PRESIDENT BUSH recently recounted to a White House reporter a grisly incident from his service in World War II, when an aircraft carrier crew member was accidentally sliced in two by a landing plane. Bush said he could still hear a chief petty officer calling for a broom to sweep the guts from the flight deck.
"I have seen the hideous face of war," said Bush, underlining his reluctance to launch what is certain to be a grisly war against Iraq. But if there is a war and if Bush has his way with media coverage, the haunting and unforgettable face of battle will be masked for an American public divided over the wisdom of such a war.
Under the guise of ground rules for reporters covering Operation Desert Shield, the administration is attempting to censor written and filmed accounts of any desert conflict while limiting media reports to government-controlled pool coverage. The ground rules would allow reporters to accompany military units only in approved combat "pools" and require them to submit all reports to military authorities for "security review" before transmission. Unplanned interviews would be barred.
The press cried foul, calling the rules censorship. But Pete Williams, assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, said the pool rules would stand and that reporters attempting to cover the conflict on their own would be detained by the military and returned to the rear echelon.
These press restrictions will enable White House and Pentagon spokesmen to dominate the initial and often lasting public perception of any desert war. From reporters in the field, the public will get a government-controlled version of the hostilities.
There is a long and proud tradition of responsible cooperation between the U.S. media and U.S. fighting forces. Hundreds of correspondents have gone in harm's way to bring back the reality of war. One thinks of Edward R. Murrow's gripping account of a combat bombing mission over Germany; of the harrowing dispatches of Ward Just and the photos by Larry Burroughs and Jimmy Olson from Vietnam. Many journalists, such as Burroughs, have lost their lives while carrying out their professional responsibilities to cover U.S. fighting forces in combat.
The most responsible guideline that the Bush administration could lay down would allow the U.S. media wide -- and responsible -- access to combatants, not in sanitized arranged encounters but as close to the time and scene of missions and battles as the troops in the field can facilitate without endangering the lives and security of the fighting forces. The model for spin control for Desert Shield was the administration's success in portraying the December 1989 invasion of Panama as a flawless, almost bloodless conflict. The Pentagon's pool proved a trap for the press.
Today, most recall Operation Just Cause as some murky film of night explosions at the Commandancia, the Panamanian Defense Headquarters; U.S. Army troops with loudspeakers outside the Vatican Embassy; Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega being handcuffed by DEA agents on a plane that brought him to justice in Miami.
Those images effectively erased the reality that 23 U.S. servicemen men were killed and another 265 wounded and seriously injured in three battles in the first day. Not a single photograph, strip of film or eyewitness account was published about the moments of combat at the Commandancia, Rio Hato or Patilla airport.
In muzzling the press this way, Bush is following President Reagan in seeking to minimize the political price of sending American troops into combat. Both have created the illusion of bloodless battlefields -- and pulled a con job on the guardians of the First Amendment as well as the American people.
The Panama affair included a flat claim by Army Lt. Gen. Tom Kelly, director of operations for the Joint Chiefs, that he knew of "no casualties" occurring during a hazardous low-altitude night paratroop drop. But even before Kelly spoke, injured paratroopers from Panama had been evacuated to San Antonio, Tex. One military doctor later called it an "orthopedic nightmare." A month later, the Army conceded that 86 had been hurt in the air drop.
Arbitrary administration efforts to keep the press from the story of Desert Shield begin much closer to home than guidelines for journalists in the Saudi desert. For example, it has been decided that there will be no solemn arrival ceremonies -- and no press coverage -- for any dead whose bodies are returned to Dover (Del.) Air Force Base, the Defense Department's military mortuary. Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney and Gen. Colin Powell, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made the decision. Said a military spokesman, Lt. Col. Rick Oborn, "There would be too many ceremonies."
That decision surfaced last September, after 13 Air Force reserve crewmen died when their C5A Galaxy cargo jet crashed on takeoff in Germany during the Desert Shield deployment. Their bodies were not met at Dover by a ceremonial band or a VIP delegation from Washington. This snub resulted in protests by the families of the dead crew and a special ceremony later at the crew's homebase, Kelly Air Force Base, Tex. When the press inquired, they learned that there would not be solemn ceremonies at Dover for any combat victims from Desert Shield.
