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COLUMN LEFT : Truth Would Be a Casualty of Gulf War : Limites on the press would restrict our right to know.

January 13, 1991|GEORGE BLACK | George Black is foreign editor of the Nation

A wonderful and terrible book was published on Jan. 7. It is a reporter's notebook on the war in Afghanistan by a young Soviet journalist named Artyom Borovik, foreign editor of the weekly magazine Ogonok. Like Michael Herr's "Dispatches," with which it has been compared, Borovik's book is an account of the horrors of war on the front line. Like "Dispatches," like any good war reporting, it can change the way the reader thinks about war.

On the same day as Borovik's book came out, the Pentagon issued a new set of rules restricting press coverage of hostilities in the Persian Gulf. They amount to nothing less than censorship.

The desire to stage-manage public perceptions of war is another outgrowth of the Vietnam Syndrome, with the added military anxiety that if Vietnam was the first TV war, this could be the first in simulcast. In Vietnam, reporters were trusted to travel as they pleased, to hitch a ride to the action on a passing chopper. Without that freedom of movement, we would never have seen Morley Safer's CBS News report in 1965 of U.S. soldiers setting fire to peasant huts with Zippo lighters. Dissenting military voices were regularly heard. As Neil Sheehan recounts in his book, "A Bright Shining Lie," the press recorded the complaints of officers like John Paul Vann early in the war that their commanders' strategy of attrition could only lead to enormous casualty levels and eventual U.S. defeat.

It was in Grenada that the Pentagon stage-managers first bared their teeth. When U.S. troops hit the beaches in October, 1983, the press was excluded. Only a couple of reporters managed to slip ashore the night before the assault; four others were captured and detained for two days incommunicado. There were no on-the-spot reports of the inter-service snafus that bedeviled the operation, of the high incidence of U.S. casualties from "friendly fire," or of the 30 inmates killed in an air strike on the local mental hospital. Instead, the press was largely limited to photo opportunities of returning medical students kissing the Tarmac at Charleston Air Force Base.

Not that editors took these restrictions lying down. The controversy over Grenada prompted a review by a special Defense Department panel that announced plans in October, 1984, for a pool of journalists to cover future wars.

But when U.S. forces invaded Panama in December, 1989, the pool was left behind. Even after they were flown in the next morning, reporters were restricted to a U.S. military base until the second day. As in Grenada, crucial stories that might have influenced public support were left unreported, such as the shortcomings of the Stealth fighter or the number of civilians killed in the firestorm unleashed by U.S. forces. A Pentagon report issued after Panama concluded that the press pool had "produced stories and pictures of essentially secondary value."

Now, all reports from a gulf war will have to undergo a "security review" by military censors. Even this in fact represents a slight climbdown by the Defense Department. Draft rules circulated on Jan. 3 (which the Pentagon now refuses to make public) would also have prohibited all unauthorized "ambush" interviews of military personnel.

Of course, the topography of the gulf and the technology of this war will impose their own restrictions on reporters' movements. You can't take a taxi to the front as you can in, say, El Salvador; there's a main road through the desert, but it will be full of burning tanks. And inadvertently revealing the location of military units might invite strikes by missiles miles away.

But the broader intent of the new reporting rules is to tighten control over news of a war that already lacks informed public consent. For the same reason, the Pentagon will not discuss likely casualty levels--because public knowledge of the reality of conflict would erode support for it.

Perhaps the most revealing comment comes from a military officer quoted in the Washington Post: There will be no discussion of the costs of war, he says, "so the natural tendency in any democracy, which is to debate . . . can't work against us."

These are thought processes that would be familiar to the men who plunged the Soviet Union into Afghanistan. As Artyom Borovik notes in his book, the clique in the Kremlin never consulted their experts or their foreign-policy advisers, and the Politburo didn't even vote on the matter. And there were no journalists on hand, except from the official organs, to report on the carnage that ensued. Every one of the American reporters covering Desert Shield, as well as their handlers, should be obliged to read Borovik's book, or at least to meditate on its title--"The Hidden War."

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