Loose Lips Float Ships!

The military has gotten very good at using the media for its own purposes. I should know—I taught them how to do it.

As a public affairs officer in the Marine Corps, I taught military-media relations to commanders and staff officers. In other words, it was my job to teach Marines how to work with the media. To begin with, here’s what I usually said: “Think of them as an offensive weapon. Plan for their employment just as you would plan for any of your other supporting arms—your artillery, your close air support and your naval gunfire. They’ll be there and there’s nothing you can do about. It’s a fact of life.”

Though I am a Vietnam veteran, I never developed the stereotypical contempt for the news media nor blamed it for losing the Vietnam War. Quite the contrary, if anything I blame all of us for not having the resolve or the strategy to win. To the journalists’ credit, they did their job and reported the events of the day. As watchdogs, they reported what they saw and asked our leaders the tough questions of the day—questions about our reason for being there and inconsistencies in information released on body counts. Their reporting contributed to the decline in public support for the war as they challenged the information the Pentagon was releasing based on what they were witnessing of the war from the villages of Vietnam. Inevitably, public support for the war eroded as information from soldiers on the battlefield conflicted with the information the Pentagon was releasing. While public support can be a positive tool for a military campaign, it’s not the role of a free press to serve that end.

Maybe that’s why Australian journalist Tony Clifton recently characterized Vietnam as the most open war ever, which, he said, was “why the Americans will never allow such freedom again.” The American military has learned that giving the news media the freedom of unfettered access to information can adversely affect military objectives.

Today, the military has refined its relationship with the media to an art form. Since Vietnam, military planners have a better understanding of how the media can be used as a “force multiplier”—a force that adds to the combat effectiveness of the commander. That force multiplication can be employed to generate a positive image, to control the damage of negative images, and to help achieve military and political objectives. The learning process has been evolutionary and, at times, halting.

In 1983, the military denied the media access to the invasion in Grenada until the fighting was over. In 1989, during Operation Just Cause in Panama, the military was unable to get a media pool matched up with U.S. forces in time to cover any of the operation. In Somalia in 1993, the military was not prepared to respond to the impact on public opinion when images were broadcast of the bodies of American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. During the Gulf War, the military tried to control the flow of information almost exclusively through formal and frequent briefings by senior military officers.

When I started telling commanders in 1986 to plan for the use of the media as an offensive weapon, I did so with the intention of using that weapon against an enemy to win a battle. As a staff officer in senior base and operational commands, I was responsible for developing those plans. I didn’t see it as an ethical or moral dilemma, because the information I was providing the media was honest and truthful. But it was intended to influence the actions of the enemy so as to contribute to success on the battlefield. One of those battlefields was Los Angeles.

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