The Press at War, From Vietnam to Iraq

The conflicts change, but the factors influencing the quality of the coverage—including ignorance, confusion, and competition—stay consistent.

Murphy / Marko Drobnjakovic / AP / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

The Iraq War, launched 15 years ago today, always brings another war immediately to mind for me, and did so even when it first began. It’s not that Iraq itself did not loom large. I was an editor at The Atlantic when the war started, and the magazine’s coverage of issues relating to it was intensive and prolonged. Michael Kelly, who for four years was The Atlantic’s editor in chief, had covered the previous war against Iraq, in 1991, with courage and distinction. He had witnessed the horrors perpetrated in Kuwait during the Iraqi occupation, and was a strong proponent of military action against Saddam Hussein. Mike embedded with the Third Infantry Division, and was killed during the first weeks of the fighting.

The war that Iraq brought to mind was Vietnam—not because the two wars were intrinsically similar (they were very different) but because questions about the role of the press, and the responsibilities of the press, arose ferociously from both conflicts. As a young editor in one of my first jobs—at a journal called The Wilson Quarterly, lodged in the red-sandstone Smithsonian Castle on the Mall, in Washington—I worked for a Marine and former New York Times and Washington Post reporter named Peter Braestrup. He knew a lot about Vietnam firsthand, and he had drawn clear journalistic lessons from his experience. While fussing with his pipe or tapping it for emphasis, he was not shy about sharing them. Instilling might be a better word.

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Peter Braestrup was a Korean War veteran who had been badly wounded in combat and still sometimes discovered tiny shards of metal weeping from his eye. He had been The Post’s bureau chief in Saigon during the Tet Offensive, a coordinated series of surprise attacks launched by the North Vietnamese against U.S. and South Vietnamese targets on January 30, 1968. When I went to work for him, in the mid-1970s, Braestrup was in the midst of writing a monumental book, titled Big Story, about the press coverage of those events.

Not quite a decade had elapsed since Tet, and the conventional wisdom was that reporting by the major newspapers and TV networks had somehow turned an American military victory (however stunned the military had been by North Vietnam’s offensive) into an American psychological defeat—helping to skew public opinion increasingly against the war. Some critics went further: The media had done this willfully, spurred by left-wing, antiwar bias. As the last U.S. helicopters left the embassy compound in Saigon, in 1975, the New York Times columnist James Reston acknowledged the argument: “The reports of the press and radio and television are now being blamed for the defeat of American policy and power in Indochina.”

Braestrup didn’t buy it. (Neither did Reston, for different reasons.) If the media hadn’t always presented an accurate picture, you didn’t need to invoke bias as the explanation. As Braestrup explained, the situation in Vietnam was exquisitely engineered to obscure the truth. The press and the military had different cultures and were often mutually suspicious. The government in Washington, a third actor, was suspicious of the other two and distrusted by them in turn. Neither the government nor the military spoke candidly, in Vietnam a pattern going back years.

During the chaos and intense fighting of the Tet Offensive, no one had an overall view of what was happening; because reporters were based in Saigon, the fighting there—blocks away from where they lived!—colored everything. Reporters were hampered by communications that now seem primitive; it could take a day or more to get a report with footage on the network news. Reporters had to pursue rapidly changing events from day to day, and were rarely able to dig deeper or reflect on what they’d learned. They were also drawn to wherever the action was, even if the reality of “no action” in much of the country was itself a salient fact.

“Their time horizons were short,” Braestrup wrote of his colleagues in Big Story (and he explicitly included himself in his assessment). “Their focus was narrow. By temperament or training they were not ‘experts,’ systematic researchers, writers trained in synthesis; they were adventurers and to some extent, voyeurs; at their best, on some occasions, they were also shrewd observers and interrogators; and perceptive tellers of tales.”

Braestrup’s ideas about the press and the military—and the government as a whole—get a thorough airing in Big Story. They fill two fat volumes (with 41 appendices). As he was writing the book, which was published in 1977, he would talk expansively at the end of the day with his younger colleagues, myself among them. His office in the old castle was dominated by a rose window, and the interior niches that formed the petals became a filing system for the chapters of his book. He talked about the different senses of time characteristic of different forms of media—the unrelenting dailiness of newspaper and broadcast reporting, where the news was always hot; the less-pressured environment of magazines, which rarely broke news but offered time to think; the sheer luxury of books—and the advantages and disadvantages of each; about the need to invest in deep background reporting, if you possibly could, well before major events might reasonably be expected to occur; about the imperative to come back to a story long after the herd had moved on; and about the usefulness of looking at a subject not directly but a little to the side. (He noted that you could sometimes see stars better that way too.)  Braestrup spoke frequently, and above all, about the need for humility regarding what you could ever know—much less know in a short time, much less know in the middle of a war. In war, nothing worked out as planned, and even if it seemed to, the process of getting from A to B always created an X, Y, and Z that you’d never anticipated.

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Braestrup’s perspective acquired renewed relevance as the Iraq War became imminent, then a reality, then a catastrophe. The Tet Offensive had come suddenly and by surprise. In contrast, when the Iraq War began, on March 20, 2003, there had been more than a year of very public buildup. A decision to go to war was not theoretically inevitable but was correctly seen as a fait accompli by officials in Washington, by the Pentagon, and by the press—whatever delicate and facile parsing one might hear from the administration.

Nothing about the fundamentals had changed for the better since Vietnam. War was still war. The White House still insisted on its version of facts, with questionable evidence to back them up. The press corps was larger and more fragmented than it had been in 1968, and the news moved at a faster pace. TV crews didn’t need to wait for an airplane to carry film canisters from Saigon to Tokyo for satellite transmission. Print journalists could write stories that would be published online within minutes. Cable channels aired news programming around the clock, and their reach was global. None of this fostered a spirit of calm analysis.

