Vietnam was the last conflict in which reporters could speak and write with prudent freedom.
During one of the nation’s many wars, I wrote of a patrol that came under fire and killed an enemy soldier. Before continuing, the GIs cut off the dead man’s genitals, and forced them into his mouth, leaving also a playing card-Ace of Spades-on his body. The soldiers said that such were enemy superstitions, that they would not cross over a dead man so festooned, thus it was required to keep the other side effectively tethered if the patrol was to complete its mission.
It was a poor excuse for abomination. The superstitions were merely warrior chatter, and the mutilation was a courts martial offense. But when I sent the dispatch to my syndicate as an example of the derangement of combat, the article was destroyed. The culprit editor explained that the company did not want to get into the business of second guessing our men in battle.
Every war correspondent has had the education. The First Amendment is the first casualty in combat. Good men and women are paid by their organizations to get up front, get a good look, but take care with the dirty details. If the military on location does not censure one’s copy by limiting access, the desk may, back in the home office, by swooning to patriotism. The result is that war reports in the world’s most warring country are filtered through parental guidance.
The United States media does not display photographs of dead Americans on the field. The unspoken rule is never to write of an American in a cowardly act. Correspondents do not normally note gross unit failures, bumbling leadership, or serious whining in the ranks. The statistics and management of warfare are provided by the government, hence they can be safely-if questionably—used; but if a GI machine-guns a 10-year-old boy, as happened during the war in Iraq, the reporter is obliged to include an interpretive spin, collateral damage, that sort of thing.
Many correspondents call it pandering.
The military and genuflecting media outlets prefer to think of it as: whose side are we on?
Whatever the characterization, the camouflage of communications is getting worse. The military is now “embedding,” which is to say “entombing,” correspondents with specific units, the better to keep an eye on their production. And editors and producers are squeezed not only by inherent home-front chauvinism, but also by marketing considerations; recent U.S. wars have been struggles of revenge, and woe be to a commercial enterprise not in tune with the national passion.
The present pressures are such that, in retrospect, the days of the Ace of Spades atrocity seem relatively unfettered. Vietnam was the last conflict where reporters might speak and write with prudent freedom. The mutilation described above happened early in the mess, when Americans were still sending cookies to the troops. When the novelty dimmed, and casualties multiplied, news people were permitted-encouraged-to explain in full what the hell was going on.
Rapes, torture, My Lai, and throwing prisoners from helicopters. As Vietnam degenerated, correspondents issued perhaps the most realistic accounts of the military killing process since the trenches of the Western Front. I recall walking through a U.S. mortuary at the Saigon airport, in tow of an officer who lifted the sheets on bodies without arms, arms without bodies, and wiped away the roaches that had drowned in drippings of blood on the gurneys.
The graphics were such that refinement was almost assured. The military thereafter took steps to limit the prospects of mom and dad suffering news clips of teenage cadavers. And news organizations also reordered their procedures, if only in protection; when the war reports are grim, or, worse, ugly, customers turn away-people would rather read about heroes than brutes, they would rather tune in firepower spectaculars than ocular tours of corpses as cordwood.
And here we are. Like sportswriters traveling with the Yankees, today’s war correspondents are bundled with the troops in mutual trust. The military understands the need for rich exposure, the reporters know the bounds of the bargain, anything affecting morale. When our forces roll, as they do endlessly, there is naught but upbeat appraisals at the scene: GIs sharing their rations with the innocents, and American flags waving at the bottom of television recordings.
So what is the rub of all this? Apart from the dishonesty of selective reporting, the sanitizing of warfare contributes to the array of forces that perpetuate warfare, one of which is public delusion. American wars are displayed as smart bombs and snappy colonels speaking of benevolent liberation. They are in fact men, women, and children dying like beasts, shrieking in horror. Were the latter the message, and not the former, peace might prosper more than it does.
In Iraq, a petite female soldier was taken prisoner, and then rescued. It was the stuff of a Hollywood script, and another example of the gallant triumphs of conflict. But what of the POWs who were killed, and there buried in the survivor’s happy news shadow? How were they murdered? What did they go through? Why could we not save them? Until we know all sides of activity in our name, we are blind to some of it, and unable to choose useful conclusions.
In journalism we are directed to get the story, the whole story, and nothing but the story. The assignment should not come with a disclaimer in case of nationalism. America on average has been in combat once ever three years since Vietnam; few of us yet have been told the truth in its entirety of the incessant enterprise. If media men and women have what it takes to find the real face of war, the rest of us should be permitted to have what it takes to look on it as well.
Tom Tiede (’59 General Studies) has been a syndicated national, foreign, and war correspondent. He was co-winner of the Ernie Pyle Award (1965) for war reporting from Vietnam, and is author of three books, including the novel Coward, written in Vietnam, and Self-Help Nation, published in 2001.