Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The press and the military

When I was checking out atomic bomb information I came across a site high up on Google's rating for "hiroshima atom bomb" suggesting that the U.S. government in general, and the U.S. Army in particular, had kept the truth about the bombings a secret. The site suggests that newsreel footage of the full effect of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs was hidden from the American public for 25 years, deliberately hiding the horror of atomic warfare.

Of course the site doesn't suggest a less conspiratorial theory. The Cold War was just beginning. The exact effect of the atomic bombs, and thus the ability to calculate their yield in explosive force, was a military secret. The precise effect could also suggest ways to mitigate against an atom bomb. There is a concrete building that was below the hypocentre of the bomb blast in Hiroshima that still stands today. A more reasonable situation is that the bomb footage was declared a secret and sealed for 25 years. Once it's sealed it's very difficult to get secrets unsealed before their release date.

Reading this article brought to mind the recent scandal with the U.S. Army's Walter Reed Medical Center. If you haven't heard, a motel bought by the U.S. Army as an outpatient facility is, apparently, not fit to for human habitation. The Army Secretary relieved Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman from command of the facility. The general had been in command for several years, then he moved on to another post, and then was brought back just recently. In a recent television exposé Weightman dismissed the worst of the charges against the facility.

It's not surprising that the media don't trust the military. That lack of trust is mutual. It's been going on a long time. My main area of expertise is the American Civil War. The press in the 19th century was not what it is today. There were journalists with a sense of integrity, who wanted to only tell the truth. There were others who would flat out lie. Publishing rumours as fact was common. I have read copies of the New Orleans Daily Picayune from April, 1862. The reports from the Battle of Shiloh were anywhere from one to three days late in getting to New Orleans. The first day's battle was overwhelmingly in favour of the Confederates. The Union counterattacked the next day, and the battle became the Confederacy's first major defeat. You wouldn't know that in the newspaper until about four days after the battle. The battle was over for two days and the newspaper was still printing reports about a great Southern victory, mostly from over-eager communications from field commanders. On the third day the news was ominously quiet. I can just imagine what it was like that day when the bad news was finally accurately reported.

The press in the North was heavily partisan. There were Democratic papers and there were Republican papers, and they regularly saw eye-to-eye unless it was after a major victory. I doubt any American president has had to deal with so much open criticism during a war as Lincoln. It wasn't just criticism. The term "loose lips sink ships" was still some fifty years away. It was common for troop positions to be printed in the newspapers. Robert E. Lee tried to grab Northern newspapers whenever he could. William T. Sherman once said about newspaper men in his camp, "I hate newspapermen. They come into camp and pick up their camp rumors and print them as facts. I regard them as spies, which, in truth, they are. If I killed them all there would be news from Hell before breakfast."

The North wasn't the only side suffering from an unrestrained press. Robert E. Lee lost his first field command in 1861 largely due to press criticism after a failed campaign in western Virginia. When Lee turned out to be a tactical genius a year later, the papers forgot all about how they called him "Granny Lee" and the "King of Spades". Open criticism of Major General Jeb Stuart after the Battle of Brandy Station doubtless stung the cavalry general. Although it is impossible to know for sure, it is possible that it at least partially resulted in Stuart's vainglorious ride around the Army of the Potomac prior to Gettysburg, and thus put Lee in the position of fighting a battle on ground not of his choosing.

Someone at work said she didn't care for the way the media reported, daily, the number of dead in Iraq. I pointed out that not only were the numbers of dead reported during the Civil War, but the names of the dead were regularly posted in public areas of the towns, and were often the first knowledge family members had of their dead loved ones.

The Civil War may have been the first war with photographs of combat dead. There were military photographs in the Crimean War, but they were from rear echelon positions. Long exposure times made actual combat photography impractical and dangerous. The American Civil War showed the nation the aftermath of battle. Some of the corpses were posed for effect (likely including the famous picture of a sharpshooter at Gettysburg's Devil's Den). This did not seem to be a problem among those who viewed the pictures in galleries.

Sometime between the American Civil War and World War II newspapers started to be more accommodating of the administration. Newspapers inflamed the situation leading up to the Spanish American War. Perhaps Michael can chime in with his take on the press during World War I. By World War II, though, the press had learned that there were certain things that they didn't report on. They understood that it was important not to give the enemy aid. Of course the press in Germany and Japan believed the same thing. We can only speculate whether or not the Second World War would have even happened had there been freedom of the press in those nations.

Giving away troop positions is a pretty basic thing for the press not to do. (Geraldo Rivera apparently forgot this lesson during the combat phase of the Iraq War. Maybe Geraldo isn't so much a hack as he is "old school". 19th century old school...) It's interesting how much editorial control the military exerted, too. I saw a photograph of a dead Marine in the Pacific that was never printed. The Marine fell funny when he died. One leg was bent funny underneath him. It looked not like he had broken it, but like his body had gone limp in a peculiar position. The photograph was not cleared by censors due to the odd, disturbing position of his body. Anything that could affect the morale at home was deemed okay to censor.

