For the straight-faced Pentagon press corps–assured by so many commentators that irony ended on September 11–Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's pointedly ironic remarks on October 18 about war news must have come as a great surprise. "Let's hear it for the essential daily briefing, however hollow and empty it might be," Rumsfeld gibed, in open mockery of the beat reporters' request for regular updates from the Afghanistan front. "We'll do it. Five days a week, not seven." The straight men, converted to court jesters, laughed heartily at the Secretary's joke.
Thus do we witness the death throes of independent war coverage by a free press, a once-popular notion that reached its apogee in the latter stages of the war in Vietnam. Rumsfeld is old enough to remember the infamous "Five O'Clock Follies" in Saigon–dubbed as such by a skeptical media–at which US military spokesmen spouted all manner of upbeat nonsense to bored reporters. But in those days most of the media knew that the briefings were shot through with lies–they made fun of the briefers, not the other way around. Today the government is prosecuting its military campaign in near-complete secrecy, confident that journalists will salute without the slightest irony.
How we got to Rumsfeld's joke is not, of course, very funny. The military establishment, particularly within the Army, was deeply wounded, not only by losing the actual war in Vietnam but also by losing the image of morality and innocence that accompanied US soldiers into battle in World War II and Korea. The smartest among them decided to promote the absurd idea that the press "lost" Vietnam by demoralizing the American people with inaccurate, sensational reporting born of too much access to the battlefield. The public relations war planners were ably assisted by journalists like Peter Braestrup, who argued, for example, that the Tet offensive, while clearly a public relations defeat for the United States, was in reality a decisive military defeat for the Vietcong. Hence, protested the revisionists, the television images of besieged American GIs in Hue unfairly portrayed a losing cause, when victory was still within our grasp. We could have won the war!
Attached to this theory was the equally specious suggestion that US reporters were fundamentally unpatriotic and cynically scoop-hungry, happy to reveal military secrets that would get American soldiers killed. In truth they were overly patriotic in the early years of Vietnam. And as for fatal security breaches, they never occurred–not once–though that hasn't stopped the government propagandists from establishing ground rules for coverage worthy of Catch-22: "We would much rather have open reporting," purrs Pentagon spokesperson Victoria Clarke, as long as it doesn't endanger the troops. But it always turns out that "open reporting" compromises "operational security."
Successive administrations and the Pentagon, impressed by British media control of the Falklands/Malvinas war, refined their wartime PR strategy with each post-Vietnam operation: During the Grenada invasion they simply kept quiet and left the press behind; in Panama they formed combat "pools" (small, closely supervised and noncompetitive groups of reporters required to share information) that departed Washington well after the first wave of troops had landed and then were confined to a military base until most of the action was over; in the Gulf War the pools were enlarged, but their military minders made sure that they never arrived in time to see any killing. Not only were pictures of corpses banned during the Gulf War but pictures of coffins were banned as well. The first Bush Administration was distressed by split-screen TV images showing rows of pine boxes from the Panama invasion at Dover Air Force Base, while the adjacent President glorified the sacrifice of US troops in Operation Just Cause.