By Jill Russell
I have known Bob Bateman several years through our mutual participation in H-War, another internet forum, and from that experience I have great respect for him. However, I must disagree with his dismissive critique of David Barstow's New York Times article. To the contrary, I would argue that the muted tones of the piece belied problems far deeper than would be inferred from his recent blog post. That retired officers are acting as the puppets of DoD in their role as network and cable news military analysts is troubling when examined within the historical context of the Vietnam War's effect upon the credibility of military officers and the subsequent decades-long effort to restore their reputation for integrity. Thus, if the NYT article deserves criticism (1) , I would submit it's for missing the real significance, in big historic terms, of the military "analyst" story.
It may seem almost heretical to suggest, but the single greatest casualty of the Vietnam War for the American military was not the damage done to cohesion and morale, or training and readiness. These are actually fairly common occurrences in the aftermath of any American war, successful or not. (2) Rather, the real tragedy of that war was the American public's loss of faith in the credibility of the military leadership. And although there is constant scholarly (and other) jousting as to the outcome and ramifications of the Tet Offensive, what cannot be disputed is that it was at this point in the war that the American people began to doubt the veracity of what they heard from their nation's officers. The constant repetition that the "light at the end of the tunnel" was in sight, that the war's successful conclusion was just around the corner, could not be squared with the events of '68.
Over the course of the three decades that followed the end of the Vietnam War, the armed forces worked mightily to improve their reputation with the American public. Consider the institution most damaged by this effect of the Vietnam War, the Army. According to John Brinsfield's 1998 Parameters article, "Army Values and Ethics: A Search for Consistency and Relevance," "no other army improved itself as extensively in the eyes of the public as an organization worthy of trust and support as did the United States Army between 1968 and 1991." Later in the article, he provides a measure of the distance traveled by the Army in regaining the public's confidence:
"A 1973 Harris poll had revealed that by the end of the Vietnam War, the American public ranked the military only above sanitation workers in relative order of respect. (And some said that the sanitation workers had gotten a bum rap.) By 1989 a Harris survey found that Americans ranked the military above big business, organized labor, the medical community, banks, newspapers, Congress, television, newspapers, and even the Supreme Court in trust."
Another work, David King and Zachary Karabell's The Generation of Trust: Public Confidence in the U. S. Military Since Vietnam, chronicles this development in even greater detail across all of the services.
The success of these efforts continues to this day. A 2007 survey by Harvard's Kennedy School of Government shows that the military retains the public's highest level of confidence. Even four years into an unsuccessful war, when the administration's reputation has been ravaged by the course of events, the military's status as a trustworthy institution has not even faltered.
Given this standing, the American public is prepared to put great faith in the pronouncements of military personnel, whether they are on active duty or are retired. The uniform, the legacy of service, the short haircut and ramrod posture, etc., all combine to form a powerful image of the individual's respectability. When they speak, people listen.
We must also remember that the audience's perception of these "military analysts" is that they are speaking to the American people based upon their professional expertise. This is clearly how they are marketed in their appearances. After all, "Pentagon Puppet" does not appear under their names when they are on air. Speaking from their professional expertise, their opinions would likely have been accorded a great deal of weight with the audience. And according to the article the administration appreciated the pride of place these analysts held in their incarnations as media pundits. The following excerpts from various points in the article make this clear:
"The analysts, they noticed, often got more airtime than network reporters, and they were not merely explaining the capabilities of Apache helicopters. They were framing how viewers ought to interpret events. What is more, while the analysts were in the news media, they were not of the news media."
"Mr. Di Rita, no longer at the Defense Department, said in an interview that a 'conscious decision' was made to rely on the military analysts to counteract 'the increasingly negative view of the war' coming from journalists in Iraq. The analysts.... and the combination of their TV platforms and military cachet made them ideal for rebutting critical coverage of issues like troop morale, treatment of detainees, inadequate equipment or poorly trained Iraqi security forces. 'On those issues, they were more likely to be seen as credible spokesmen,' he said."
