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.
While most news organizations did cover the Pentagon’s red-faced admissions, the stories got nothing like the prominent placement of NATO’s false boasts. Curiously, the Newspaper of Record ignored it entirely, even though it had already done some of the most energetic reporting on the ground on this topic. A June 28 Times report last year, for instance, noted that “NATO’s warplanes had not destroyed Yugoslavia’s front-line fighting vehicles [as claimed], but rather a junkyard.” A September 17 report by Craig Whitney from Brussels looked at the numbers a second time, only to reinforce the higher totals. But according to assistant Washington editor Thom Shanker, its editors decided that the Air Force tally did not add much to the paper’s original reporting, a decision the paper stands by. As a result, Times readers ended up with a vastly exaggerated impression of the war’s effectiveness–just as the Pentagon wished them to.
The most dramatic of these virtual firefights is that between Sy Hersh and General McCaffrey over the so-called Battle of Rumaylah. The charges and countercharges in Hersh’s 25,000-word opus are too much to address in detail here. What is obvious to any impartial observer, however, is that while Hersh’s 300 interviews yielded an enormous amount of evidence–including a remarkable number of on-the-record quotations from officers and infantrymen on the scene–McCaffrey has responded almost entirely with unsubstantiated character assassination.
In a flurry of television appearances and in a vitriolic Wall Street Journal editorial, McCaffrey accused Hersh of “journalistic stalking,” of making up statements and of being motivated by a desire to damage McCaffrey’s burgeoning drug war in Colombia. But he neglected to furnish any evidence. The charge itself, says the general, is “nonsense” that was “investigated 10 years ago” and constitutes “revisionist history.” But if it’s “nonsense,” why has it been investigated four times? How convincing is it to be cleared by the same military authorities who have engaged in successful cover-ups in the past? (Does the phrase “Gulf of Tonkin” ring a bell?) Indeed, Hersh devotes roughly a third of his article to the deficiencies of those very investigations. And finally, what’s so terrible about revisionist history? Why shouldn’t we revise our historical understandings when we discover new evidence?
Most alarming of all, McCaffrey aide David Shull faxed various human rights groups pleading, “Would ask for your help to discredit the Hersh article from your personal perspective.” And in a slimy ad hominem, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart called the piece “an attempt to gratuitously go after public officials and an attempt to try to revive a journalist’s career.”
Yes, war is a nasty business, and murderous mistakes and horrific crimes come with the territory. Many military officers consider the media the enemy and see no shame in falsifying the truth, as they exaggerate their successes to increase budget and prestige. Usually they get away with it, but now that AP and Hersh & Co. have redeemed the profession, at least in these cases, Congress should immediately undertake its own investigations of Kosovo and Kuwait. The price of our liberty demands nothing less.