I read an interesting account in the defunct magazine Brill's Content. The magazine explained part of the disconnect between the press and the military as a lack of military service among journalists. For the first half of the 20th century journalists regularly served in the military. Currently that isn't a career path for most journalists. Journalists don't understand the military as much as they used to. The level of mistakes about military jargon and technology is staggering.

The current animosity between the military and the press in the U.S. stems from the Vietnam War. It's largely believed by the average American that the press and television news media were against the war from the start. That wasn't true. For the first few years of the war the press was overwhelmingly positive. The turning point came with the Tet Offensive. The Tet Offensive was a North Vietnamese campaign that began in January, 1968 during the Tet religious festival. The offensive would turn into an American military victory, but a political defeat. Until the Tet Offensive, the Johnson administration was claiming that they were winning the war, and that the North Vietnamese were incapable of defeating the U.S. and their South Vietnamese allies. The Tet Offensive, and the later release of the Pentagon Papers, showed that the press had been lied to. The My Lai massacre, which the military whitewashed, (the initial report on the incident was written by a Major Colin Powell) in the middle of the offensive added to the feeling that the military was hiding something. From then on the spell was broken and the press became more skeptical, and more negative, about the war in Vietnam. This coincided with a virulent anti-war movement in the U.S., an anti-war movement that didn't, or couldn't, discern between the political decisions and the average soldiers.

Things are different today. The military learned how to get the press on their side. The embedded journalist concept appears to have been a big success. By putting journalists in the field with the soldiers — a concept that was common back in World War II — the journalists got to see the soldiers as people. The combat portion of the Iraq War was described in very positive terms. The press also learned to differentiate the soldier from the war. Even when Abu Ghraib hit the news, the emphasis was on the bureaucracy and some bad soldiers. For the most part, the press has been very much on the side of the average soldier. They questioned whether or not enough troops were sent in the first place, why the troops weren't given more heavily protected vehicles, and whether or not the troops have the right body armour. (The latter has become a big deal with the British Army.)

In the Walter Reed case, an injured soldier was unable to get the army to do anything until he took his story to The Washington Post. Immediately afterward, he was moved to a better room, the holes in the walls were repaired and the room was painted. The threat of the media got things done when official channels did not. This is why a free press is essential to a democracy.

The irony is that the average soldier has to go to the press to cut through the military's bureaucratic red tape.

2 comments:

Michael said...

I think it might be more accurate (if possibly more depressing) to say that the military doesn't trust the civilian world, and the media is simply the foremost representative of that world.

It's quite understandable that it should be this way; military culture is exclusionary by design, and has to be. It must also, at higher levels, be just a little bit neurotic, I think, at least in democratic societies: officers recognize on the one hand that for the security of the society and state it's important that the military be subject to civilian oversight; on the other they are constantly made aware that their civilian overseers are possessed of limited (at best) domain knowledge when it comes to making oversight decisions.

As for relations between the military and the press during the first world war, for the most part the armies dictated and the press did what it was told. There were embedded reporters, after a fashion (at least on the Allied side), but they were on an even tighter leash than anything seen in Bush's War.

Almost every piece of text sent out of the war zone was subject to military censorship, even letters. I say "almost" because some officers smuggled letters home via friends who were going on leave.

A rather bizarre feature, at least on the British side of things, was the fact that a number of officers (coming as they did from a distinct class) had friends sitting in the House of Commons. More than a few of these officers passed information to MPs that the military would have preferred be kept secret -- information concerning morale, military preparedness (Haig's performance in the weeks and months leading up to the "Michael" offensive in March 1918 caused a scandal) and so on. Some of this wound up in the press.

At the same time, though, some of the British war correspondents were themselves ex-officers, and were accused of skewing their reporting to hide the truth of the incompetence of the officer class.

For me, the whole question of military censorship of the press in the UK in the first world war is sort of moot. That's because the newspapers (as was the case in the US Civil War) published casualty reports. If you lived in, say, the Midlands, you had to be willfully ignorant if, as July turned to August 1916, you believed all of the glowing reports of success on the Somme, given that some of the local regiments were suffering casualty rates of 50, 60, 70, 80 percent in the space of a few weeks if not a few days.

Allan Goodall said...

I think it might be more accurate (if possibly more depressing) to say that the military doesn't trust the civilian world, and the media is simply the foremost representative of that world.

I'll have to think about that. I don't think I agree with it... but I can't think of any proof as to why I don't believe it...

Your post is very interesting. It's pretty much what I expected, though I didn't know about the letters escaping to British MPs. Thank you!