"An internal memorandum in 2005 helped explain why [the military analysts had such access to DoD's power center]. The memorandum, written by a Pentagon official who had accompanied analysts to Iraq, said that based on her observations during the trip, the analysts 'are having a greater impact' on network coverage of the military. 'They have now become the go-to guys not only on breaking stories, but they influence the views on issues,' she wrote."
Furthermore, the burnished reputation of retired officers has been such that they are often used to speak on any matters related to the armed forces, whether their expertise warranted it. One example of this that I recall was a segment done by CNN with one of their "analysts," a retired Army General, whose charge it was to discuss how something done by Sen. Reid was harming the morale of the families of deployed personnel. (3) I sat there watching in disbelief, the family member of a Marine deployed to Fallujah, and I just wanted to crawl through the TV screen and throttle the man. Not only was he completely wrong about what affected my morale, but who was he to speak to the issue as an expert? I hate to break it to you military folks, but the experience of the family left at home is not your bailiwick. To turn the tables and make my point, consider: My husband has been to war -- does that make me competent to speak to what it's like to be shot at? However, I have no doubt that to many folks such a comment from a general, so shiny and pretty, must have had an effect on their thinking about the issue. I can just hear the conversation between John and Jane Q. Public over morning coffee: "Honey, I think Sen. Reid is correct, but what about the military families?" "No, we can't hurt them, think of their sacrifices!" "Yes, we'll have to rethink our opinion, because we care." "Yes, we wouldn't want people to think we don't support the troops!"
My original response to the piece was personal; I was peeved at having this general misrepresent my struggle and hardships. In light of Barstow's article, however, I have had occasion to rethink this episode. Given the administration's use of the "Support the Troops" mantra to blunt any public or official contradiction of the party line, the general's comments must be reconsidered. I am now left to wonder whether he was not broadcasting a DoD talking point meant to sway public opinion against Reid. After all, possibly the worst offense to the Yellow Ribbon Policy would be to harm military personnel via the demoralization of the families left behind. I feel dirty and badly used.
And this is the crux of the real tragedy of this story. The American public was being peddled the administration's positions as if they were the opinions of independent analysts. The audience had an expectation that these officers were providing them with a professional's view of information about the war, strategy, operations, tactics, etc. And that trust was betrayed.
Don't get me wrong. I think the networks deserve a swift kick in the head for allowing themselves to be the unwitting Johns to DoD's pundit pimping. And this certainly won't help their reputation with the public. But, in the end, the media is not my primary concern.
The real threat, however, is to the reputation of the armed forces and its current and future leaders. There is no separation between these retirees and the active duty folks -- the latter are affected by the actions of the former. The reputation of all officers will be tarnished if the public feels they were deceived by these analysts. Does anyone think it would be good for the country to return to the days when the military did not hold the esteem or trust of the public?
Alternatively, and far more scary, is the prospect for a more serious criticism of the officer corps at large. To be blunt, what do these activities say about the character of senior military officers? If they were —to betray the quality of their professional opinions in favor of scripted talking points, access to the powerful, and a fatter wallet, then what can be concluded about the development of integrity and character within the officer corps? I'm not at the point of being pessimistic in my answers to these questions. But I can't help asking them.
Jill Russell holds an MA from SAIS and is a doctoral candidate in Contemporary American Military History at The George Washington University. She is currently working to complete her dissertation, a socio-cultural history of morale and food and dining traditions in the American military. She has also worked as a defense contractor in Washington, DC.
(1) Quite frankly, I could care less about the money issue. To borrow Bob's mock horror, ooooh, someone tried to parlay prior government service to line their pockets after retirement, I'm so shocked. (I would prefer if they'd use their power for good, but that's another rant.) Nor am I bothered -- or surprised -- that the administration pursued developed such a program.
(2) I've just been reading a 1998 article by Brian Linn about the frontier Army of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, and he chronicles similar problems at that time as well. We all know what came of that -- victory in two world wars. I would provide a link to the article, but it is not freely available. However, those with access to JSTOR or similar databases of journals should be able to access it. "Long Twilight of the Frontier Army," Western Historical Quarterly, Summer 1996.
(3) A good indication of how utterly unimportant Reid's alleged perfidy was to my morale at the time is the fact that I can't even remember what Reid was being pilloried for in the first place. The same cannot be said for the general's comments.