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The war the media missed.

WINNIPEG -- When George Bush announced America's entry into the Gulf War he announced that the war would usher in a "New World Order" and he promised that this would not be "another Vietnam." American soldiers would not be asked to fight" with one hand tied behind their back." The truth is always the first casualty in times of war and George Bush started this one with a pair of whoppers.

The people of Vietnam would be surprised to discover when the Central Intelligence Agency executed at least 20,000 civilians who were suspected of being Communist agents, when the United States Air Force dropped seven million tons of bombs on their country -- twice the total dropped in Europe and Asia during the Second World War -- or when the American army massacred over 450 people at My Lai, that the American military machine was operating with one arm tied behind its back. Just what sort of hell on earth would it have created with two hands?

The idea that the American lost the war in Vietnam because the military was not allowed to go in and win should be recognized and treated for what it is -- a myth. Nor is it the only Vietnam myth people pay to rest as they struggle to understand what is going on in the Middle East. The second misconception is that the media seriously undermined the American military effort in Vietnam.

In the words of Richard Nixon, "More than ever before, television showed the terrible human suffering and sacrifice of war. Whatever the intention behind such relentless and literal reporting of the war, the result was a serious demoralization of the homefront, raising the question whether America would ever again be able to fight an enemy abroad with unity and strength of purpose at home."

When one considers the source, it perhaps isn't surprising to discover there is much in this statement that is not true. Reporters in Vietnam did adopt a more adversarial role, than they have done in the Gulf, and there was no military censorship. But it's dubious that the war reporting was violent and gory. According to the most detailed study undertaken of CBS coverage, Daniel Hallin's The "Uncensored" War, less than a quarter of the reports in the first four years of the Vietnam war portrayed any combat at all. This was usually minimal coverage, often no more than the background sound of guns being fired. A CBS directive of the period warned producers to "exercise great caution before permitting pictures of casualties to be shown."

We tend to hold in our memories particularly gripping images from the Vietnam war coverage. One of the most famous is Morley Safer's 1965 report showing Marines using cigarette lighters to set fire to the thatched roofs of Vietnamese homes. But the vast majority of the reports on the war in Vietnam -- many of which came not from Vietnam but from Washington -- were largely dependent upon official representatives. It was only after the emergence of a large anti-war movement, when significant sectors of the American establishment began to debate the wisdom of the war, that television journalism provided critical coverage of the war.

Some commentators suggest the US military has learned the lessons of Vietnam and is keeping the media on a short leash, feeding it only the most sanitized bits of information. This may be what they are trying to do, but if they are, it means the military has missed the central lesson in Vietnam -- that a bloody war fought in defense of a corrupt government could not long sustain public support. It is likely the public would have reached those conclusions with or without the alleged help of television. After all, the Soviet people came to a similar understanding of the war in Afghanistan, even though their media provided no critical coverage of that brutal conflict whatsoever.

In fact, the media's self-absorption is one of the most nauseating aspects of the war. By the war's second week, it was apparent that the media could not provide us with any detailed information on what was going on in Iraq -- and certainly was not interested in providing any examination of the roots of the war (after all, that's history by now). However, it was doing an excellent job commenting on whether it was doing a proper job in covering the war. On one Saturday I caught two different programs in which the media examined its handling of the war.

You can watch the war for hours at a time, and then, when you try to determine what you know for sure, you realize you still know only what US military officials have told you. (We should remember, these are men who pride themselves on protecting the truth behind a bodyguard of lies.)

While our information is as up-to-date as possible, our understanding of the roots of this was is still in the stone age. And all the attention the media lavishes on the high tech wizardry of war -- the marvels of the Stealth fighter, the "surgical" accuracy of the Patriot missile -- is creating what could be the most dangerous myth of all -- that what we are witnessing on television every night has anything at all to do with building a new world order.

Winnipeg freelance writer-broadcaster Doug Smith contributes regularly to Canadian Dimension.
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Title Annotation:Vietnam
Author:Smith, Doug
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Date:Apr 1, 1991
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