It was early 1972, and I had just been named information officer of the 3rd Brigade (Separate) of the First Cavalry Division in Bien Hoa, Vietnam. My predecessor had finished his tour and had returned to the U.S., so I found myself in charge of the information office as a first lieutenant, a job that in a full division should have been held by a lieutenant colonel, and in a separate brigade by a major. I got the job because at this late date in the war no officer wanted anything to do with the press. Someone noticed I had two journalism degrees from the University of Missouri, so I was thrown into the fire with no training on how to be a military information officer.
The war had become extremely unpopular at home, and protests dominated the stateside news. As for the war itself, there was something of a lull. It could still be dangerous in the jungles and countryside, but guerrilla actions were the norm. There were no big battles or large operations like those that occurred during the Tet Offensive of 1968, including the infamous Battle of Hue; at Hamburger Hill in 1969; or during the Cambodia invasion of 1970.
The downsized remnants of the First Cavalry Division, based within an easy drive of Saigon, and the 173rd Brigade up north were the only American ground combat units left in Vietnam as President Nixon pursued a policy of gradual withdrawal. Reporters for the three television networks and major news outlets like The New York Times and the Associated Press were looking for stories anywhere they could find them. And finding them was difficult because the Army officers in Vietnam were committed to providing minimal access despite Army and Department of Defense regulations that were designed to provide ready access to troops and the news.
In the two World Wars and Korea, things had been different. In those wars there were “front lines,” and reporters were allowed to go there to work. Reporters like Ernie Pyle became famous doing just that. There were censors in those wars, and it was almost impossible to get a story home without going through those censors. But for the most part, censors merely tried to quash anything that might give the enemy an advantage, like troop locations or dates for launching an offensive. They gave reporters like Pyle free rein to write about the soldier’s life in the trenches.
Vietnam was the first real guerrilla war American forces had fought. The Army was struggling to find the best way to deal with men who faded into the civilian population by day and became enemy soldiers at night. And because there were no front lines, reporters were trying to figure out the best way to cover this different war in a far-distant part of the world. Getting to the fighting was tough.
To be fair to the military, some reporters were allowed to “embed” with units on patrol for a week or two at a time, but only after repeated requests. Commanders were reluctant to allow this because protecting an untrained civilian in the jungle could be problematic at best. Reporters, after all, were not trained in how to remain stealthy on night patrol through the jungle. Stepping on and breaking a fallen limb could give away a unit’s position and result in multiple deaths.
‘Five O’Clock Follies.’
It was quite a trek from Saigon up to Da Nang and the area where the 173rd Brigade was located, so by 1971 much of the press attention focused on the First Cav. The Army had put in place a system that required reporters to go through me to get access to the troops, and to get reporters to them I had to arrange for helicopter rides to fire support bases. I had no access to helicopters and had to beg units for space on resupply runs. With one exception, none of the First Cav’s firebases could be accessed by road, and to set foot onto any of them reporters had to be accompanied by me or someone from my office. Without going through that cumbersome process, they were dependent on what the Army told them at the daily press briefing in Saigon, widely derided as the “Five O’Clock Follies.” In short, the Army was committed to providing minimal access and minimal information, a modern-day attempt to censor. “They can’t write about it if they don’t know about it” was a common refrain of senior officers.
Because of my training as a journalist, not a military information officer, my first instinct was to follow regulations and provide as much access to reporters as possible. All three television networks had been pleading with me to set up an interview with Brigadier Gen. James F. Hamlet, the commanding general of the First Cav. He was an oddity at the time – a black commanding general. To arrange an interview, I had to go through Hamlet’s chief of staff, a colonel hell bent on shielding the general from the press. Multiple requests were rejected out of hand. “The general has never given interviews to the civilian press,” I was told, “and he doesn’t intend to start doing them now.”
I was frustrated, of course, and finally decided to see if I could go directly to the general with an interview request. As a member of the general’s staff, I had access to the general’s mess, where the highest-ranking officers in the brigade dined when at home base in Bien Hoa. From previous visits, I knew that the general usually had a drink at the bar before dinner. So, one night I got to the general’s mess early and sat down at the bar on the stool beside the one where the general always sat. Like clockwork, he appeared and sat beside me. He knew me, of course, because I was a member of his staff and briefed him once a month.
