From Tonkin Gulf to Persian Gulf
Veteran AP correspondent Richard Pyle considers how war reporting has changed
From the day in early 1963 when a U.S. admiral in Saigon chastised an American reporter for not being "on the team", relations were tense between officials running the Vietnam War and the reporters covering it.
The press in those early days was not particularly critical of the United States commitment to the small Southeast Asian country, but it was beginning to question the methods -- and to doubt much of what U.S. leaders insisted was true.
Again and again, official assertions of "progress" on the battlefield proved hollow; the "body count" became a metaphor for exaggerated victory claims.
That "credibility gap" remained a fixture of the Vietnam War. It took on new meaning in the communists' Tet Offensive of early 1968, in the later invasions of Cambodia and Laos, right up to May 1975, when North Vietnamese tanks finally crashed the gates of South Vietnam's Presidential Palace and helicopters lifted the last desperate evacuees from the U.S. Embassy roof.
Disillusioned by the first loss of a war in its history, battered by low morale and a host of other problems, the U.S. military establishment looked for reasons. Many officials accused the media of having undermined the cause by emphasizing the negative and even encouraging a communist triumph.
While the press made mistakes and had its excesses, such allegations were essentially unfounded. The so-called "living room war" of television was actually lost through flawed policy decisions and the inability of the Saigon regime, even with U.S. support, to match the resoluteness of the communist forces seeking to overthrow it.
Historically, the U.S. military has followed a public information policy that tilts toward disclosure rather than suppression but is tailored to the demands of a particular conflict. In World War II, Allied leaders enforced strict censorship for obvious reasons of military security. Censorship again was imposed in Korea, although less effectively since journalists were not subject to it outside the war zone.
Some senior officials, including President Lyndon Johnson, advocated censorship in Vietnam. The idea was studied repeatedly -- at least three times in 1965 alone -- and each time was rejected as impractical, even counter-productive. Though frustrated by freewheeling disclosures of information, officials conceded there was no way to control an international press corps of several hundred people from dozens of countries.
Yet operational security needed to be protected as much as possible. The answer was an honor system under which American and South Vietnamese military officials briefed journalists under "embargoes" to be lifted when the first shots were fired. Violators risked loss of their press credentials, and some violations did occur, but they were fairly rare and usually minor. Responsible journalists recognized security as a valid concern, not worth violating for a cheap headline.
In fact, the very issue of security in Vietnam was all but moot. Hanoi had agents and sympathizers in key positions of South Vietnamese society, including the military and -- as was dramatically revealed after the fall of Saigon -- in the press corps as well. When Saigon's forces invaded Laos in early 1971, the enemy already knew the entire plan, right down to which mountain tops would be used as artillery and helicopter bases. The information came from official South Vietnamese documents, not press reports.
'Five o'clock Follies'
The foundation of reporting in Vietnam was the famous -- or infamous -- "Five o'clock Follies," the daily briefing where military officials provided news releases and verbal accounts of battlefield and air activity. These briefings were much ridiculed, and there were many valid criticisms. But some of the loudest complainers in the press were those who rarely, or never, went into the field.
For all their failings, the Follies were not the pack of lies that some critics suggested. The best reporters and news organizations recognized the value of an on-the-record, official version of events to compare with information from field reporters and other sources.
As important as it was to get the official version, there was no substitute for hands-on coverage, and reporters and photographers were always in the field. We drove down roads until the emptiness told us not to go any further. We trudged and sweated with the infantry and Marines, made harrowing helicopter assaults into landing zones, cowered behind paddy dikes as bullets cracked overhead. We waited long hours at isolated helicopter pads, saw B-52 strikes blossom like giant brown flowers, learned the culinary tricks of a C-ration diet, interviewed generals, lieutenants, sergeants and privates in their natural habitat, where the truth at least was bullet-proof.
Field officers and soldiers welcomed journalists; they wanted people at home to know what they were doing and enduring, and recognized our readiness to share their perils to tell their story. Some 75 reporters, photographers and camera crewmembers were killed covering Indochina from 1962 to 1975.
Little to show for Gulf War
Flash forward to 1991, the year of the Persian Gulf War. Only a handful of reporters (including this writer) covered both, and thus could see the similarities and the differences.
