the 4 o'clock follies

Robert A. Erlandson

February 11, 1991|By Robert A. Erlandson

AS YOGI BERRA once said, it's deja vu all over again, listening to reporters at briefings in Riyadh and Washington battle -- to the point of monotonous repetition -- for scraps of information on the Persian Gulf War without receiving anything that can really be called "news."

It was much the same at the notorious "four o'clock follies," the daily high command briefing during the Vietnam War -- really a score-keeping exercise.

Gulf reporters get the daily statistics: the number of sorties, how many Allied planes have been lost, how many enemy shot down, if any, how many Scud missiles were launched and how the Patriots did against them, and (to a limited extent) the amount of damage inflicted.

Show-and-tell has produced film bites of smart missiles homing in on their targets, along with drawings made from damage photos and, of course, graphs to plot the course of the war.

Those conducting the briefings in 1991 are high-ranking officers. They have more credibility than the men from JUSPAO (Joint United States Public Affairs Office) who mounted the stage every afternoon in Saigon.

Candor is at a premium when reporters have no way to verify military claims independently. Although briefers are purportedly present to provide a "full explanation" of what's been happening, they won't tell everything that might be considered news, especially if it's bad news.

What it comes down to frequently is this: If you don't ask the right question, you won't get any answer.

The infamous "body count" has not surfaced in the gulf war yet, but look for it when the ground campaign opens. It was invented as a way for the press -- particularly the news agencies -- to keep some sort of score in Vietnam.

But did it really mean anything?

One story from Vietnam -- perhaps it was apocryphal -- was that an Army squad engaged in a brief firefight in the Mekong Delta, and the squad leader reported back to his platoon that two Viet Cong were killed. Up the chain of command the report went: company, battalion, regiment, division and finally to the follies, where the body count for that particular skirmish was reported as 25 enemy dead.

Field commanders didn't want to upset President Lyndon B. Johnson, so by the time the United States finally gave up the fight in 1975 -- at a cost of 58,000 American lives -- the whole population of Vietnam seemingly had been reported killed -- at least twice.

In the air war, aimed at "interdicting" supply lines from North to South Vietnam, briefers reported how many bridges had been severed -- frequently the same bridges day after day -- how many ammunition dumps were blown up and whatever else the bombs fell on. It never seemed to stop Hanoi, however, and the saddest part was the report of how many American fliers had been lost.

Bombing in the south -- B-52 carpet bombing is an impressive sight -- was also described, but despite the incredible bomb tonnage, the Viet Cong kept popping out of their tunnels and bunkers.

Because there was a "civilian" side to the Vietnam war -- the effort to "win hearts and minds" -- an embassy briefer, usually with CIA links, led off the follies. He recounted how many more hamlets and villages had been "pacified." That was daytime. At night, the Viet Cong were back.

The rule of thumb at the follies was that if you had a tip on a potentially good story, you never raised your hand. You approached the briefers privately, when you might get some straight answers.

L But sometimes the rule was broken, with interesting results.

One afternoon in 1967, after a supposedly complete account of events outside military operations, a newly-arrived newsman asked the embassy briefer, "Can you tell us anything about a riot by Korean laborers at Cam Ranh Bay where they killed an American supervisor?"

"Oh, er, yes," mumbled the startled briefer. Thumbing quickly through his clipboard, he produced a seven-page account of the incident at the huge base. On the document was stamped: "Only If Asked."

Many in the military have blamed the media for losing the Vietnam War because reporters were permitted to move about and report without censorship. The military has learned its lesson. The new strategy, tried out in Grenada, improved in Panama and perfected in the gulf, is to control the news totally.

Reporters in Vietnam told the American public as best they could what was happening, while the administration continued to paint happy faces on everything -- especially the unpalatable fact that a military superpower was getting its butt kicked by a ragtag army that, incidentally, was nowhere near as experienced, well-trained or well-equipped as Saddam Hussein's.

President Bush has declared that the gulf war will not become "another Vietnam." Presumably, that means he expects to "win it" and bring the troops home, not let them become bogged down -- and slaughtered -- in a no-win desert ground war.

The American people will never know whether Bush is serious -- and whether he's succeeding or not -- until he loosens the military stranglehold on information.

V Robert A. Erlandson reported on the Vietnam War for The Sun 1/2 from 1966 to 1968.

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