Persuading a general
After exchanging pleasantries, I finally said to him, “General, all three television networks are asking for an interview with you, and I think you should do one.”
“Why should I do that, lieutenant? You know I have a policy of not talking with the civilian press.”
“Well, sir, the Army is getting hammered in the press back home, and let’s face it, no reporter is going to do a hatchet job on a black general. It’s bound to be a positive piece.”
It took a lot of guts for a white guy from the South (I was raised in Tennessee) to make that comment to a black general. The general knew that and whirled on his barstool to face me. After a few seconds, which to me seemed like an eternity, he smiled and said, “Well, lieutenant, if I were to do that I couldn’t find the time to meet with all three networks. If you had to pick one, which would it be?”
“CBS? Why CBS?” Most military officers in Vietnam detested that network because of a negative documentary it had done called “The Selling of the Pentagon.”
“Two reasons, sir. First, Bob Simon of CBS was the first to ask. And if we know this will be a positive piece, what better network to have it on than the one most officers see as anti-military.”
Hamlet smiled and replied, “That’s good thinking, lieutenant. Have him out here at 0900 tomorrow morning. My office.”
Stunned by how easy that had been, I quickly thanked the general, excused myself and ran all the way back to my office, where I placed a call to Bob Simon.
“Bob, I got you the interview with the general. But it has to be at 9 o’clock tomorrow. Can you do that?”
“Sure. Can I bring a Vietnamese cameraman?”
“You bet. But nobody else.”
A ‘Buffalo Soldier’
Simon, who would later become a regular on 60 Minutes, appeared with his cameraman about 8 a.m., and just before 9 we made our way to Hamlet’s office.
“Bob, I got you in the door, but from there it’s up to you. He may give you only five minutes.”
“I’ll take my chances,” Simon replied.
The black general was indeed an interesting story. During World War II he had been assigned to the “Buffalo Soldiers,” a segregated unit that fought its way up the Italian peninsula. Hamlet himself had been awarded a battlefield commission, stayed in the Army after the war and later was licensed as a helicopter pilot. As commanding general of the First Cav brigade, he had transformed the unit since taking over only a couple of months earlier. He had ordered defenses of all firebases to be beefed up after his predecessor had let them decay badly. He quickly won over the troops, many of whom were black, and every officer I knew loved and respected him for the way he dealt with people. Those people skills would serve him well in his first-ever interview with a civilian reporter.
Hamlet sat on one of two couches in his office, Simon on the other. I stood in the background and watched as Simon and his cameraman went to work. Near me stood the chief-of-staff, constantly glowering at me and making clear that he was upset I had gone around him to get the general to do this. He finally whispered to me, “I’m not happy about this, lieutenant.”
“I was just following regulations, sir, which say that we’re supposed to help the press do their jobs.”
The colonel glowered at me, knowing that I was correct, but he still didn’t like the fact that I had gone around him to arrange the interview.
Hamlet calmly answered questions for about 50 minutes, then waited as Simon re-asked his questions for the cameraman, which was a common practice when only one camera was available. The questions with Simon’s face would be edited into the video piece before it was broadcast.
General calling in artillery
Finally, Hamlet rose from the couch, walked around a coffee table to Simon and put his arm around his shoulders.
“Bob, would you like to spend the rest of the day with me?”
I almost fainted. This general had been fearful of reporters, but he clearly had taken to Bob Simon.
“Absolutely, general. May I bring along my cameraman?”
“Sure. Let’s go.”
Hamlet, Bob Simon and the Vietnamese cameraman headed for the nearby helipad where the general’s helicopter was waiting. They were headed for one of the firebases to visit troops with the general serving as co-pilot to his regular pilot. Simon and the cameraman sat behind them and were allowed to plug into the radio system so any conversation could be recorded. I stayed behind, not wanting to interfere.
Fifteen minutes later, as luck would have it, one of our units encountered a platoon-sized unit of Viet Cong soldiers, and a firefight broke out, which rarely happened in daytime. The lieutenant on the ground called for artillery support, and the general himself began providing coordinates to a nearby artillery battery. It made for wonderful television – a general coming to the rescue of one of his infantry units on the ground.