Bush himself was embarrassed by an incident involving the Dover base during his Just Cause p.r. effort. It came during a White House news conference: A triumphant Bush was joshing with the press corps when network television unexpectedly split the screen to show mournful arrival ceremonies at Dover for the soldiers killed in Panama. The president later complained about the juxtaposition of images.
The Reagan administration's handling of the media during the Grenada invasion of 1983 cleared the way for the Bush policy in covering the gulf. The Grenada operation was recorded solely by Army reporters and military cameramen who provided official footage of the success. Civilian press was kept out. Several enterprising reporters who got to the island by rented motorboat were seized and imprisoned on a U.S. Navy command ship for two days before being permitted to file dispatches. The combination of common sense, common courtesy and open access that governed press coverage of the American military through two world wars, the Korean conflict and Vietnam was gone. Instead of staunchly opposing such controls, the press establishment has compromised. After Grenada, the media agreed to participate in a Pentagon pool: Ten reporters, representing the wire services, newspapers, television and radio networks and photo agencies, would be deployed with U.S. troops. Their reports would be circulated to all media. On paper, they would be given unlimited access to generals as well as grunts and provided top-priority transmission of films and dispatches through military communications circuits.
But the first use of the Pentagon pool in combat was a complete fiasco. The pool arrived in Panama hours after the fighting had ended at Rio Hato and Patilla and was barred from getting close to fighting still going on at the Commandancia.
The pool's main source of information turned out to be CNN broadcasts of Pentagon briefings -- from Washington. Later, calling it "all a terrible mistake," Cheney spokesman Williams ordered a study of what went wrong. It was conducted by Fred Hoffman, a retired Associated Press Pentagon reporter who had also worked in Pentagon public affairs. Instead of mistakes, Hoffman uncovered a calculated decision to keep the press at bay. "Cheney did it," said Hoffman, explaining how the defense chief simply cut out the skilled Pentagon bureaucracy charged with facilitating media coverage.
Even media requests for official military footage of the combat in Panama were largely rejected. "Combat photography is for combat use -- internal use," said Robert Hall, a Williams deputy. Hall has effectively derailed most media lawsuits to gain access to the combat footage under the Freedom of Information Act. But some of that official footage might shed light on a continuing controversy: the extent of injuries and deaths Just Cause inflicted on Panamian civilians.
The military's keep-your-nose-out approach to the media continues -- to the detriment of the public. According to Williams, Army Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the U.S. Desert Shield commander, has insisted that only a handful of reporters be permitted to witness a potential clash of a million troops in the desert. Williams's contention implies that the generals, somehow, are defying civilian control of the military.
Both the Reagan and Bush administrations have hidden behind military opposition -- even hostility -- to the media. But that isn't the reason for the current eagerness to restrict the media in combat. I think it is fear on the part of the administration that reports and pictures of combat in a desert war could have an adverse impact on American public opinion.
"Two things people should not watch are the making of sausage and the making of war," said Air Force Dr. William Burner, who has treated wounded in Vietnam and Beirut and in the aftermath of Panama. "All that front-page blood and gore hurts the military. We're guilty by association."
The power of images is manifest. The Reagan administration's Lebanon misadventure will be forever remembered not in the explanations of what the policy aimed to do, but in one stark photo: the blown-up Beirut barracks in which 241 Marines died.
Almost 23 years ago, a Jimmy Olson photo from Vietnam played its own role in our history. It was a picture of the bleeding and dead Marines sprawled on a tank retreating from Hue in the Tet offensive of 1968. When then-senator Eugene McCarthy saw the photo, he said later, he knew that "that was the turning point." The opposition to the war that formed around McCarthy's presidential candidacy drove Lyndon Johnson from the White House.
Patrick J. Sloyan is senior correspondent of Newsday's Washington bureau.