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CBS surrenders.

True as always to their corporate function, the CBS high command chose self-interest over Aristotle, whose dramatic precepts clearly required a courtroom finale instead of a backstairs surrender. When Gen. William Westmoreland's lawyer Dan Burt made a first, strings-attached secret plea for a cease-fire, the CBS legal team, headed by David Boies, argued against acceptance, on the ground that Westmoreland's case was a shambles: bomb him back to the Stone Age, let the jury decide.

When Burt finally threw in the towel on all but court costs, possibility of a rogue juror, and perhaps the reluctance of Mike Wallace to testify (such testimony could have revealed of 60 Minutes mythology), there was another reason for snatching compromise from the jaws of victory. CBS wanted to avoid the total humilation of Westmoreland: a second trashing of old Westy by an uppity network would have aroused public indignation. This reluctance (along with the collapse of any spirited current affairs programming from CBS these days) signals the extent to which intimidation by libel suit has worked, just as it worked in the same Federal courthouse a few weeks earlier, when Time chose not to mount an aggressive defense against Ariel Sharon.

In its statement on the settlement, CBS says that it "never was "unpatriotic or disloyal in performing his duties as he saw them." But that is exactly what George Crile's documentary mentary implied, with Gen. Joseph A. McChristian's assertion that Westmoreland had distorted intelligence in the interests of political public relations and thus had flouted the West Point code: "Duty, Honor, Country."

Everyone from Judge Pierre Leval to Anothony Lewis is now saying, in the judge's words, that issues in the Westmoreland case were "too subtle and too complex . . . too subject to debate and disagreement to be resolved by and legally constituted authority." That is nonsense. It took courtroom procedures, prolonged interrogation of witnesses under oath, to halt a right-wing crusade and show that CBS's attempt to denigrate Westmoreland was entirely justified. In no other venue in mid-1980s America could that have been done. CBS spent about $5 million to prove what the jury could have learned for free in any campus teach-in of the mid- to late 1960s: that what was being fought in Vietnam was a people's war, and Westmoreland's Order of Battle, which counted only North Vietnamese "infiltrators," was a political and military fantasy. The phrase Tet "offensive" caters too much to the official U.S. propganda about infiltration; there was a national uprising by South Vietnamese against the U.S. occupation.

The irony of the trial and of the right-wing crusade against CBS is that both Westmoreland and Crile advanced impeccably reactionary propositions: Westmoreland's, that "we" won but were betrayed bythe media; Crile's, that "we" could have won but were betrayed by the generals and the politicians. Crile's protagonist, C.I.A. analyst Sam Adams, testified that "at least a third" of the names of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington were killed by "people not in the O.B. [i.e., guerrillas]. . . . when intelligence has failed that badly, I think what brought that about ought to come to light, so we don't repeat the same mistake."

What neither Adams nor anyone else mentioned was that after Tet the U.S. military realized its mistake and decided not to repeat it. It concluded that a people's war was being waged and in a people's war you kill the people. After Tet the United States turned toward genocide, with the huge pacification program, saturation bombings and massacres of the civilian population in the South, with the Phoenix program, with Operation Speedy Express, Operation Bold Mariner and the others which wiped out thousands of Vietnamese, including most of the National Liberation Front. In a moral world Westmoreland would be on trial for war crimes, along with most of the people who testified during the trial for each side. It was Lieut. Gen. William Peers, in charge of the My Lai investigation, who wrote Westmoreland stingingly that if there is a pattern of misconduct, the commander is as responsible as if he had ordered the crime himself.

A libel trial, by definition, is about what can and cannot be said, about the limits of discourse. In the Westmoreland trial, the Vietnamese had no existence as the victims of a horrifying war waged by the United States and carried forward under the military leadership of Westmoreland. Nor were the Palestinian victims of sabra and Shatila permitted existence in Sharon's courtroom. Not in a courtroom or anywhere else can the United States in its present phase look history honestly in the eye.
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Title Annotation:William Westmoreland libel case
Author:Cockburn, Alexander
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:editorial
Date:Mar 2, 1985
Previous Article:History on trial.
Next Article:Proxy president.

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