First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Why We Need a Free Press During Wartime
I just finished reading John Mosier's brilliant history of World War I: The Myth of the Great War:How the Germans Won the Battles and the Americans Saved the Allies.
This is military history, so there are lots of descriptions of campaigns in which you have to keep track of the names and numbers of dozens of military groupings as they move through a landscape which you do not know and for which the maps in the book are ridiculously inadequate and uninformative.
The secret is not to care where anything is or which military group did it. Just read the story -- which is more than adequately clear.
The real value of this revisionist history is that it straightens out a record long distorted by the propagandists of the British and French armies.
Indeed, the cruelest truth about World War I is not the outrageous stupidity of the British and French leadership (with the exception of Churchill among the British politicians and Petain among the French commanders) nor even their monstrous disregard for the lives of their own soldiers -- but rather that they were largely successful at covering up their nearly unbroken string of needless failures by declaring them to be victories, while concealing the brilliant successes and superior weapons, training, tactics, and strategy of the Germans.
What is most outrageous is that the French and British leadership apparently believed their own lies, planning each campaign as if their lies about the previous one had been the truth, so that, with the exception of Petain and a few junior commanders, they learned almost nothing from the beginning to the end of a war in which their enemies showed them repeatedly how such a war ought to be fought.
After reading this book, one is left with the indelible impression that a free press is vital during wartime. If the careerist dimwits who were running the British and French military had been exposed in the press for the utter failures they were, if their defeats had been correctly reported instead of being masked as victories, or if their absurd and unnecessary collapses had not been passed off as "heroic defenses," then these buffoons might have been replaced by the junior officers who actually knew how to fight the war and kept begging for chances to take the actions that might have led to victory.
When the American Expeditionary Force arrived in France and was very effectively trained by the cream of the French military, the lying did not stop. Even though on the ground it was obvious that the Americans were the only allied force with soldiers able to beat the Germans and with commanders consistently smart enough to know when and where to use them, the British and French leadership made sure to tell the story that the Americans only "helped" defeat a Germany that they had already worn down and beaten up.
The opposite was true. Germany had worn down and beaten up the French and British to the point where they couldn't even mount a meaningful offensive, and if the Americans had not been there the allies would have flat-out lost the war. The Germans knew it, the Americans knew it, and the British and French knew it -- but the French and British war historians followed what was said by the failed leadership when they wrote their memoirs, and reported the American role as merely "helpful" rather than "decisive."
A free press would have prevented all this nonsense, and probably would have saved a million lives.
And yet a free press during wartime is also the single most dangerous tool in the enemy's arsenal.
This seeming contradiction is actually the obvious truth, if you think about it.
War really is hellish, and if the press reports it faithfully, the public will always be convinced -- even in the midst of victory -- that it is not worth fighting. The only exception is when the enemy is invading the nation's home territory, at which point no sacrifice is too great.
But one of the great blessings America has had for the past century and a half is that since the Civil War, there has been no real combat on American soil. We have fought our wars overseas, which, when you have to fight, is by far the preferable place to fight them.
If you can defeat your enemy on his own soil, it is the enemy's industry and transportation and agriculture that are destroyed, the enemy's people who are dislocated, the enemy whose innocent civilians are killed or maimed by the accidents -- or deliberate atrocities -- of war.
During wars fought on foreign soil, however, an unrestricted press can be devastating to morale. We get full reports on the accidental bombing of a wedding, for instance, or disturbing stories about how the militarily valid assault on a commander's vehicle also killed his family, who were riding with him. Pretty soon our own press makes us look like the bad guys.
This is mostly because our press only has access to the mistakes, failures, and atrocities committed by our side. So even though the enemy might be doing far more damage, might be making no effort at all to avoid civilian casualties, might even be deliberately targeting civilians, with atrocities as the official policy -- our press only occasionally has enough facts to tell that story.
And because the free press is aware of the efforts of our military commanders to spin the news to make themselves look better, they become quite skeptical of the official story. This shows up in their reporting, so that when we are victorious, and when we really did go to heroic lengths to avoid civilian casualties, the press is likely to take such positive stories with a grain of salt -- while reporting the enemy's version impartially.
It's not long before the public starts asking: What kind of monsters are we, that we can do such things?
Well, we're the kind of monsters who would rather not have such things happening on American soil -- because there is no such thing as a war in which such things don't happen somewhere.
Remember back in the Gulf War, when it was reported that armored vehicles equipped with bulldozer blades had simply buried enemy soldiers in their own trenches? What an unspeakable, terrible thing to do to those poor Iraqi soldiers. Nobody should have to die by smothering in dirt, right?
Except that the press didn't make much effort to report the alternative methods of clearing out the enemy trenches, which would have involved the ever unpopular napalm or -- more likely -- having our infantry clear the trenches in bloody combat that would have killed many, many Americans.
Since killing Iraqi soldiers was an essential step toward reaching our goal, does it really make a difference whether a bullet tore a hole in the enemy soldier's body, napalm burned him alive, or he got buried and suffocated under the dirt of his own trenches? None of these actions is "nice" and nobody likes reading about any of them, or thinking of the fact that our side did it.
But you know what the public hates worse? Reading the name of someone they love in the lists of war dead. And even in victory, the only way to keep up the will to win -- that elusive thing called morale -- is by keeping the progress of the war at the front of the public consciousness, and keeping the cost of the war in death and suffering well to the back.
When the press supports a war, they tell the story that way; when they don't, they reverse it and do their best to hurt morale. Naturally, the military, charged with winning the war, comes to think of the press as an adjunct of the enemy.
There has to be censorship of the news during war, because the press does not think like the military and almost never realizes just how much vital information the enemy can gain from their uncensored broadcasts and news stories.
Still, I believe that if we err, we must err on the side of press freedom.
I say this in full knowledge that our press establishment is openly hostile to the Bush administration and slants every story so it is as embarrassing to the government as possible.
(Just look how they're slanting the coverage of the economy, which is actually in a full-blown recovery. Lying about the economy got Clinton elected in '92, and the press clearly hopes that lying about the recovery will help elect Democrats to Congress in '02. Do you think their war coverage is any less slanted?)
It is vital to us -- and, dare I say it, to the world at large -- that we carry this war forward to victory. And yet, even though the press seems determined to prevent President Bush from building the public consensus essential to victory, I believe that in the long run, the balance should tilt toward freedom for even a biased press.
Because truth is the best defender of freedom. Our citizenry unites to fight a war only when we believe the war is right and necessary, and if our leadership seems to be trying to hide the truth from us, we no longer trust them and consensus becomes impossible.
Bitter and ugly truths should never wait for the press to discover them, and should never be hidden. We should hear our president and our other civilian and military leaders tell us straight out, with no effort to conceal.
Only then will they maintain our trust, so that they can ask us for further sacrifices and we'll believe they are needed.
And only then will the press be defanged, because they can't make an expose out of what the administration told us first.
The cost of a (relatively) free press that almost exclusively serves the domestic opposition is very high. But the cost of not having a free press is even higher.
Copyright © 2002 by Orson Scott Card.
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