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November 27, 2005

IT'S A REVERSE-VIETNAM: On Reliable Sources I said that the Plame scandal was a reverse-Watergate, with the press, not the White House, keeping the important secrets about what happened. But looking at the transcript, I see that Iraq is also a reverse Vietnam, as made clear in this statement from UPI correspondent Pamela Hess:

KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.

Pam Hess, during Vietnam U.S. officials were often accused of distorting or even lying to the press to try to make it look like the war effort was going better than it was. When you were in Iraq did you feel like you were getting the straight story?

HESS: Certainly from the militarily I did. They have no interest in cooking the books, as it were, they -- they understand that they were blamed for Vietnam and what happened, and they don't want that blame again.

They want people to understand the kind of enemy that they are facing and how long it's going to take. And frankly, most of them said to me, "Please go back and tell them not to pull us out because we are finally at a point where we have enough people here now on the ground between soldiers and Iraqis that we can actually start doing some good and start turning things around. And if you pull us out, we're just going to be back here three years from now."

KURTZ: More optimistic, at least than some of the journalists.

HESS: Yes.

(See it on video here.) In Vietnam, the brass talked happy-talk, the press talked to grunts and reported that the war was going worse than we were told. But now it's Americans who are talking to the grunts, and, as StrategyPage noted last year, getting a different picture of how the war is going:

So you don’t have to wait for the official version of what’s going on, or for reporters on the scene to get their stories to the folks back home. The troops send email, or pick up the phone, sometimes a cell phone, and call. This has caused a lot of confusion, because the media reports of what’s happening are often at odds with what the troops are reporting. This has been particularly confusing in a year where there’s a presidential election race going on. The Democrats decided to attack the way the war on terror, and particularly the actions in Iraq, was being fought. Part of that approach involved making the situation at the front sound really, really bad. But the troops over there seemed to be reporting a different war. And when troops came home, they were amazed at what they saw in the newspapers and electronic media. Politics and reality don’t mix.

It's not surprising, then, that the more connection people have to the war, the better they think things are going. That's precisely the opposite of what we saw in Vietnam, of course.

By the way, I often link Dunnigan's StrategyPage, but if you're interested in this kind of stuff you should really check out his books. There are quite a few, but I particularly recommend his primer on all things military, How to Make War, and his book on special forces, The Perfect Soldier: Special Operations, Commandos, and the Future of U.S. Warfare.

While I was in New York I managed to have breakfast with Dunnigan and Austin Bay, and enjoyed listening in on their conversation. I wish we saw more of that sort of thing in major media -- but then it wouldn't be a reverse-Vietnam, would it?

UPDATE: This seems different, too:

Seventy percent of people surveyed said that criticism of the war by Democratic senators hurts troop morale -- with 44 percent saying morale is hurt "a lot," according to a poll taken by RT Strategies. Even self-identified Democrats agree: 55 percent believe criticism hurts morale, while 21 percent say it helps morale. . . .

Just three of 10 adults accept that Democrats are leveling criticism because they believe this will help U.S. efforts in Iraq. A majority believes the motive is really to "gain a partisan political advantage."

It's just not 1969, however much some people might wish otherwise.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Jeff Goldstein has more: "I’d add that this latest poll—coming as it does on the heels of a forceful Administration counterattack against their critics—suggests what we’ve always known, anyway: down deep, most Americans are optimistic, and will treat with suspicion those who preach US weakness and failure and dishonesty."

MORE: My colleague Tom Plank, who was leading a platoon in Vietnam while I was learning to ride a two-wheeler, emails:

I saw your post on Reverse Vietnam. I am deeply skeptical of the claim that the military misled the press or the American people about the Vietnam War. It may be that the top political leaders downplayed the costs of the war, and perhaps senior military officers went along with this, but I thought the reporting on the war was nevertheless much more negative than what was actually going on. The idea of the press reporting objectively on the war is I think another urban myth.

Two classic examples: the 1968 Tet Offensive, reported as a great defeat for the US, but which was a victory for the US and which was a devastating loss for the Viet Cong and NVA (essentially resulted in the destruction of the indigenous South Vietnamese Viet Cong).

The second example is the seige at Khe San. This was reported as a defeat for the US, with lots of comparisons to Dien Bien Phu, but the several month long seige at Khe San resulted in the destruction of several NVA divisions at the cost of several hundred US troops. By 1970, the US had defeated the NVA (the indigenous Viet Cong had long been pretty much out of the picture).

The real failure in Vietnam was not to invest in the development of a truly representative democratic government in the south and commit to protect that government from invasion from the north. Of course, then we were primarily interested in fighting communism instead of developing democracy and self determination. In Iraq, I think we have learned to foster self determination, local style.

Well, good point. I was referring to the conventional narrative above, and tried to be properly noncommittal in my phrasing: "the press talked to grunts and reported that the war was going worse than we were told." But in truth, the extensive, and sometimes obviously deliberate misrepresentation of this war has caused me to revise my confidence in other reporting in the past sharply downward.

Another favorite bit from the Reliable Sources transcript, by the way, is this from Paul Krugman: "If Walter Cronkite were alive -- sorry, he is alive." Heh. Cronkite remains alive, and was most recently heard emitting Grandpa-Simpsonesque complaints about the Internet. Colby Cosh's valediction: "he seems to lack the vestigial humility one might demand of someone whose preeminence in American life is long vanished, and was based mostly on the parts of his career spent reading other people's words into a camera lens." Krugman's Cronkite-nostalgia is predictable, though, and predictably misplaced.