The US military's leadership is almost entirely composed of graying senior officers who were assigned their first command as junior officers on the front lines in Vietnam. Many of the brass harbor a residual sense of betrayal and paranoia toward the media, a quiet bitterness underscoring the perceived truth that, form the military's point of view, the press, above all bears responsibility for the US debacle in Southeast Asia. Post-Vietnam presidents apparently have agreed with the Pentagon that the media needs to be culled, vetted, and locked down into tightly controlled pools during war-time operations. Nonetheless, since Bill Clinton became commander-in-chief of the US armed forces in 1993, the distrust and polarization that have characterized the relationship between the military and the media for almost 3 decades have slowly eroded. A cautious atmosphere of mutual understanding and symbiotic exploitation has matured.
A Positive Dynamic for the US Media and Military
During the Kosovo campaign this past April, I had the opportunity to ask General Hugh Shelton, the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to comment on the evolution of the relationship between the US military and the media. What do these two forces share in the "Age of Information "the Age of "Information Technology, "of "Info-Terrorism," and, as the military itself puts it, of "Information Dominance?" A month later, in Macedonia, a US Army field officer would confide to me off the record that Slobodan Milosevic was winning "the information ops, the perception management. He's the underdog," the officer insisted, "and everybody else looks like a bully ganging up on him." If you can breakup an alliance by somersaulting public opinion, he said, "You've won."
The Parallel War
There is a paradox at the center of the contemporary military-media dynamic, embodied by what pundits have labeled "the new military humanism." "The more you try not to hit civilians," the officer explained, "the worse the public-relations disaster is when you actually hit them." Every American soldier is keenly aware of how swiftly a public-relations disaster can mutate into military self-defeat. General Peter Schoomaker, Commander of US Special Operations, clearly understood this in April 1999 at the Special Forces' annual conference in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He remarked on Kosovo, "We're engaged in something here that has a lot more to do with information than with bombs dropped."
General Shelton, who was the original field commander for Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti in September 1994, began his response to my query with an anecdote. Shelton had been ordered by his superiors at US Atlantic Command and at the Pentagon to deliver a top-secret briefing to an assembly of journalists on the eve of the scheduled invasion of Haiti. The general had balked at the order; perhaps the high command had lost its mind, he thought, but he was finally persuaded to give the briefing.
"I don't like telling the media anything," Shelton said, "because your adversary will know everything." Yet the general was satisfied, and a little amazed, that not a word of his briefing had been leaked by those who heard it. Instead, the news was properly disseminated once the troops were safely ashore on Haitian soil and the news blackout ended. "The media was very responsible during Operation Uphold Democracy," Shelton concluded. "I've learned to trust them a little more."
The issue of trust will likely persist forever as a fundamental source of tension between the media and the military. The debate, once centered on the delicate balance between maintaining operational security and keeping people informed, has expanded to include the more generic role the media plays in shaping and influencing events, or "driving the story." In managing the Kosovo campaign from the Pentagon, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs was feeling the extraordinary pressure of the 24hour news cycle, as the frustration in his comments implied. …