By that time, war -- and ways of covering it -- had changed dramatically. Along with new weapons and concepts came a new media. A massive influx of journalists flooded into Saudi Arabia, many of them relying for the first time on instant communications with computers and satellites. This revolutionized the means of reporting and transmitting news, making control of the battlefield more difficult and the old rules of operational security irrelevant. Vietnam, by comparison, had been simple.
The military struggled to solve these problems and essentially failed. Assigned to rigid "pools" that limited mobility and impeded the delivery of news, reporters clashed heatedly with military officials, accusing them of censorship. Temporary news blackouts in the name of security caused further tensions. Perhaps the most glaring failure of Gulf War news coverage was the shocking paucity of television footage and photographs: Given the vast size of the allied commitment, there was precious little to show that the war had actually taken place.
In the end, military officials said the media restrictions would have ended after a few days if the fighting had continued. It was the very swiftness of the sword in a "100-hour war" that left both media and military dissatisfied -- and wondering whether a more satisfactory policy would be in place for any future conflict.
Richard Pyle is a correspondent for The Associated Press. He covered the Vietnam War for five years, 2 1/2 of those years as the AP's Saigon bureau chief. Pyle also reported from Saudi Arabia during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
...the President was blunt about what the built-up U.S. forces face. Said he: 'We expect it will get worse before it gets better.'
Blood All Over
Following are excerpts from an article published in TIME magazine on July 16, 1965.)
"They are swinging wildly," said President Johnson last week in an apt description of the latest, desperate meat-ax assaults by the Communist Viet Cong. With the monsoon season well under way, the Reds were gambling on the combined effects of weather and surprise to nullify the superior power of the U.S. and its South Vietnamese allies.
Pouncing on the government outpost at Ba Gia, a Viet Cong battalion killed 30 South Vietnamese and captured two 105 mm howitzers. Ba Gia's defenders quickly snapped back, drove the Reds out and pinned them down while U.S. planes came in, inflicting heavy casualties. A second Communist blow fell farther to the west, where Viet Cong raiders overran the district capital of Dak To, then ambushed a relief column coming in by road from Kontum. Again the Reds could not hold onto what they had taken: after two days of fighting, the Viet Cong pulled out.
Saigon's forces were doing some hunting of their own in the Mekong Delta. After days of tracking, they caught up with a Viet Cong unit known as the "Soctrang Dynamic Battalion," de-dynamized it with air strikes and artillery. The Reds lost 212 dead. Later in the week, the Communists trapped a government battalion 40 miles north of Saigon, killing 151 men (including four American advisers).
That's the kind of war it continues to be in Viet Nam. Since the monsoon began, the Viet Cong have lost some 4,500 dead to about 1,900 on the government side. Last week 8,000 more Marines landed at Danang, raising the total of Americans in South Viet Nam to 63,000, and President Johnson told a press conference that another 10,000 U.S. troops will soon arrive. Experts in Saigon foresaw 150,000 men by year's end. While last week's frenetic activity may have reflected a certain Communist desperation, the President was blunt about what the built-up U.S. forces face. Said he: "We expect it will get worse before it gets better."
Hanoi last week was ready for total war. So was Ho Chi Minh, the goat-bearded god of Vietnamese Communism and, at 75, Asia's oldest, canniest Red leader. North Viet Nam's Ho was making his last and most steely stand, and his young country seemed ready to win or die with him. Since February, U.S. air strikes into North Viet Nam have pounded Ho steadily: in more than 4,050 sorties, jets and prop bombers have razed at least 30 military bases, knocked out 127 antiaircraft batteries, shattered 34 bridges. In their wake, the planes left ablaze 17 destroyed truck convoys and an equal number of weapons-carrying trains, along with 20 radar stations, 33 naval craft and the entire Dong Hoi airbase. Yet even as the bomb line crumped closer to crowded Hanoi, there was no sign of Ho's flinching.
