The door of the Air Force plane cranked open as the cargo craft skimmed low off the coast of South Vietnam and out flew about 80,000 copies of Gen. William C. Westmoreland's command information newspaper, tumbling in bales into the South China Sea.
"They just exploded when they hit the water," said the sergeant from our office who had helped push the newspapers out of the C-130. The MACV information officer-in-charge had decided that it was better that the latest edition of the Observer decompose along the ocean floor than fall into the hands of the 500,000 or so U.S. troops who weekly read the military paper in the war zone. Why, exactly?
The banner headline of the newspaper was supposed to announce the establishment of a "VN" (Vietnamese) agricultural bank, but somehow the printer in Tokyo had written "VC" (Viet Cong) instead of "VN."
This misprint would not have been a major calamity in a normal newspaper, since the story clearly did not support the erroneous headline. Winning the hearts and minds of the villagers did not require the Viet Cong to set up agricultural banks financed by the United States. Ordinarily, a correction in the next edition might have sufficed. But this was military journalism, so-called, where the most trivial of matters was often magnified and played up in an idiotic manner.
Dumping the papers ended a hectic period of meetings among high-ranking officers, of our jeep dashing across Tan Son Nhut Air Base to hold the Observers at the distribution point, and finally of chartering the Air Force cargo plane to drop them into the water.
This Vietnam experience came back to me when I heard that the U.S. military has been planting stories in Iraq newspapers. Having survived training as a U.S. Army journalist, I can report that this military specialty resembles the real thing about as much as Army food resembles food.
In Iraq these days, the U.S. military is reportedly spending millions of dollars planting stories and paying local journalists to write friendly coverage in Arabic newspapers. The Pentagon sublets this propaganda work to a firm called the Lincoln Group, according to the Los Angeles Times, which then places the stories in Iraq media without informing readers that the U.S. government is the actual source. This military scheme sounds remarkably like the one Karl Rove and other agit-prop specialists have successfully used to plant positive coverage in major media outlets within the Unites States. Nonetheless, the military approach to journalism deserves a special look.
The MACV Observer, Westmoreland's command newspaper, related only the most potable of truth within its pages. The Air Force colonel who welcomed me to the newspaper staff stated flatly that the Observer was designed chiefly to build morale. "And don't give me any of that William Allen White crap," he said referring to the late crusading editor of the Emporia (Kansas) Gazette.
With the crusading left to the soldiers, the prose in the Observer was starched, sanitized and wrung out before printing. Most of the articles were sent to us in the Saigon office from field units, and they were scoured for blemishes by editor-officers up the chain. As with the "VC" disaster, sometimes the system would fail.
Once, when the photo of a soldier of the U.S.-friendly South Vietnamese forces appeared with a live duck protruding from his backpack, a colonel went ballistic. Since the soldiers were not rationed live ducks, the U.S. colonel complained that the photograph suggested that this ally of the U.S. appropriated the duck from villagers during military operations. The fact that in all likelihood the soldier had indeed stolen the duck was apparently quite beside the point.
The "Vietnamization" of the war that former Defense Secretary Melvin Laird held up last week as an example for us to follow now in Iraq never saw the South Vietnamese puppets take over the strings from their U.S. masters. These VN rabbits, however, were tigers in the Observer - where the South Vietnamese soldier fought as one part Prussian to two parts Gurkha.
Then there were the euphemisms. American soldiers were not mere fighters, and certainly not occupiers, but "guests" of the South Vietnamese. Tear gas used by U.S. forces was "an anti-riot agent," as though the Vietnam War was a street disturbance. In such cases, the cause is best served by simply sweeping everything under the rug, as when U.S. forces recently used white phosphorous bombs in Fallujah. This resort to chemical warfare echoes those persistent charges the Bush administration made against Saddam Hussein.
And so the utensils of the military "journalist" are being again polished in Iraq. A chief trick that bears watching, and we heard it in President George W. Bush's "Plan for Victory" speech Wednesday, is the repeated use of limited truth to project an image of unlimited grandeur.
Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.