The Role of the Elite Press in Exacerbating the Military-Civilian Mutual Understanding Gap With Special Reference to the Experiences of Gen. William Westmoreland With Mike Wallace of CBS and Gen. Barry McCaffrey With Seymour Hersh and the New Yorker Magazine
Dept. of Military Science
114 The Armory
University of Maine
Orono ME 04469
In remarks at Yale in September of 1997, Secretary of Defense, William Cohen stated that "One of the challenges for me is to prevent a chasm from developing between the military and civilian worlds, where the civilian world doesn't fully grasp the mission of the military, and the military doesn’t understand why the memories of our citizens and civilian policy makers are so short, or why the criticism is so quick and so unrelenting."1
In this paper, I shall first briefly address the reality of the gap Secy. Cohen spoke of, with its less than salubrious implications for the future of both the military and civilian sectors of our society. I shall then move on to the role of the elite media in opening and widening this rift, which Secy. Cohen astutely characterized as one in understanding. Using the two high profile cases referred to in the title of this paper as illustrations, I shall argue that one reason "the civilian world doesn't fully grasp the mission of the military" and "[public] criticism is so quick and so unrelenting" is that the media are frequently too poorly informed to serve as a reliable conduit of information on military matters to the civilian sector. I will further argue that not only does the media's failure to adequately inform on military matters drive the increasing distancing of the civilian sector from the instrument of its national power, towards which it nevertheless retains certain constitutionally mandated responsibilities, but thereby inhibits the fulfillment of those responsibilities.
Such poorly informed and remote civilian leadership has serious potential negative consequences to military personnel and civilians alike. It is, therefore, a dereliction of its moral, as well as its own implied obligations under the Constitution, for a free press in a nation in which there is civilian control of the military to be so negligent of its own professional education as to leave itself incapable of providing the civilian sector with information and analysis necessary to its functioning vis a vis the military. .
With regards to the media, the argument I wish to make runs as follows:
1. That Constitutional provisions, specifically those for civilian control of the military and freedom of the press, set up mutually dependent relationships between the military, the civilian sector and the fourth estate.
2. That these relationships are intended to function for the preservation of a democratic nation, in which all sectors of a rights-endowed society must appreciate how vital an interest they have.
3. That the functioning of these relationships depends on the acceptance of certain moral obligations, among which are:
a. for civilian society to educate itself to the exercise of responsible control of the instrument of national power of the sole remaining superpower on Earth;
b. for the media to facilitate the education of the civilian sector about its military by serving as a reliable conduit of both information and understanding between these two sectors;
c. for the military to make itself knowledgeable enough about the media to be able to aid them in their professional education about the military and keep them reliably informed about the prosecution of the nation's wars.
4. That mutual ignorance between the civilian and military sectors, and the alienation and suspicion it breeds, are dysfunctional and detrimental to their continued existence in a free and democratic nation.
5. That both the military and civilian sectors, and the fourth estate, are expected to meet similar, if not identical, ethical standards, including, but not limited to, truth telling, professional competence, and a career-long pursuit of the education necessary to maintain such competence. In the case of American civilians, their obligation as citizens is for the competence necessary for the exercise of control of their military, including the pursuit of the relevant education, at least so long as they raise or educate children, and vote.
6. That each of these sectors fears the others' scrutiny and poor opinion in direct proportion to the degree to which it feels misunderstood by the others. This fear, in turn, has led to unethical attempts to sidestep or subvert each other's inquiries, such as the Iran-Contra Affair, or irresponsible accusations, which only serve to reinforce negative stereotypes about their lack of trustworthiness and veracity, widening the civilian military understanding gap;
7. That if they abide by their respective ethical codes and standards, they can have little need to fear each other's scrutiny and opinion.
The Civilian-Military Gap and Civilian Control of the Military:
The subject of a philosophical divide between civilian and military sectors of American society was put to JSCOPE members in the recent call for papers in the form of a question — "Is there a military-civilian ethics/value gap?" In so directly addressing this extremely touchy problem in his speech, Secy. Cohen insightfully identified the root of the military-civilian gap as not so much a difference in fundamental values as a lack of mutual understanding. The findings of the 1999 Triangle Institute for Security Studies (TISS) Project on the Gap Between the Military and Civilian Society 2 leaves little doubt that the rift Secy. Cohen warned of, and which has been a topic of serious concern to presenters over the entire history of JSCOPE, does, in fact, exist. And while this rift may not yet have widened into the crisis-proportioned "chasm" about which Secy. Cohen warned, the potential for it to do so is real. Among the effects we are already feeling of the deepening alienation of civilian society from our military are the current shortfalls in military recruiting and retention and concomitant concerns about readiness.
