Here we go again. The country has been at war for 10 days, and already the government and the press are arguing about censorship, access to the front and the general flow of information about the fighting. The Bush administration has imposed the strictest rules in modern times on reporters on the scene, and the briefers in Saudi Arabia and Washington are putting out what seem to be sketchy accounts of the action to increasingly restive press corps in both places.
The government's position probably strikes most people as reasonable on its face. The Pentagon must control information to avoid helping the enemy; reporters often get in the way in wartime and must be kept in check; briefings have to be sketchy both to avoid helping the enemy, and because in wartime information is difficult to confirm. Those are the arguments made openly.
Behind these arguments -- each of which has some merit -- is a deep suspicion of the news media in the American armed services. Any reporter covering the Pentagon or the war has encountered some version of this suspicion: the media lost Vietnam, and we won't let them lose another one for us. That attitude is also understandable. Vietnam became an unpopular war, and the men who fought it were systematically mistreated on the home front. Some media accounts of the war were openly hostile to the military mission. More important, the media brought the news home that made the war so unpopular, and all of us in the news business know what happens to the messenger bearing bad tidings.
Gen. Colin Powell, a Vietnam veteran who is now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, summed up the government's position at his Pentagon briefing for the media Wednesday in just two words: "Trust me." Then he flashed a winning grin, and the reporters laughed, but they were not persuaded. Partly this is because it is our job not simply to trust government officials -- the essence of a journalist's obligation is to be skeptical. And partly it is history. However unfairly, Powell and George Bush carry a burden in this war that Lyndon B. Johnson and William C. Westmoreland (among many others) put on their shoulders. This generation of journalists has been misled before about grave matters of war and peace; we'd be fools to think it could never happen again.
Already there have been hints that this administration wants to put a rosy cast on events in the Gulf. Powell himself said that 80 percent of the bomber attacks on the first day of the war had been "effective." That meant that 80 percent of the pilots reached what they thought was their targets and dropped their bombs -- there was no information on whether the bombs hit anything. Fair-minded outsiders might think the military is exaggerating the size of its air campaign by speaking of 2,000 sorties a day, when any flight by any airplane -- a refueling craft, an escort plane that carries no bombs, etc. -- counts as a sortie.
But so far the system of providing information on the war has worked reasonably well. The air war is a hard thing to report; cloud cover did make it difficult to assess damage; we know we can't go to Iraq to see the damage, and most of us don't want to. We are not going to make a big issue about the government's information policy in the first 10 days of the war. It is what will come if and when a ground war begins that worries the news media.
Under the Pentagon's latest rules, no reporter will be allowed to the front except in a government-sponsored pool and accompanied by a military officer. All dispatches will be subject to "security review," which means they must be read at least once and possibly by several layers of public information officers before becoming available to news organizations in this country. One such report from a Post reporter with the Marines in the north of Saudi Arabia on the first day's fighting was delayed 24 hours, and thus was useless when it reached us. Another took eight hours to reach Dahran, because the Army insisted on driving the dispatch many hours across the desert instead of allowing reporters to file from a telephone just an hour from their location. And these dispatches were routine.
If ground fighting begins and Americans begin to die in large numbers, how much news of such events will reach the home front? How will Americans know what is happening to their soldiers in Kuwait? And what will the impact be on the military and the Bush administration if Americans are being killed in the dark -- without the news media providing full and speedy accounts of the action?
That is the key point. The American people are shrewd; they have an excellent record over the years in giving support to policies that deserve it and withholding it from those that don't. They can be trusted. If things start to go badly in Kuwait the government ought to realize that it needs to convey that news to home quickly and in detail. The most credible messenger to carry such news is the American press, for all its warts and imperfections. Any attempt to withhold bad news, or put a false shine on it will diminish the public support the military wants and needs. If reporters are hobbled by "security reviews" and lack of access to the front, Americans -- who are used to getting the full story -- will become suspicious. They will spread rumors. And some of them will never believe subsequent government accounts, because there will be no independent witnesses to confirm them.
Reporters do not want to report information that will endanger American lives or help Saddam Hussein. In Vietnam the military prepared a sensible list of topics that reporters could not write about -- precise locations of bases, future troop movements and the like. Any reporter who broke the rules lost his or her accreditation. It was a simple procedure, and it worked. Reporters were otherwise free to cover the war any way they could.
The media did not cause the public to withdraw its support from the Vietnam war; the government did. Johnson and Westmoreland kept saying how splendidly the war was going, but the Viet Cong refused to cooperate. The Tet offensive undermined the government's credibility.
You need not take a newspaper editor's word for this. The Army's own official history of Vietnam includes a volume on the news media that came to the same conclusion. "What alienated the American public, in both the Korean and Vietnam wars, was not news coverage but casualties," wrote Army historian William L. Hammond. "It is undeniable," he added, "that press reports were ... often more accurate than the public statements of the administration in portraying the situation in Vietnam."
"In the end," Hammond wrote, "President Johnson and his advisers put too much faith in public relations." Precisely. Americans may like a funny Diet Pepsi commercial, but on matters as serious as war, they are most unlikely to be conned by clever public relations. They want the facts, and if the government's restrictive information policy prevents them from getting the facts quickly from independent, tough-minded reporters, it's the government and its policy that will ultimately pay the price.
The writer is The Post's deputy managing editor. He covered the war in Vietnam in 1969-70.