You Go to War with the Press You Have

Helmut Sonnenfeldt and
Helmut Sonnenfeldt Former Brookings Expert
Ron Nessen
Ron Nessen Journalist in Residence

December 30, 2004

“You go to war with the press coverage you have. It’s not the press coverage you might want or wish to have.”

Perhaps Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld should have said that in response to Spec. Thomas “Jerry” Wilson’s famous question about scavenging for scrap metal to armor his unit’s Humvees. Actually, the episode’s press coverage could have used armor plating. A careful examination suggests the media uproar was shot full of holes.

First, it turns out the question did not originate with Spec. Wilson, of the Army’s 278th Regimental Combat Team. He was prompted to ask Mr. Rumsfeld about armor plating by a reporter, Edward Lee Pitts of the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Times Free Press. The reporter’s role was rarely mentioned in subsequent coverage, although on a few occasions Mr. Pitts was praised for using a soldier to get information from Mr. Rumsfeld that he didn’t think he could get directly.

Second, press coverage—particularly on television—provided a misleadingly truncated version of Mr. Rumsfeld’s full answer to the Pitts/Wilson question during a “Town Hall Meeting” in Kuwait as the soldier’s unit was about to ship out to Iraq.

This is the only portion of Mr. Rumsfeld’s answer that was — and is still being—quoted endlessly in newspapers and broadcast on television and radio:

“As you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

Mr. Rumsfeld’s response has been repeatedly characterized as an insensitive, brusque, disrespectful, insulting putdown. And that description might be fitting if that was all the secretary said in response to the Pitts/Wilson question.

Actually, here’s Mr. Rumsfeld’s full answer:

“I talked to the general coming out here about the pace at which the vehicles are being armored. They have been brought from all over the world, wherever they’re not needed, to a place where they are needed. I’m told that they are being … I think it’s something like 400 a month are being done. And it’s essentially a matter of physics. It isn’t a matter of money. It isn’t a matter, on the part of the Army, of desire. It’s a matter of production and capability of doing it.

“As you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time. Since the Iraq conflict began, the Army has been pressing ahead to produce the armor necessary at a rate they believe … it’s a greatly expanded rate from what existed previously, but a rate that they believe is the rate that is all that can be accomplished at this moment.

“I can assure you that Gen. Schoomaker and the leadership in the Army and certainly Gen. Whitcomb are sensitive to the fact that not every vehicle has the degree of armor that would be desirable for it to have, but that they’re working at it at a good clip.” And so on for another 117 words.

The full quote gives quite a different impression of Mr. Rumsfeld’s attitude than the oft-repeated mini-quote, “You go to war with the army you have,” doesn’t it?

But the worst shortcoming of media coverage of this controversy was failure to report virtually all the unit’s combat vehicles had already been up-armored by the Army and the rest were completed the day after Mr. Rumsfeld’s Town Meeting comments to the troops in Kuwait.

Maj. Gen. Stephen Speakes was asked about the armoring controversy at an hourlong media briefing at the Pentagon on Dec. 15. He said: “When the question [to Rumsfeld] was asked, 20 vehicles remained to be up-armored at that point. We completed those 20 vehicles in the next day. And so over 800 vehicles from the 278th were up-armored, and they are part now of their total force that is operating up in Iraq.”

A reporter asked, “When you say they’re 100 percent up-armored does that mean 100 percent of their requirement or 100 of their vehicles?”

The general responded, “[A]t this point the vehicles that they’re operating, that they’re driving, are all up-armored.”

Did you see that quote on TV? Hear it on the radio? Read it in most newspapers? Me neither.

Why did the media, except for The Washington Times and a few other papers, ignore the readily-available information?

Perhaps, we would guess, it reflected the critical attitude toward conduct of the war among many reporters. No doubt it reflected anti-Rumsfeld sentiment among much of the media.

And it may also have reflected that staple of journalism that reporters, editors and producers don’t like to talk about in public—a story that’s Too Good to Check.

Reporters then, and since, have ignored Mr. Rumsfeld’s full quote. And the media generally suppressed the Pentagon’s detailed explanation that the 278th’s Humvees were virtually all up-armored at the time. Why?

As the saying goes, you go to press with the story you have. And you don’t want a good story ruined by the facts.