While the TISS report found that civilian society as a whole expressed both trust and admiration for the military, it also implied that this confidence may be only "skin deep." A truer measure of civilian society's regard for the military, especially that of elite civilian society, for whom financial considerations do not constrain career choices, may be the degree to which it encourages its sons and daughters to consider military service as a right and obligation of citizenship. The current recruiting statistics quoted in the TISS study would seem to indicate that members of the upper strata of our civilian society by and large do not put their children "where their mouths are." The result is that the civilian sector, especially that elite segment from which our political leaders traditionally come, having little or no personal experience of the military, must increasingly rely on the media for both information and analysis upon which to base their decisions concerning the military. Compounding their confusion is the fact that the elite press, on which this segment of the civilian sector is most likely to rely for information, is that very segment of the media that is itself most alienated from the military.3 The deepening ignorance of elite civilian society about its responsibilities for the instrument of its national power serves neither sector's best interests; it represents a serious threat to both the effectiveness of the military and the continued existence of the state itself. Nor is it in the interest of the media to feed civilian mistrust of the military, because, it is worth recalling, among the first casualties of overturned democracies is a free press.
Civilian mistrust of standing armies is not a recent development, but has deep roots in American society, predating the creation of the Continental Army itself. It was Samuel Adams, founder of the Independent Advertizer of colonial Boston, who issued the much quoted warning that
"Soldiers are apt to consider themselves...as a Body distinct from the rest of the Citizens. They have their Arms always in their hands. Their Rules and their Discipline is severe. They soon become attached to their officers and disposed to yield implicit obedience to their Commands. Such a Power should be watched with a jealous Eye."
But, absent the 18th century phrasing and Germanically capitalized nouns, it might have been written in 1968, or even today. The need to allay civilian fears that the standing army necessary to win and maintain our independence would constitute a threat to the very liberties it was being raised to secure formed the impetus for George Washington's greatest legacy. I refer, of course, to the quintessentially American institution of civilian control of the military, which I have argued elsewhere4 is actually a set of onerous duties of citizenship elegantly "giftwrapped" in the language of rights, i.e., we have the "right" to raise, provide for, and maintain an army.
War Correspondents and the Constitutional Obligations of a Free Press:
The other great safeguard of American rights written into the Constitution is a free press. Ideally, the two are meant to facilitate each other's functioning, a free press serving to provide civilian society with the information and analysis it needs to make informed decisions about the training, maintenance and deployment of its military arm for the preservation of its jealously guarded constitutional liberties. A participatory democracy such as ours requires that citizens take their control of the military seriously enough to educate themselves and their children to the task. A free press capable of providing substantive and reliable (though not necessarily favorable) assessments of military matters is absolutely essential to the education of the civilian sector. And in order to provide these, war correspondents in particular must acknowledge a professional responsibility to educate themselves sufficiently on military matters to accurately understand and transmit information from the field.
Unfortunately, news is business, and "infotainment" sells (a number of reviewers bitterly recalled a widely distributed photograph, more soft pornography than news, of a certain pneumatic actress with radical sympathies, suggestively posed astride a North Vietnamese gun on an illegal visit to Hanoi). The pursuit of "human interest" stories, or worse yet, "dirt" for a scandal-hungry paying audience has often put reporters under suspicion in the eyes of military commanders. During the Civil War, MG William T. Sherman complained of the newspaper reporters of the day, "These scribblers...come into camp, poke about amongst the lazy shirks, pick up camp rumours and publish them as facts. They are pests, and I would treat them as spies, which in truth they are."5 If their "scribbling" was suspect during the Civil War, hostile television coverage by the predominantly liberal elite press corps, which the TISS report and other studies describe as having international rather than national interests at heart,6 was seen by many in the military at that time as tantamount to giving aid and comfort to the enemy during the Vietnam Conflict.
Apologists for these Vietnam-era news people now claim that their power to affect public opinion has been grossly overestimated, and the so-called "Vietnam Syndrome" — the notion that politically-driven reporting had a substantial role in bringing about a premature and unsatisfactory conclusion to that war — is a figment of the military imagination.7 Frankly, I think they protest too much. I am old enough to remember the 1968 riots on the Columbia campus, and how media coverage played into the hands of antiwar protesters by mythologizing their actions and lionizing their leaders. And I have among my souvenirs of the Vietnam War letters from a friend, a UH-1B pilot at An Khe, damning those same protesters because media coverage of their activities encouraged increased enemy activity, with resultant American casualties. In Feb. of 1970, he was one of them.