Simon’s piece got an extended bit of time on the Saturday night CBS Evening News, and on the Monday after it aired Hamlet got 22 congratulatory telegrams from high-ranking Pentagon officials. “This is the best thing we’ve seen out of Vietnam in months,” one said, an opinion shared by the others.
The general, who earlier had been passed over for a second star, soon would be promoted to major general, largely, I suspect, because of Simon’s story, and later would command the Fifth Mechanized Division at Fort Carson, Colorado. I left Vietnam shortly thereafter, but before my departure, I was awarded a Bronze Star for Meritorious Service and an Army Commendation Medal. Simon’s piece had everything to do with that.
Vietnam low point
I tell this story because it shows that the military-press relationship in Vietnam did not have to be hostile. If the Army had merely followed its own regulations, things would have been different, probably much better. The Army contributed greatly to the negative perception at home about how things were going in Vietnam. So did the fact that more and more information leaked out that contradicted the official view that things were going well. They weren’t, and indeed we eventually pulled out of an unpopular war. In effect, it became the first war America “lost,” not because of our troops’ inefficiency but because of shackles put on the military by politicians. All were afraid of taking direct ground action in North Vietnam for fear of drawing China into the war.
So, for several reasons Vietnam became the low point of military-press relations. Guerilla wars were different—the Army was still learning how to fight them, and the press was struggling with how to cover them.
Both sides knew that something had to change, but for at least 20 years the military-press relationship remained testy. There was a 1983 military action in Grenada, in which the U.S. sought to protect American lives on the island after a leftist coup. The press was almost totally excluded, and tensions between the Pentagon and the press boiled over. That led to formal talks on how to make things better. A National Media Pool was created in 1985 and implemented for an invasion of Panama, but the military commanders on the ground were so ill-prepared to deal with the press corps that the concept resulted in a major failure.
The First Gulf War in 1990-91 provided a chance to improve military-press relations, but despite agreeing to an initial press pool system that was to be followed by more independent reporting, the military enforced press pools throughout the war. About 1,600 reporters went to the Middle East to report, but only 186 of those were accredited to be with fighting units. Further, the military reserved the right to censor all printed reports before they were sent back to the U.S. During the war, the military was savvy enough to release dramatic footage from the noses of precision-guided weapons as they neared and struck their targets, largely satisfying the public’s desire to see what was happening at the front while doing little if anything to appease frustrated reporters.
In a 1992 humanitarian mission to Somalia, the press actually beat the military to the ground because the operation was announced before it began. That occurred again in Haiti in 1994, when the military also allowed reporters to travel with military units, a process that led to the “embedded press” system used in the 1990s in Bosnia. Under that system, reporters were assigned to units, deployed with them and remained in the field for an extended period of time. That system also was employed for the incursion into Kosovo, but that conflict was a brief one, and the embedding system was never fully implemented.
Afghanistan, another guerilla war
The Afghanistan mission, still ongoing, created problems similar to those of Vietnam in that guerrilla activity dominated the action in a long, drawn-out conflict. As in Vietnam, reporters had difficulty getting to where the action took place. In addition, the most significant operations there are conducted by special forces troops, whose success depends largely on speed, stealth and agility. Protecting a civilian reporter under those circumstances was difficult if not impossible.
While operations of that type remain a problem to resolve, Operation Iraqi Freedom, which began in March 2003, turned out to be a huge success for both the military and the press, and it blazed the way for vastly improved coverage of large operations. The military agreed to a massive embedding process after realizing that in such a conflict it could use press coverage to its advantage. Moreover, the Department of Defense knew that after frustrating reporters again in Kosovo and Afghanistan, it was time to open up. In any event, modern communication systems had made it almost impossible to attempt censorship.
So, where does that leave military-press relationships in time of conflict? In my view, special forces and guerilla-type operations will continue to frustrate both the press and the military. The press will be frustrated by lack of access, and the military will remain resolute in trying to both ensure quick and stealthy movement of units while minimizing the chance of a reporter’s injury or death.
The good news is that in larger, more conventional military operations, we’re likely to see ample use of embedding. Ernie Pyle, I’m sure, would approve.
Brian S. Brooks is a retired associate dean of the Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia and served as editor of the European edition of Stars and Stripes while on sabbatical and leave of absence from 1997 to 1999. This story is the cover of the fall 2019 print issue of GJR.