The covered-up war

Sydney H. Schanberg

September 25, 1991|By Sydney H. Schanberg

AS WE NOW know, there were two categories of POWs in the Iraq war: the traditional kind -- enemy soldiers -- and a newly created category -- the press. The most draconian restrictions in America's modern history kept the press hostage throughout the monthlong air war and even blocked access to the most critical battles in the five-day ground war.

The greatest Sydney H.Schanbergshame, however, did not fall on the White House and Pentagon jailers of the press but on the press itself, whose publishers and network presidents pretended be irritated by the policies, but in reality deferred obsequiously to the government lords and put up no meaningful opposition.

The shame has multiplied in the seven months since the fighting ended, for the press has not only failed to use the passage of time to go back and examine the war in close detail, but it has consciously chosen to ignore stories -- and videotape -- that have been available. The television networks have been the most supine of all.

Thankfully for journalism's self-respect, some exceptions have shone through. One is Bill Moyers, whose revelatory material has aired only on public television. And another is Newsday's Patrick Sloyan, whose stories are the subject of this column.

Sloyan covered the war firsthand and, in the aftermath, has doggedly pursued the innards of the conflict that he and the rest of the press corps were prevented from seeing. His continuing stories have uncovered some major surprises, but their greatest value lies in the honest picture they give us of the context and reality of war.

The Pentagon generals kept telling us they were savvy about war -- sure, they said, we know war is foul and brutish, never neat or pretty. And then they turned around and, with straight faces, proceeded to prettify it for us -- with hand-picked footage that showed precision air strikes on Iraqi buildings, enemy rockets being burst in midair by Patriot missiles, etc., etc. Fourth of July fireworks. Roman candles. Ooooh. Aaaah. And never a picture of an American boy wounded in the sand.

Sloyan's stories have begun to strip away that pretty veneer. One story revealed that a juggernaut of Army earthmovers and Abrams tanks equipped with huge plows rolled down a line of trenches 70 miles long, covering them over and burying thousands of Iraqi soldiers, some of whom were interred alive while still firing their weapons. Other Sloyan articles disclosed that the number of American casualties from "friendly fire" was significantly higher than the Pentagon had previously reported. Not only that, but the Pentagon had delayed notifying next of kin for six months.

Here are a couple of paragraphs from a Sloyan piece; they are drawn from an interview with Army Sgt. Hilbert Potter, who described his terror as an Abrams tank mistakenly opened fire on his dug-in platoon with its machine gun.

"Our own damn tank is shooting at us," Potter said to himself. Two of his men jumped up, shouting, "We're Americans!" and "Don't shoot!" Potter yelled, "Get down!" But both men were killed by the machine gun that suddenly went silent. When it opened fire again seconds later, Potter was hit by four rounds, two of them severing his right leg above the knee.

Potter was critical of the Army investigation of the incident and says his family was misled about the cause of his injuries. "They've never been told the truth" by the Army, Potter said. His wife, Joy, and his parents were told by defense officials that his platoon had hit an Iraqi minefield.

Like every other journalist in America, I have read the results of the opinion surveys that show how unpopular we are with the public and how approving that public was and is of the Pentagon restrictions. I'm human, I'd like to be popular. But that's not the job of the press. Our job is to be responsible, to tell people what we have seen and heard and learned. If they are annoyed or displeased by the stories that result, we must live with their displeasure. We cannot retain our self-respect if we react instead by deciding not to write stories that might displease the majority. Yet that's precisely what most of the mainstream media organizations in this country have done on the Iraq war. They have become timid, nervous. About what? About being called unpatriotic, un-American.

Many people will no doubt say, of Sloyan's story about Iraqi soldiers being buried alive by our bullet-proof plows, that in war the goal must be to crush the enemy in the quickest way conceivable, with the fewest possible losses to your own troops. And so, they will say, with some visceral logic, the plowing under of the Iraqis -- during which the American units suffered not a single casualty -- was both necessary and legitimate.

But if this is indeed the moral judgment you make, then what's wrong with Sloyan's reporting what happened? Since the American people were asked to consent to the war, why shouldn't they be treated as adults and told clearly about war's bloody truths? Why did the White House and Pentagon cover up this story?

But we know why governments cover things up. They abhor embarrassments. It's the press I don't understand. Why are they hiding from these stories? Why is Sloyan one of only a handful who aren't? A thousand reporters went to the gulf to cover the war and were treated as POWs. Why aren't they reclaiming their birthright now?

Sydney Schanberg is a columnist for Newsday.

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