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Can Any War Be Overreported?

June 14, 1998|William Prochnau | William Prochnau, a former reporter for the Washington Post, is author of "Once Upon a Distant War: Young War Correspondents & Their Early Vietnam Battles."

WASHINGTON — Almost 35 years ago, a young reporter named Peter Arnett was, as they say in the news trade, collecting string on his first big scoop in a little war. Arnett had gathered only pieces: scuttlebutt that American helicopters were carrying gas-warfare agents and U.S.-backed South Vietnamese troops were using the gas against the enemy, particularly in quick-hit rescue operations.

U.S. officials declined all comment. The story "burned in my notebooks" unwritten, Arnett recalled later, until one day his Associated Press colleague, the big German photographer, Horst Faas, returned from a jungle patrol and slapped several rolls of film onto his desk. The photos showed South Vietnamese troops carrying gas canisters and bulky rubber gas masks. Their officers had talked freely to Faas about orders to use it.

Arnett's story rattled around the world in early 1965, shaking the White House and the Pentagon and bringing bellicose snorts out of the Kremlin. There is a certain quaintness now that the chemical weapon in question was CS tear gas, basically the same nonlethal stuff that U.S. police were beginning to use in the streets to control marchers and rioters in the strife-torn '60s.

The story came full circle last week, when Arnett and several CNN colleagues broke what seemed a far more stunning story: that U.S. troops might have used the lethal nerve gas sarin against North Vietnamese troops, civilians and perhaps even American deserters in a raid across the Vietnamese border into Laos in 1970.

Oddly, Arnett's first story rattled more cages than his latest. The nerve-gas report was met with the usual Pentagon call for an investigation and a modern mix of jadedness and some doubt. How could such a powerful story have been missed in the most openly reported war in American history?

Vietnam was a reporter's dream, a military man's nightmare: an uncensored war in which correspondents roamed almost at will. There was never a war like it before or since. In the beginning, the first few rambunctious reporters raced off to battles in beat-up, blue-and-white Renault cabs, left from the French days. Arnett escalated by buying a white Karmann Ghia, to chase helicopters to the "front." By the end of the long war, hundreds of American reporters were using every manner of military vehicle to seek out combat and stories.

Yet, to ask how the nerve-gas story was missed--if, indeed, the facts are known now--is to beg the question. Every war keeps its secrets--Vietnam still keeps many--and no reporters followed elite and illegal hit-and-run missions into neighboring countries.

The reaction to Arnett's latest story tells us far more about how much the Vietnam War--and the press coverage--changed modern life, especially the relationship between the government and its watchdog, the media.

To fully appreciate this, you have to do a little imaginative time travel, back to 1961, when President John F. Kennedy began upping the stakes in Vietnam. It was a different world. Television was little more than a plaything, good for set-piece presidential press conferences but not wars halfway around the world. Commercial-jet travel was almost as new as today's Pentium chips. The Pentagon had no Xerox machines to churn out press releases, the reporters no satellites to beam stories 11 time zones back home.

Still, we had already endured a century full of wars. Heavily censored wars. So total was the government manipulation of public opinion in World War I that the chief U.S. propagandist charged with getting us into the fray later described his efforts as "the world's greatest adventure in advertising." Censorship was so uniformly accepted in World War II that Life magazine did not run a photograph of a dead American until 1943, and the director of the Office of Censorship was given a special Pulitzer Prize citation. The Cold War, with its threat of nuclear extinction, brought self-censorship to a new level.

Vietnam immediately became a different kind of war: Kennedy's answer to the "war of national liberation" that arch foe, communism, had been winning.

At first, Kennedy actually believed he could fight it as the communists fought theirs--in secret. How could you censor a war you weren't fighting? So Vietnam began uncensored and stayed uncensored.

But Kennedy could not keep the war small and surely not secret. He sent over escalating numbers of "noncombatant military advisors" who, from the get-go, engaged in combat. He sent over aircraft carriers laden with U.S. helicopters that sat moored in Saigon's harbor while his people denied their existence. Just as they denied the blond California boys in open view in the cockpits of fighter bombers and the Americans flying and manning the guns of the helicopters.

Inevitably, Kennedy ran head-on into the beginning of the so-called "generation gap" that would haunt the '60s and--or did Vietnam start both?--a massive sea change in American journalism.

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