Generals and admirals often tell us that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, but they sure don’t appreciate being on its business end. Armies like war for many reasons, one of which is that journalists tend to report them so uncritically. Battles are logistically difficult to cover; censorship, formal and informal, is rampant; and patriotic fervor tends to trump standard-issue reportorial skepticism. It can take decades to rescue the truth from so much propaganda so easily swallowed. And that’s when the real fight begins.
Currently, the Pentagon finds itself under fire on three journalistic fronts: from a Pulitzer Prize-winning AP report on an alleged July 1950 massacre in South Korea; a Newsweek exclusive about the ineffectiveness of the 1999 Kosovo air war; and a thirty-four-page Sy Hersh exposé in The New Yorker of an alleged massacre of Iraqi prisoners by the Army’s 24th Infantry Division–then commanded by our present drug czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey–two days after the February 28, 1991, Gulf War cease-fire.
In the Korea case, diligent AP reporters discovered that anywhere from 100 to 300 refugees, including women and children, had been executed by US machine-gun fire over a three-day period in late July 1950 beneath a bridge in the village of No Gun Ri. Although some of the witnesses’ reliability has been successfully challenged in lengthy, promilitary rebuttals by the website www.stripes.com and by US News & World Report–leading one of them to admit that he was not at the scene despite his previous claims–the overall story of the massacre has held up. The Pulitzer board therefore reaffirmed its decision, and the Pentagon has been forced to open its own investigation, having finally admitted that “hundreds” of innocent people were killed.
In the case of Kosovo, Newsweek‘s John Barry and Evan Thomas reported in mid-May that Air Force investigators had learned that the target kill numbers in Kosovo trumpeted by NATO after the war were entirely fictional, but it was covering up the evidence. At the close of the war, Defense Secretary William Cohen announced the destruction of “more than 50 percent of the [Serb]…artillery and one-third of the armored vehicles.” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Henry Shelton tallied up approximately 120 tanks, 220 armored personnel carriers and “up to 450 artillery and mortar pieces.” But a suppressed report–finally released after Newsweek forced the Pentagon’s hand–found evidence for only fourteen tanks, eighteen armored personnel carriers and twenty artillery pieces. Instead of 744 “confirmed” strikes by NATO pilots, only fifty-eight really took place. The Pentagon later commissioned another report boosting those numbers–which it prefers to discuss–but the sad fact is that during the war, the only source for remotely accurate figures was the enemy, the Serbs.