Friday, August 26, 2005

Beat the Press

On February 27, 1968, CBS anchor Walter Cronkite kick started the movement to end the Vietnam War. From his Nightly News broadcast:
...Who won and who lost in the great Tet offensive against the cities? I'm not sure. The Vietcong did not win by a knockout, but neither did we. The referees of history may make it a draw...

...On the political front, past performance gives no confidence that the Vietnamese government can cope with its problems, now compounded by the attack on the cities. It may not fall, it may hold on, but it probably won't show the dynamic qualities demanded of this young nation...

...We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds...

...To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past...

...To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.

...It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.

This is Walter Cronkite. Good night.

Nearly four decades later, Cronkite's words sound tragically relevant.

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I know any number of Vietnam vets who readily admit that their war was launched on a false pretext, that it was pathetically run by politicians and the generals who rolled over for them, and that they were pawns in a sinister game of power play.

But almost to a man, they don't blame the politicians and generals for the defeat in Vietnam. They blame the news media for turning the public against the war.

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Summer of '91.

Naval aviators gather at the Las Vegas Hilton for their annual bacchanalian celebration of the "warrior spirit." Late Saturday night, things get out of hand on the hotel's third floor when women are forced to walk through "the gauntlet." A female lieutenant presses sexual harassment charges.

Naval aviation is never the same again.

The media spotlight turns on Naval Air Station Miramar in San Diego: "Fightertown USA" and home of the Top Gun fighter tactics school. The Navy and the Pentagon both launch investigations designed to lay blame at the lowest possible pay grades. A local reporter cites "inside sources" to describe the lewd conduct in Vegas and the subsequent attempts to cover up. The reporter rises to national prominence and wins the Pulitzer Prize.

Careers end and Naval aviation tumbles into disarray. Congress throws the Navy out of Miramar and gives the base to the Marines.

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I wasn't at Tailhook in '91, but was stationed at Miramar at the time and witnessed the aftermath. It was insane. From the behavior at the Hilton to the witch hunts that followed, Tailhook exposed the malignant underside of naval aviation, and of the military in general.

I wasn't particularly thrilled with how the media handled the story, or the reporter who made his career by ruining the lives of more than a few good people who didn't deserve to get dragged through the slime. But at the end of the day, the media didn't create naval aviation's decadent ethos, or start the drunken brawl on the third floor of the Hilton, or conduct two phony investigations of the incident.

But, by golly, you talk to folks who lived through that nightmare, and who do they blame for it?

Yep.

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Around the mid 90's, Navy brass decided we were "losing the public affairs war," and established The Navy Office of Information to improve the service's media image.

Things went overboard.

I was operations officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt when it fought in the 1999 Kosovo War. One of my responsibilities was to supervise flying members of the international press corps on and off the ship, a duty that came to occupy most of my time. Over the course of two months, we hosted more than three thousand reporters--a number that exceeded the amount of combat sorties we flew over Kosovo.

Fortunately for us, Bad Guy's navy was such a collection of rust buckets it couldn't sortie ten yards from the pier. We would have been tripping over reporters while we scrambled to get to our battle stations.

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I couldn't say whether our public affairs war improved the image of the Navy, or of the military in general. But whatever gains we might have made pretty much went down the toilet when Rummy and the Yes Men rolled into town.

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Monday: Rummy lowers the boom.

6 comments:

  1. Tailhook. What a nightmare. Knew several guys who did not survive it professionally, including one RADM. It was insanity at a level I hope to never see again.

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  2. Jo,

    Where were you stationed when all that went on?

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  3. fourteen years later, a USA TODAY front page headline: "Pentagon: Academies set climate for abuse, Says culture devalues women in uniform"

    I'm curious, because I've never known anyone on the inside to ask, is it possible that women in uniform will be valued in American culture? or military culture?

    What has to change? Is it even possible?

    As always, enjoyed your post.
    Ariadne

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  4. Ariadne,

    I just don't know the answer to your question. My guess is that they're still resented, and will be for a long time.

    I hope I'm wrong.

    Jeff

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  5. Anonymous5:34 PM

    As an outsider (ex-Viet Nam era soldier) i was merely an observer at the time of Tailhook. However, i did see officers of several services at their best and their worst, in CONUS, Panama, Nam, and later in Hawaii where i was a patient for six months at Tripler Army Medical Center.

    Officers enter the service through the enlisted ranks, through direct commission (mainly doctors and lawyers) through ROTC and the service academies. i saw good and bad in each category.

    Generalizations are always suspect, but i observed that many (most?) service academy graduates often were far more careeer-oriented, whereas mustangs and ROTC grads tended more often to be mission-oriented. ("Let's get the job done and ho home.")

    Guys Who Fly seem to consider themselves as elite, and maybe they are. In some ways it's a lot harder than pounding dirt, and not nearly as glamorous. It's more technical, and requires specific skills.(How DID a dope like Duke Cunningham get through Aviator training? Jeff? Jo?)

    Another thing is that generally you fight alone, without a company, platoon, squad or stick to support you. That takes cran, as the French said.

    So I can understand the testoserone overload of Tailhook. And women who know what it's like have to be silly to go near it more than once. As I remember there was testimony that several of the women who complained and were later interviewed had been through the gantlet before. WTF?

    I think that's part of the problem about why women are devalued in a military culture, Ariadne. They don't have the testsosterone equipment. Studies show that women can fly as well if not better than men. They have as good if not better spatial awareness, and withstand g-forces one whole heck of a lot better. Flyers may or may not understand this, but they resent women in the "mens only" club.

    And Jeff, i'm not sure that women aviators would actually deteriorate the effectiveness of the Navy. Admittedly, i'm an outsider. You and Jo could speak to this better. But if you think your service's reputation took a hit with Rummy, how do you think you'll fare with Dobson and his crew calling the shots?

    Lurch

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  6. Lurch,

    You bring up many, many provocative points, more than I can address right now. Maybe I'll make a front piece page out of it later.

    On the "career" officer thing. I think you see two types of careerists. Those who want to do twenty years and see how things are going and those who want to be generals and admirals. Yes, most of the guys who wear stars went to one of the service academies, but there are plenty of exceptions.

    I'm going to leave the women in the military issue alone for now. I touch on it at some length in my great American military novel--let's just say that the way they were injected into aviation and other positions of responsibility after Tailhook was done poorly, probably creating more resentment than there was already.

    How did the Duke make it through flight school? Two words: monkey skills.

    I'll let Jo ramble on more about the Duke.

    Rummy and the Navy is another big issue I'll have to put off till a later date. I think the real issue there is between Rummy and the Army, and the fact that the line has totally blurred between military, political, economic, and social issues.

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