Unlike in Vietnam, few of the reporters who went to Iraq were military veterans. Many came to the war without much relevant experience. It wasn’t just Iraqi culture that was unfamiliar. In an experiment, the Pentagon allowed some 600 journalists to embed with military units. Soon after arriving in Iraq, Michael Kelly wrote back about an orientation briefing for the embeds where the colonel in charge had to explain certain realities to a reporter from Japanese television, who wanted to know if instead of a backpack she could bring a roller-board suitcase.

The colonel said, “You mean, like in an airport?”

“Yes,” the woman replied.

“Uh, ma’am,” said the colonel, “we’ll be in the desert, which is, uh, sand, so I don’t know about that.”

If the rap on the media after Tet was that biased reporting turned public opinion sour, the rap on the media after the Iraq War was virtually the opposite: that it had been too slow to subject government claims to scrutiny—indeed, that it had amplified official assessments in advance of the war and given them credibility. There are well-known examples of this, notably concerning the allegations by the Bush administration that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. (He did not.) If you go back and take a look, you’ll also find a note of naive triumphalism, or maybe just premature optimism, in some early reported accounts after the war began.

But the chief factors influencing the quality of the coverage were the ones present in Vietnam, and present in any war: ignorance, confusion, inexperience, deadlines, excitement, competition, and the reliance, because there was no choice, on sources that may not prove to be trustworthy. (Taken together: an argument, again, for humility.) Even Colin Powell, the secretary of state, had not fully known what was going on—he made the case for war to the United Nations, unaware that some of the evidence provided by his own government was at best flawed and at worst manufactured. But everything could have been on the level, and there’d still be this: Nothing works out as planned (“Mission Accomplished”), even if you think it did.

In the years after the invasion, with the security situation deteriorating, many news organizations pulled their staffs from Iraq, leaving a dangerous job to reporters for the Post (in particular), the Times, and a handful of other outlets. As the war dragged on, and as reporting got better and better, the real problem with news from Iraq would turn out to be how little of it most Americans ever saw or heard. Across the board, as documented by Pew and others, the percentage of the news hole devoted to the war declined steeply.

And yet the body of published work on Iraq, within a few years of its start, would quickly become impressive. Thomas Ricks’s prize-winning Fiasco (2006) went back to square one and looked afresh at how this calamity had come about. (Ricks, a veteran military correspondent who covered the war for the Post, shared an office with me in a castle tower back in Peter Braestrup days.) That same year, the late Anthony Shadid published Night Draws Near, which described the impact of war on the Iraqi people themselves—based in part on reporting for which he’d won a Pulitzer Prize. A year later, the Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran produced Imperial Life in the Emerald City. The book is a portrayal of life in the fortified “green zone,” where the U.S. military occupation maintained its headquarters (and an example, too, of coming at a subject a little bit to the side). Starting even before the war, and continuing after, my Atlantic colleague James Fallows weighed in with a series of extraordinary articles—“The Fifty-First State” (which looked ahead to what running Iraq would entail), “Blind Into Baghdad” (which described all the expertise that had been ignored by the Bush administration), and “Why Iraq Has No Army” (which traced the disastrous decision to disband the Iraqi military). The long lead time of a monthly magazine definitely has its drawbacks, but it provides a kind of freedom that short lead times don’t have patience for. In retrospect, it seems only natural that Peter Braestrup ended his career at a quarterly.

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And the next war? Military action on the Korean peninsula seems more likely now than it has in decades. The situation throughout the Middle East remains unpredictable. The United States currently has troops stationed in about 70 countries. They are engaged in combat roles in a number of them. That it’s impossible to say exactly how many is a testament to another structural problem the news industry faces—much of this activity is secret, and it’s hard to report on wars when no one will tell you where they are. If any of these potential occasions of strife blew up into a major conflict, the news media would find itself in an all-too-familiar spot. (Forget about Mali and Somalia: How many reporters speak Korean?) There will be another war somewhere at some point. The only certainty, for those who report the news as well as those who consume it, is that much of what we learn at first will be wrong.

Meanwhile, the reporting challenge today that, to me, seems most comparable to that of Vietnam or Iraq is not a military conflict at all. It is the man in the Oval Office. The presidency of Donald Trump confronts the media with all the familiar wartime woes, and on a wartime scale: Officials at every level who lie as a matter of course; events that unfold like surprise attacks; a cascade of urgent news that seems to change by the second; a fog of confusion that no epistemology could dispel. When I brought up this comparison with Tom Ricks, he said, “It resonates psychologically. The fatigue, the dull mental ache, the sense of being shackled to a never-ending fight. I keep on wondering how the White House reporters handle it. Trump’s tweets remind me of incoming mortar fire—never quite predictable, and sometimes quite scary.”

In some ways, the Trump presidency may prove harder to cover effectively than Vietnam or Iraq. For one thing, the field of operations involves the entire U.S. government. For another, the very idea of reality seems up for grabs. In Vietnam and Iraq, there was an economy of truth, sometimes a deliberate distortion of it, often a wish that it might be other than it was—but not an assault on the very idea of truth, as there is now. That aside, the sheer volume of news items—five or six damning stories every day that would each have sunk a Jimmy Carter—lessens the impact of any single piece of it. (“Their time horizons were short. Their focus was narrow.”)

But for whatever reason, something feels different. News organizations of all kinds—newspapers, magazines, and web sites especially—are on a war footing, mounting big investigations and asking big questions, independent of the daily churn. There is another Big Story to be written, and it may have a better ending this time.