If reporters and cameramen are allowed to live with troops in the field in any Iraq war, that will mean our military is finally over the experience of Vietnam.
That was not why the Pentagon recently decided to change the rules. It was because any such conflict will be more than a war of bombs and howitzers; it will be a war of words and images, and for that you need reporters and cameramen. But it could also mean Vietnam’s long shadow over press relations with the services has finally dissipated.
In World War II reporters became famous for being with the troops and experiencing their lives under combat. They actually wore military uniforms with special insignia identifying them as correspondents. The best-known of those was Ernie Pyle, whose widely read reports of what it was like in the foxholes or under bombardment told Americans at home more about the war and their men fighting it than any communique could.
As the war wound down in Europe, Pyle transferred himself to the Far East, where he was killed by machine gun fire in one of the battles around Okinawa.
The rules governing press access to combat were about the same for the Korean War as they had been for World War II. But there was never such access as there was in Vietnam.
In Vietnam correspondents from all the media joined troops in the field and left them almost at will. On every news office bulletin board in Saigon you would see schedules of military flights to the fighting, to Hue, to Danang, to the delta, and newsmen could call up any time to book a seat (at no charge) along with service personnel for whom the flights were intended.
As that war ground on, many of the journalists lost their faith in it. They would come back from a combat area and turn up at the military’s daily briefing, the famous “Five o’Clock Follies.” They would often interrupt the briefing officer’s account of what was going on at the fighting fronts and contradict him. They were just back from there, they would say, and the situation was much worse or the fighting much fiercer or the enemy much better than the briefer said.
The generals and colonels of Panama, of Somalia, of the Gulf War had been captains and majors in Vietnam. Some had taken their turn as briefing officers. Some believed-may still believe-that Vietnam was a winnable war had it not been for the access given the press.
For the Gulf War of 1991 almost all information came from mass briefings, either in Washington or in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. TV covered live, but what it was covering live was a general’s saying today what had happened yesterday. Some pool coverage, one reporter from each medium, was allowed, but even then unexplainable accidents happened to videotape, and the best picture coverage would not be available until the war was over, when few cared. Nor was there any coverage of the American soldier as he fought. There were no Ernie Pyles in the Gulf.
Most important, the military controlled the flow of information because it controlled the means of transmission, the phone lines and the TV channels. Afghanistan was different. The military still tried to control the information flow, but because of the strangeness of the war and the nature of the country, reporters could hire trucks and drivers, rent houses to sleep in and report from.
Afghanistan also saw the first flowering of a device called the videophone, a briefcase-size package that could plug into a car’s cigarette lighter and send pictures and sound by satellite to anywhere.
Nor has the march of technology stopped. For the next war, if there is one, equipment will be lighter, transmission faster and everybody will have it.
Vietnam was called the Living Room War because Americans watched it on their TV sets. The next war, in Iraq or wherever, will be in every room of the house.
Reuven Frank was president of NBC News from 1968-73 and from 1982-84.