Pentagon Gamble Pays Off – So Far

April 7, 2003

To fully grasp the boldness of the Pentagon’s media strategy—encouraging 600 or so journalists from all over the world to “embed” with our troops in Iraq—it is useful to quickly jump back a few wars to Vietnam.

Reporters in Vietnam were free to roam, write, film and photograph at will. The United States lost the war. Ergo, must have thought military planners, in the next war we will be very cautious about having the nattering press wandering around the war zone.

Fast forward to the Persian Gulf war in 1991, and sure enough we see the most restrictive press policy ever: censorship on the battlefield with reporters’ copy cleared by military officers and information otherwise delivered via the generals’ televised briefings, using carefully selected videotapes. The United States won the war. Ergo, thought the military, how much better can it get?

Indeed, the Afghan war perfected the briefing system. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, articulate and quick-witted, became something of an icon around the world while the journalists served as props in his presentations.

The brilliance of the present embedding strategy is that the military abandoned a design that had been so successful, realizing that what had worked in Gulf War I was probably going to be ill-fitting in Gulf War II.

Why? Because in 1991 we were universally recognized as the good guys. Today we face a world that is often very hostile and certainly skeptical of information that comes through the U.S. government.

By allowing what Ted Koppel calls “a total convergence of access and satellite technology,” we now see this war through the eyes of the journalists. The military’s media strategy changed the messengers. The messengers became the press rather than the Pentagon.

This had a very positive effect for the Bush administration even before hostilities began. The embedded reporters’ troop stories looked very Main Street America, contributing to high public opinion support for the war.

Still, it strikes me that this was a media strategy deliberately designed for a war that would be short and antiseptic. How well will it work for the government if the war turns out to be neither? The question, of course, is not only about what Americans are seeing, but also what is seen by the rest of the world.

My gut feeling is that the televised, real-time battlefield coverage is having a house of mirrors effect: Good news is becoming great news, bad news is becoming horrendous news. One consequence, reflected in public opinion polls, is that those coming from a pro-war point of view become even more so and those who come from an antiwar point of view more so. The divide widens.

The other obvious consequence of embedding is that we have been allowed to have more information, and faster, than we have ever had from a battlefield in history. Imagine if we could have had “total convergence of access and satellite technology” at Waterloo or Antietam.

Unfortunately, then as now, we would have to wait for those who connect the dots, who put the pieces together into a coherent whole, to help us understand what it really means.