What makes kindly old "Uncle Ho" so hard-nosed? What is it that sends the men from Uncle (some 6,000 or more this year alone) southward as insurgents against an enemy that could crush Hanoi in an instant? More than anything, it is a sense of confidence in methods that have worked splendidly in the past. Ho, after all, has been riding a winning streak for 20 years. Through wile and determination, he aided in evicting the Japanese in 1945, then got the French to throw out the Chinese Nationalists in 1946, finally ejecting the French themselves in 1954. He now believes that the same techniques will work against the U.S. -- not only in South Viet Nam but in all of Southeast Asia.
Ho's heady resolve is fed by three powerful forces.
First comes covetousness: North Viet Nam hungers for the rice of the South and the rich alluvial delta of the Mekong River. Though Ho and other Hanoi leaders speak mistily about the "reunification of the great Vietnamese people" as if it were some grand historical mission, they actually have contempt for their southerly brothers, whom they accuse of being afflicted with a "Cote d'Azur" mentality.
Second among Ho's drives: Communist ideology. At this stage of development, the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam craves victory in a "war of national liberation." Once South Viet Nam fell, Ho could turn his attention to extending Vietnamese control over Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. As one historian observes, "The Vietnamese have contributed very little to Asian culture, and quite a bit of its violence."
Third comes Ho's fear of his Communist allies: only a reunified Viet Nam, he believes, can maintain its entity in the shadow of Red China. More than 1,000 years of Vietnamese history were spent under direct Chinese domination, and most of the rest was devoted to fighting the Chinese off. Indeed, the very name Viet Nam in Chinese means "cross over to the south."
With those forces driving him, Ho is determined to fight and win. "We held off the French for eight years," he told historian Bernard Fall in 1962. "We can hold off the Americans for at least as long. Americans don't like long, inconclusive wars. This is going to be a long, inconclusive war."
Stop the dirty war of the U.S.A. in Indochina!
(The following editorial appeared in the March 28, 1965, edition of Pravda and has been translated from the Russian.)
U.S. Air Force planes are bombing the peaceful cities and villages of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, destroying hospitals and schools; women, old people and children are dying at the hands of the murderers. Every day the wire brings new reports of atrocities by the American aggressors. The world has now become witness to a monstrous new crime by the American imperialists, who have dropped bombs containing poisonous substances on the inhabitants of Vietnam. Our generation and generations to come will never forget the barbarous action of the American aggressors; they will never succeed in washing away the disgrace of their crimes.
Vietnam. The eyes of millions of people in all countries of the world are now turned to this corner of the Earth. The criminal actions of the American imperialist circles, who have committed acts of aggression against the peace-loving people of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the other peoples of Indochina, are evoking a wave of angry protest among honest people on all continents.
The participants in the Consultative Meeting of Representatives of Communist and Workers' Parties in Moscow, in their statement, expressed solidarity with the heroic Vietnamese people and Vietnamese Workers' Party and called for international solidarity in the struggle against the aggressive actions of the American military.
A resolute condemnation of the aggressive adventures of the U.S.A. is contained in the statements of the governments of the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia, the C.P.R. [People's Republic of China], the G.D.R. [German Democratic Republic, or East Germany], Hungary, Bulgaria, Rumania, the Mongolian People's Republic, the K.P.D.R. [Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or North Korea], and the Republic of Cuba, Yugoslavia and Albania. "The marauding raids by aircraft of the American armed forces on populated points in the D.R.V. [Democratic Republic of Vietnam]," the Soviet government statement says, "evoked the anger and resolute condemnation of the Soviet people and of all peoples who oppose imperialist arbitrariness and aggression."
In the face of the above-mentioned actions of the U.S.A., the statement points out, the Soviet Union will be forced together with its allies and friends to take further measures to safeguard the security and strengthen the defense capability of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Let no one have any doubt that the Soviet Union will fulfill its internationalist duty.
A wave of protest rallies against the atrocities of the American military in Vietnam has swept our entire boundless country.
The central agencies and newspapers are receiving messages from Soviet citizens who, guided by feelings of fraternal solidarity and socialist internationalism, express a willingness to take part in the struggle of the Vietnamese people for freedom and independence.
A stream of letters in which people are protesting against the American aggression is pouring into the international organizations and the governments and editorial offices of many states.
Mankind demands: "Hands off Vietnam!"