War -- as seen through the military filter

John S. Carroll

February 11, 1991|By John S. Carroll

IN COVERING the gulf war, foreign correspondents are on a short leash -- a circumstance that no doubt gladdens the hearts of many Americans.

I observe this as a former correspondent in Vietnam, where the press was free to go anywhere and to report without censorship. That freewheeling relationship between military and media produced a rich and sometimes inflammatory flow of news, but seldom did it cause any real breach of military security.I say "seldom" because official secrets were, in fact, disclosed. I know, having had my press credentials taken away by the U.S. military for committing a "blatant" violation of an embargo.

Being accused and penalized for this offense provided a life-long lesson, for it showed me how a government tends to behave when it wants to put the best possible face on a war, as the United States is now doing with some success in the gulf.

My offense was to disclose in my newspaper, The Sun, a plan by the U.S. command to abandon Khesanh.

Khesanh was a Marine base in a rugged, remote corner of South Vietnam. In the winter of 1967-68, it came under pressure from North Vietnamese artillery and infantry.

As the pressure grew into a siege, U.S. leaders became fixated on Khesanh. From President Johnson on down, they believed that the North Vietnamese intended to turn Khesanh into another Dienbienphu, the base that fell to the Vietminh in 1954, bringing defeat to the French in the first Indochina war.

The Tet offensive came just as the United States was bombing and shelling around Khesanh on an unprecedented scale. With the U.S. tied up in the most remote and least populated corner of the country, the enemy attacked the population centers, hitting 101 cities and towns. It was a stunning psychological blow for Americans. It raised the public's skepticism about our war strategy as a whole.

I was among the reporters who covered Khesanh in January and February. In April, when Tet was over, I returned with Operation Pegasus. Then in June, while rummaging around the northern provinces of South Vietnam, I heard a rumor that Khesanh was being abandoned.

I flew in on a Marine helicopter, and long before it landed I could see the rumors were true. The runway, which consisted of metal strips, was being peeled up and hauled away in cargo slings dangling from helicopters. Bunkers were being blown up one by one, each explosion sending a cloud of dust skyward and unleashing a herd of scurrying rats.

The Americans were leaving. I could see it, and so could the enemy in the nearby hills and mountains. I spoke with several officers about writing a story on the abandonment of Khesanh, and they said they had no personal objections. But they said that, because of what they termed "political" orders "out of Washington," they thought the story was embargoed. They advised me to check with higher authorities before writing anything.

Like all credentialed correspondents, I had agreed in writing to observe embargoes on stories about troop movements. The rationale was hard to disagree with: If the enemy learned of a troop movement in advance, it could set up an ambush.

But since North Vietnames troops around Khesanh could see as clearly as I that the base was being bulldozed, it seemed to me that the true purpose of this embargo was to conceal the story from ourselves, not from our enemies. As I flew back to Saigon, it became clear in my mind: Having paid so dearly for Khesanh in January and February, the command feared it would look foolish abandoning it in June.

If there were no embargo, reporters and camera crews would flock to Khesanh. The coverage would go on for weeks. With an embargo, the bad publicity would be over in a day or so.

So I decided against checking in with the military higher-ups in Saigon, even though I had every reason to believe it was embargoed. The story was published on June 24.

Then the sky fell.

I was summoned to command headquarters and told to turn in my accreditation card, officers' mess card, PX card and commissary card, which I did.

I was informed by Brig. Gen. Winant Sidle, the command's chief of information, that my suspension was "indefinite" but that if I checked back in 30 days, the situation might be reevaluated.

I was shaken. Although by that time I had seen the battles of Khesanh and Hue, I had never gone toe-to-toe with such figures of conspicuous authority as the generals at headquarters. I was 26 years old; only two years earlier I had been a specialist 4 in the Army.

Without press credentials I could still write stories, but I could no longer attend military briefings or -- more crucial -- take flights on military aircraft.

Worse, I harbored the haunting fear that the generals might actually be right and that I had done a terrible thing. I imagined Marines being ambushed and slaughtered because of my story. Nothing else I ever experienced in Vietnam filled me with as much dread as that vision.

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