the gulf war
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Q: Handling the press Can you talk about the military strategy for handling them ....

Atkinson: Well, many of the military commanders involved in Desert Storm believed that the press had been a prime contributor to the loss in Vietnam. That the press, by negative reporting, tended to undermine support for the U.S. military at home. That if the press had not been agents of the loss in Vietnam, they had at least been agents of the loss of esteem towards the U.S. military. The general approach toward the press in the Gulf War was to impose restrictions that were more like the restrictions that had been imposed in Korea and in World War II than the free flowing autonomy that was largely given to reporters in Vietnam where you go out and get on a helicopter and go wherever you wanted. There were restrictions. You had to have an escort, you had to have signed an agreement that you would not disclose certain kinds of information. Sensitive operations were screened from the press completely. Access to key participants was tightly regulated. There were 1400 reporters in Saudi Arabia. That's four times as many as there were in Vietnam at the peak of the war there. Obviously some kinds of restriction were necessary, some effort to corral this brigade of reporters who showed up were warranted. Nevertheless, I think it can be argued that there was an effort to restrict what was reported in ways that probably didn't serve the American public well in the long run.

Q: What do you mean?

Atkinson: I think people came away believing that this war was basically bloodless. That it was a sanitary exercise in which no one was really hurt, no one really died. And I think that that's dangerous. I think it makes it easier to go to war the next time. That it devalues the human suffering that war always brings. And that particularly for a superpower it ought to be always very, very difficult to pull the trigger. And anything that makes it easier to pull the trigger, such as believing that war is essentially an operation in which nobody really dies, is hazardous.

Q: And General Powell's view on the press?

Atkinson: Powell had a more sophisticated view of reporters and the media in general. He recognized that the media was, for one thing, a very important part of his arsenal. He would tell young officers in speaking to them before the war, that once you've taken care of all of the military issues then worry about television, because you can win the battle and lose the war through television. So Powell realized that it was necessary to feed the press regularly. That the press needed information. And he recognized also the use to which television could be put in elevating people like Colin Powell in the esteem of the public. Powell was very good on television, Schwarzkopf is very good on television. Colin Powell recognized that, and instead of trying to prevent television from showing Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell, he harnessed it as part of his arsenal.

Q: Could you give a thumbnail sketch of the press corps there?

Atkinson: Well, there were about 1400 reporters in Saudi Arabia. In many cases the gap that had developed between, particularly the American military and the American press corps was illustrated in Saudi Arabia at this point. Very few reporters had direct military experience. Very few were personally cognizant of the American military culture. They didn't understand it. There was a belief among many military officers that these are dilettantes, that these are people who really didn't understand either what the military was about or what the military believed in. On the other hand there were great frustrations that the reporters had. Many of them were bottled up in hotel rooms in Dhahran and Riyadh watching the war on CNN, tremendously frustrated. And a belief that the military was bending over backwards to be as unhelpful as possible. So there was an antipathy that developed that was pretty poisonous early on.


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