‘This will not be another Vietnam’

By March 1973, when US forces formally withdrew from Vietnam, the conviction that the nation’s defeat was attributable to a sophisticated disinformation campaign, organised in Hanoi but executed by the Western media, was widespread. Communist North Vietnam had ‘bombarded our domestic opinion with continuing propaganda’ until the American public, wearied by the media’s focus on blood and carnage, balked at further sacrifice, turned against its political proponents, and demanded peace (Tiften 1983, 186). This oppositional media thesis regarded the free press as an active fifth column, ‘instinctively “agin the Government” — and, at least reflexively, for Saigon’s enemies’. As a result of their coverage, disinformation triumphed over force of arms, and ‘For the first time in modern history the outcome of a war was determined not on the battlefield, but on the printed page and, above all, on the television screen’ (Elegant 1981, 73). Many scholars, Daniel Hallin among them, have demonstrated the conviction that ‘the media were adversaries to American policy in Vietnam or a decisive factor in the outcome of the war’ to be false (Hallin 1989, x).' Indeed, many reporters regarded their coverage as a corrective to the Joint US Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO) briefings, whose cheery summaries of body counts, kill ratios, and pacified villages misrepresented the true state of the war. JUSPAO, Michael Herr observed, ‘had been created to handle press relations and psychological warfare, and I never met anyone there who seemed to realize that there was a difference’ (Herr 1977, 174).

Despite its demonstrable falsehood, the conviction that media coverage had lost the war in Vietnam bred a hostility to the fourth estate that ‘soaked deep into the military’s cultural tissue’ (Kid 2007, 62).s In response, in the conflicts that followed, militaries and their political masters set out to corral the media, control the flow of information, and so shape the message. During Britain’s re-conquest of the Falkland Islands (1982) and the US assaults on Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989), the military strictly regulated media access to, freedom of movement in, and content and transmission of copy from the area of operations. In each case, the military assault was coordinated with an official information offensive, which ensured positive coverage and promoted popular support for the operation. The inaccessibility of the Falklands and the monopoly this afforded the Ministry of Defence (MoD) over transportation to and information provision from the islands meant that ‘hardly ever have circumstances been more propitious for a censor than they were for the British in the Falklands’ (Mercer et al. 1987, 39). The task force included a number of MoD public affairs ‘minders’, whose role was to review reporters’ copy at the source (Harris 1983, 27). Not that much censorship was required. A number of the correspondents ‘decided before landing that our role was simply to report as sympathetically as possible what the British forces are doing here today’ (Hastings 1982, 1). The military campaign may have been a close-run thing, but the information offensive was a walkover.

Though Grenada was more proximate, it was no more accessible to the US media. Excluded from the invasion, the few resourceful reporters who reached the islands independently were detained by US troops. Only when the shooting finished was a handpicked pool from the major broadcasters escorted around the conflict’s key sites by a team of public affairs (PA) personnel. Once their material had been vetted, the reporters were cleared to travel to Barbados to transmit their copy, thus formally ending the news blackout. However, while they waited for their flight, the networks carried President Reagans live broadcast from the Oval Office announcing victory in Grenada and the safe evacuation of all US citizens. Succeeding bulletins illustrated the story with the only visuals available, US Army footage of‘young American students making the “V” sign and smiling at the cameras as they walked up the ramp of the rescue aircraft’ (Young and Jesser 1997, 132). A humiliation for the media, Grenada ‘was a lovely war from the public information point of view’ (Young and Jesser 1997, 133). The Sidle Commission, established in its wake to review future conflict reporting arrangements, made eight recommendations, among them the creation of a national media pool. Yet its insistence that ‘The American people must be informed about United States military operations and this information can best be provided through both the news media and the government’ ensured that information would continue to be released at the behest of and in the interests of the authorities and that the media would remain shackled (Young and Jesser 1997, 134).

This was clearly demonstrated in the first Gulf War when the military’s strategy to positively shape public responses to the liberation of Kuwait centred on two of the Sidle Report’s proposals: the creation of media pools for a few select reporters, which radically constrained the fourth estate’s access to the war zone, and the live broadcast of military briefings to furnish the bulk of reporters and the public with a steady flow of upbeat, official information.9 Not that the military needed to worry about the media’s loyalty. Its patriotic purpose recharged by the celebratory nationalism of the Reagan years, the media clamoured to cover the war and became ‘a vital conduit for mobilizing support for US policy’. During the build-up, ‘hardly any dissenting voices were heard in the mainstream media’, which became ‘little more than public relations outlets for the White House and the Pentagon’ (Kellner 1991).

If the principal purpose of US information was to underpin domestic support, the Iraqis also targeted US public opinion. The two countries’ leaders were obsessed with Vietnam, each convinced that US public support for the war had buckled under graphic coverage of its costs.10 Where Bush reassured the American public that ‘this will not be another Vietnam’, Hussein did his utmost to ensure that it would (Bush 1991). Iraq’s Ministry of Information helped Western reporters who had remained in Baghdad during the coalition bombardment ofjanuary and February of 1991 cover stories where there was evidence of coalition mistargeting and Iraqi civilian casualties, most notably the coalition airstrike on the Amiriyah bomb shelter, which incinerated 400 Iraqi civilians. However, Hussein not only overrated the media’s power in Vietnam, (as did Bush), he also failed to see that public distaste for him framed US responses to Iraqi information. Unlike Ho Chi Minh, whose determined pursuit of national self-determination had been grudgingly respected, Hussein ‘had no constituency in the US’ (Cumings 1992, 104). Though his information policies failed to dent US public support for the war, they persistently wrongfooted the coalition militaries and accelerated debate about the role and purpose of information on the battlefield."

 
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