More recently, British MG Patrick Cordingley, commander of the 7th Armoured Brigade during the Gulf War, wrote in his account of his experience with the press, ominously titled "Future Commanders Be Warned!"8 that
"I detected during the initial settling-in period the belief among reporters that they should encourage emotion. If an interview could be turned to probe fear or shock, this seemed to win favor at home. The intrusion, if challenged, was justified as caring and in the public interest. But don't the public, and indeed the armed forces, shape their behaviour to the media demands? Did we not confess in the Gulf under this examination to being frightened? Well, of course we were — but was it not unpatriotic to ask us to say so? And then the reporting of the very clinical nature of modern weapons systems and their effects on the bunkers and buildings in Baghdad led the public, particularly the American public, to lose touch with the reality of war; a grim, ghastly and bloody affair. Such reporting also heightened public concern over casualties ... I wonder," he concludes, "if commanders can now be ruthless enough in a television age to pursue the enemy to the limit, if the stakes are anything less than national survival."
"Might [criticisms like] this be blaming the media for what has come to be referred to as the Powell doctrine .... of intervening only where victory seemed certain, and certain to be quick," Robert Kaplan asked in his Atlantic Monthly article titled Ft. Leavenworth and the Eclipse of Nationhood. "Or did Powell, through his experience in Vietnam, merely divine what would be tolerated by a public informed of every mistake and gory detail of war?" 6 As Marine Gen. A.C. Zinni noted in his farewell remarks, the advent of the Information Age means that "battlefied reports are going to come back in real time, and they are going to be interpreted — with all sorts of subtle shadings and nuances — by the reporters and their news editors."9 And, I would add, by the general public. In the Gulf War, TV cameras transmitting from the sights of our bombers in real time lent our military operations an utter transparency that made critics of every Tom, Dick, and John Q. Public, whether or not they, or the reporters narrating the air strikes, had taken the trouble to educate themselves sufficiently about what they were seeing to understand them. During that war, the "lack of experience, preparation, and professionalism of many American correspondents" was so glaring that Richard Halloran,10 former military correspondent for the New York Times, declared that "All too often I thought I was listening to Major Bowes Amateur Hour." How, we of the civilian sector might reasonably have asked, were we going to get anything like a substantive briefing from network news personalities whose war reportage too often amounted to air time-filling remarks about how close "that last one" had come to the hotel balcony on which they posed before the cameras? "It is not good enough," Gen. Peter Gation, the Chief of the Australian Defense Force, stated in the book of comments on the media in time of war which Halloran reviewed, "that any cub reporter can roam unrestricted around a theater of operations understanding little of what he sees, but nevertheless turning out copy that presumably will be read or viewed by someone." What is needed, he argued, and I strongly agree, is "some sort of quality control over the correspondents reporting the conflict, desirably exercised by the profession itself."
In the remainder of this paper I shall demonstrate how the lack of any such quality control over the unprofessional failure by members of the press to adequately educate themselves on military matters, especially Military Ethics and the Law of War, has resulted in two high-profile news stories which have had the effect of widening the mutual understanding gap between the military and civilian sectors.
Mike Wallace and the CBS/Westmoreland Order of Battle Controversy:
According to the TISS report, "the ratio of positive to negative stories [in the major daily newspapers] is roughly 2:1." But, as Thomas Ricks observed, "the fact [is] that most Americans pay attention to the military only when they see news of a sexual-abuse scandal, such as the one at Aberdeen Proving Ground ... As far as media coverage is concerned, the U.S. military has fallen to the level of a mid-sized Asian nation that breaks onto the front page with a large disaster but gets just a few paragraphs for bus plunges and plane crashes."3 Not all news stories are given front page/prime time prominence, or have the same resonance in the public consciousness as the two "headline grabbers" I wish to dissect. Both of these stories play to the "strong negative stereotypes" the TISS Report found that elite military and civilian sectors, in particular, each "harbor about the other beneath a surface expression of respect and confidence."
