May 17, 2009
When President Barack Obama reversed himself on releasing photos of U.S. soldiers abusing detainees in Afghanistan and Iraq, he offered the usual "patriotic" excuse, that the images might fuel anti-Americanism and cost the lives of U.S. soldiers.
That argument has a powerful emotional appeal--especially when juxtaposed against the abstract counterargument regarding "the public's right to know"--but the truth is much more complex than Obama and other advocates for this secrecy acknowledge.
Indeed, one could argue that the sanitizing of war by both U.S. politicians and the press over the last couple of decades--supposedly for "the good of the country"--has contributed to the deaths of many more U.S. soldiers and foreign civilians than any disclosure might have.
For instance, during the first Gulf War in 1991, grim photos of charred victims of U.S. aerial bombardments appeared in Europe and elsewhere but not in the United States. The U.S. news media chose to withhold the most gruesome images out of a concern that the pictures might dampen the happy national celebration as war again began to seem like fun.
By self-censoring the photos--and downplaying civilian casualties in and around Baghdad--the U.S. news media also repositioned itself as "patriotic," thus deflecting the Right's longstanding criticism of the U.S. press corps for supposedly undermining American resolve to win the Vietnam War.
The "feel-good"- editorial decisions in the first Persian Gulf War surely made career sense for the well-paid talking heads. They could sit around with retired military officers and analyze the war as if it were a bloodless video game.
Though helpful for these stay-at-the-rear TV personalities and likeminded newspaper columnists, the flag-waving coverage of the first Persian Gulf War laid the groundwork for a political consensus a decade later for President George W. Bush to "finish the job" and overthrow Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
In 2003, many of the same U.S. news media stars reprised their cheerleading roles from 1991, again sitting around with ex-military men, sometimes using the first-person plural to discuss the looming "shock and awe" invasion, and making war seem grand and glorious.
As NBC's anchor Tom Brokaw proclaimed on March 19, 2003, in the first hours of the U.S.-led invasion, "In a few days, we're going to own that country."-
However, since those heady days, more than 4,200 American soldiers have died in Iraq along with estimated hundreds of thousands of Iraqis; the U.S. image around the world has been badly damaged; and the war's price tag may ultimately run into the trillions of dollars.
So, did the "patriotic" decision of news executives in 1991 to sanitize the image of war help "save"- American lives or "cost"- American lives? If Americans had had a more realistic sense of the barbarity of modern warfare, might more of them have resisted Bush's desire to invade Iraq in 2003?
In my three decades-plus in Washington journalism, I have witnessed the creeping opportunism behind this claim of doing "what's good for the country," which usually translates into keeping unpleasant truths from the American people and spares politicians and journalists from the difficult task of having to speak ill of some U.S. government actions.
This tendency extends beyond the battlefield, too. For instance, in early November 1968 when President Lyndon Johnson felt he was on the verge of negotiating an end to the Vietnam War, he learned that Richard Nixon's political operatives were trying to sabotage the peace talks as a means of ensuring Nixon's electoral victory.
When Johnson considered exposing Nixon's "treason," the President was dissuaded by then-Defense Secretary Clark Clifford who feared that the disclosure might undermine Nixon's legitimacy if he won the election anyway.