engagement, the picture has been one of a remarkably antiseptic, almost romantic war. Airplanes take off and land from carrier decks, tanks stand in silhouette against endless sunsets, and soldiers become alternately boastful and apprehensive.

Only from Tel Aviv and Baghdad, well out of reach of U.S. military briefers and censors, does the war look real, though censorship in both of those cities is also heavy-handed.

Appearances are not the issue. Without reporters present to provide an independent confirmation, the descriptions of the "on-schedule" war, all coming as they do from an interested source, raise questions of credibility.

After fighting flared around the Saudi port of Khafji, for example, military briefers said that Marines played no important role, that it was largely a battle between Arab forces. After television film showed U.S. Marines ducking behind a wall, briefers acknowledged that two Marine reconnaissance teams had been trapped in Khafji (at least one Marine was wounded) and that Marine artillery, helicopters and fighter planes took part.

This fragile credibility can erode public support for the war. Jerry Friedheim, who was the Pentagon spokesman during much of the Vietnam war, says this aspect of military operations is a real consideration.

A National Security Council staffer, he says, has to make the tough argument: " 'If we go into this, Mr. President, can we see it through? The generals tell us it will take three months. We've got to sustain it, and if the public starts seeing too many casualties we could be forced to alter our objectives in mid-campaign.' "

While this argument would be made by civilians, the military commander in uniform has an interest in doing what he can to meet the commander-in-chief's needs, Mr. Fried- heim says.

"Suppose there had been TV cameras at Antietam," one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, suggested Walter Berns, a Georgetown University professor of philosophy and politics. "It would have lead the North to say, 'Enough, enough!' and what would have been the consequences? We'd be two nations and many black people would have remained slaves."

While it is ultimately the public's decision whether to fight a war -- and, as in Vietnam, whether to end one -- that decision, Mr. Berns argues, should be made on "cold, sober judgment, not emotion."

The difficult question is whether, by controlling the public's access to information about the war and its costs, the military impairs the public's capacity to make an informed judgment. "That disconnect," says Mr. Friedheim, "serves no one's purpose."

But he says the frequent appearances before reporters of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the top commander in the gulf, is a big improvement over the practice in Vietnam when Gens. William Westmoreland and Creighton Abrams did not brief personally.

"I think some of the lessons of Vietnam sank in. Even if you get fuzzy answers sometimes. . . at least you've got Schwarzkopf there and you can ask questions. That's a positive step.

"Suppose there is a disaster tomorrow. He could come out and say so because he's got some credibility," Mr. Friedheim said.

Jody Powell, who was Jimmy Carter's presidential press secretary, argues that government has a legitimate right to attempt to build consensus, but there is a risk attached.

"The downside is that if you get too far past the line you do more harm than good because you damage credibility, and it's very hard to know where that is. You don't realize you've lost it until you really need it. The erosion is gradual, over time. It comes in a blinding flash when you need people to trust you and they won't," he said.

Mr. Powell says we haven't reached that point yet, though Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters' Committee for a Free Press, says, "We are troubled by the notion that as the military controls the only version we're getting, we are becoming very similar to the country we are opposing."

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