Mike Wallace's accusation on prime time CBS that Gen. William Westmoreland deliberately underestimated enemy strength in Vietnam in order to mislead the American government about our progress in the war played to the elite civilian stereotype of military commanders as Machiavellian liars. Throughout the Jan. 23, 1982 documentary, CBS's trial for defamation of Westmoreland's character that followed, and Wallace's complaint on public radio years later that the trial had caused him to suffer from depression, this "veteran war corespondent" exhibited an unconscionable ignorance of the provisions of the Law of War that left Westmoreland no choice but to exclude self-defense and secret self-defense organizations from the Order of Battle. It is ironic, as Stephen Young points out, that Westmoreland's lawyers declined to introduce arguments from the Law of War because they feared that to do so "would permit CBS to have a public relations field day exploiting the My Lai murders of civilians as typical of combat under Westmoreland's command."10 For under Law of War, if CBS was right that the grandmothers and children who typically made up the village self-defense organizations in question should indeed be counted as Order of Battle soldiers, then Lt. Calley would have to be completely cleared of any legal responsibility for the massacre of civilians at My Lai. As a result, the terms of the CBS-Westmoreland compromise settlement that was reached in the absence of any appeal to the Law of War "were sufficiently vague as to leave unresolved in the public mind the question of whether Westmoreland had in fact an acceptable explanation for his command decision. The Vietnam War had generated so much dissent and controversy," Young concludes, "that, when CBS fed on and encouraged such suspicions with its allegations of conspiracy to distort the Order of Battle many Americans readily came to believe the worst about the political leaders and military commanders who had led them into a war that was not won."
Almost 20 years later, the media still appear to be making little or no effort to improve their grasp of Military Ethics, or to convey to the civilian sector some appreciation of the Law of War on which to make reasoned decisions regarding the employment of its military. During the recent military involvement in Kosovo. The New Yorker did publish some excellent pieces of reportage and analysis by Michael Ignatieff and Lawrence Wechsler. But, by and large, newspaper op-ed writers seriously maintained that our only consideration in deciding whether to continue our humanitarian intervention there should be whether it was in our own "national interests."11 Now, with a Middle Eastern conflict looming ominously on the World horizon, rather than provide us with substantive analysis, our network news correspondents in Israel have focussed instead upon giving "equal time" to all views, no matter how wrong-minded. In their uncritical concern for culturally relativistic "fairness" they are lending tacit legitimacy to the outrageous declarations of Palestinian extremists that they have a "right," granted to no-one under International Law of War, to use "any and all means available" to gain their political ends, or that the collateral casualties of Israeli attacks on military targets somehow legitimate deliberate targeting of school buses, shops, commuter cars, and other civilian targets. As a result, once again, the American public is being led to the false and dangerous conclusion that right is on the side of the perceived underdog, no matter what his methods, and anything done in the name of guerrilla warfare is moral.
Seymour Hersh and War Crimes Accusations Against Gen.. Barry McCaffrey in the New Yorker Magazine:
If Wallace's accusations against Westmoreland were culpably ignorant of the Law of War, Seymour Hersh’s recent allegations of war crimes against Gen. Barry McCaffrey in the New Yorker12 reinterprets key aspects of the Law of War out of all recognition. Remarks such as "There were no serious American combat casualties ... McCaffrey's assault [at the Battle of Rumaila] was one of the biggest— and most one-sided — of the Gulf War" imply a peculiar reinterpretation of the Principle of Proportionality as a legal requirement for both sides in a conflict to be of equal size, to be equally well-armed and supplied, and to take equal numbers of casualties. Hersh also seems to believe that retreating (as opposed to surrendering) enemy soldiers may not be pursued or engaged under the provisions of the Law of War. Hersh's sources are in disagreement as to whether McCaffrey's units were fired on first by retreating Iraqi troops, whether some of the Iraqi troops his 24th Division engaged at Rumaila on 2 March 1991 might have been in the process of retreating rather than surrendering, and whether those Iraqi troops were armed. Nevertheless, Hersh insinuates that the CID investigation (which was governed by rules of evidence at least as stringent as those of any civilian court) that cleared McCaffrey of criminal wrongdoing is not to be trusted because it was military. And finally, and most insultingly, while casting a jaundiced eye on McCaffrey's profession of soldier's honor, he seems seriously to imagine that it is only the fear of the press that keeps berserking behavior by our military in check.
ETHICS AND THE DISCHARGE OF OUR CONSTITUTIONAL OBLIGATIONS
Journalists and soldiers alike profess an ethic. True, some values are peculiar to a given profession. Those of us who have used Columbia's "Ethics in America - Under Orders, Under Fire" in class may recall their cadets' disgust at Mike Wallace's assertion that he would not warn a friendly unit in danger of ambush because that would violate his professional ethic of objectivity, which he evidently considered the chief value of journalism. My own take on Wallace's assertion is that he had prioritized his values poorly in a moral sense, but in the way that was most convenient to himself. Among the higher-order values shared by the military and civilian sectors and the fourth estate alike are scrupulous truth telling, respect for human life, and professional competence. For war correspondents, professional competence means, at the very least, having a fair understanding of military matters. Our cadets are taught that it is immoral for an officer to be professionally incompetent; in combat, too much is riding on his ability to carry out his duties. I would argue that the sort of poorly informed journalism discussed above is incompetent, and that such incompetence has moral consequences as serious as incompetent soldiering does. It undermines the relationship of trust between a free press and an honorable military that ultimately makes it possible for an informed civilian society to maintain responsible control of the instrument of our national power. It drives the morally weak and the less than honorable soldier (ex-Marine Lt. Colonel Oliver North, for example) underground, where his actions are less easy to discover. I think this is what Robert Timberg meant when he wrote that he viewed the Iran-Contra Affair as "the bill for Vietnam [which he claims split our generation in two] finally coming due."13 But if it is mutual incomprehension, and the antagonism it breeds, that threatens to open a catastrophic rift in the military-civilian-free press system envisioned in the Constitution, the key to closing it is evident. A military and a free press that acknowledge and abide by their respective professional ethics can find little complaint in each other's eye, or in the eye of the civilian sector they are both supposed to serve.
1. Secy. of Defense William S. Cohen, Remarks at Yale U., 26 Sept. 1997, quoted in the TISS Digest of Findings and Studies presented at the Conference on the Military and Civilian Society at the Cantigny Conference Center, 1st Div. Museum, 28-29 Oct. 1999.
2. Feaver, Peter D., and Richard H. Kohn, 1999, TISS Digest of Findings and Studies presented at the Conference on the Military and Civilian Society at the Cantigny Conference Center, 1st Div. Museum, 28-29 Oct. 1999. See also Ricks, Thomas E., The Widening Gap Between the Military and Society, The Atlantic Monthly, July, 1997.
3. Ricks, Thomas E., The Widening Gap Between the Military and Society, The Atlantic Monthly, July, 1997. See also Langston, Thomas S., The Civilian Side of Military Culture, Parameters, Autumn 200, pp. 21-29.
4. Kellogg, Davida E., and Maj. Randy T. Clements, George Washington's Legacy of Civilian Control of the Military at the Intersection of America's Third Century and the Millennium, 4th Multidisciplinary LSU Shreveport Deep South Conference on George Washington: Life, Times, and Legacy, Sept. 18-22, 1998.
5. Quoted in BG A.M.A. Duncan, Mixing With the Media, In Stephen Badsey, Ed., The Military and International Security, R.M.A. Sandhurst, 2000, p.p. 117-134.
6. "CNN epitomizes an emerging electronic life-form that is slowly becoming the eyes and ears of the world community. Members of the media, particularly foreign correspondents, are becoming what Mitchell Cohen, an editor at Dissent, calls 'rooted cosmopolitans' — people with several loyalties, standing 'in many circles, but with common ground' in the form of a home base." Kaplan, Robert D., Fort Leavenworth and the Eclipse of Nationhood, The Atlantic Monthly, Sept. 1996.
7. Taylor, Philip M., The Military and the Media Past, Present and Future, In Stephen Badsey, Ed., The Military and International Security, R.M.A. Sandhurst, 2000, p.p. 117-134, among others.
8. MG Patrick Cordingley, Future Commanders Be Warned! A Brigade Commander's View of the Media in the Gulf War, In Stephen Badsey, Ed., The Military and International Security, R.M.A. Sandhurst, 2000, p.p. 169-174.
9. Zinni, Gen. A.C., Farewell Remarks, July 18, 2000.
10. Halloran, Richard, Review of Defence and the Media in Time of Limited War by Peter R. Young, In Parameters, Winter 1993-4, pp. 117-119.
10. Young, Stephen B., Winter 1991-2, Westmoreland v. CBS: The Law of War and the Order of Battle Controversy, Parameters, v. XXI, no. 4, pp. 74-94.
11. Kellogg, D.E., Just War Tradition vs. Public Opinion on American Military Involvement in the Former Yugoslavia, JSCOPE XI, Jan. 2000.
12. Hersh, Seymour M., Overwhelming Force: What Happened in the Final Days of the Gulf War, The New Yorker Magazine, May 22. 2000, pp. 49-82.
13. Timberg, Robert, 1995, The Nightingale's Song, Simon and Schuster, New York.