Misguided fire on briefings

By Richard J. Marshuetz

The headline caught my attention [“The new Five O’Clock Follies,” EA, April 23], hinting as it did of a parallel between the Vietnam War and today’s COVID-19 emergency. But as I read the piece, I was increasingly disappointed by the fact that it was not about war or disease but rather about briefings and people the author doesn’t like. There’s plenty of blame to go around, especially related to the Vietnam War, but I don’t see how that informs or does much but encourage more complaining and finger-pointing and a sense of despair at an already difficult time.

The author, Roger Bowen, doesn’t tell us if he was actually present at the Saigon briefings or whether he was part of the press corps who got similarly bogged down in complaints and blame. There was, of course, no war going on in the Rex hotel where many correspondents spent time, as there is no disease-fighting now going on in the White House. Maybe that lends itself to misguided thinking that complaining about briefings is some sort of substitute for news.

I knew the officers in Saigon who served as briefers in 1969-70 and I respected their honesty, bravery and dedication. They had taken the same oath I had, to preserve, protect and defend our Constitution, and they tried hard to do an accurate and responsible job, far from Mr. Bowen’s characterization that they dealt in “lies, half-truths and mindless assertions.” If his blame fits anywhere, it wasn’t the military briefings in Saigon. Many briefing officers had experienced combat or flown close air support or patrolled the waters of the Mekong. On periodic nights, in addition to their day jobs, they went on guard duty on the perimeter around Tan Son Nhut air base before going to work to prepare for the next afternoon’s briefing.

Audiences back home might have learned a lot more from them than from correspondents in Saigon, who too often neglected the basics of journalism — who, what, where, why and what’s it mean — in favor of grandstanding, lobbing zinger questions and diverting readers or viewers into inaccurate blame. Contrary to Mr. Bowen’s sense, briefers reported news as accurately as possible. Supporting them were a few soldiers, airmen, sailors and Marines who also knew the score because many had firsthand experience. They kept the records that many in the media relied upon to shore up their stories with facts about field operations, the identity of units, numbers of sorties, casualty counts and enemy assessments. Yes, the military preferred such terms as Vietcong extortionists to People’s Liberation Army tax collectors, but that seemed harmless enough, and I never saw facts willfully distorted, fabricated or hidden by the Command.

Fifty years ago, U.S. troops were giving their brave best in the face of a determined and lethal enemy. They tried hard to carry out fuzzy directions set in motion mostly by a president and his defense secretary who had failed to define what victory meant, had not thought through an exit strategy, had matched the enemy’s troop buildup instead of seeking to seize the initiative, had excluded the Joint Chiefs from much war planning and had often misled Congress and the public. Whether the war could ever have been worth the cost is a question Washington leaders did not pursue rigorously enough as they escalated U.S. troops from about 15,000 when JFK was assassinated in 1963 to nearly 550,000 when President Johnson left office five years and a couple months later. Should they have heeded repeated warnings by earlier leaders not to get into a land war in Asia? Seems so to me! But questions of that sort weren’t the turf of the Saigon briefings. As troop levels grew the media, too, had ducked the fundamental questions only later to descend into criticism, blame and self-congratulation.

Today’s pandemic is not at all parallel. Our leaders blundered into the Vietnam War; it didn’t come looking for us. COVID-19, on the other hand, arrived uninvited and is forcing us to deal with wide-ranging uncertainty about how virulent it is, how it spreads, how many have been infected, when we will have a vaccine and whether antibodies will protect us and for how long. Members of the media are in a unique position to investigate those questions and keep us informed. Did the President react too slowly? History will tell. Does he boast? Oh yes! But we long ago learned that and at this point it is irrelevant to the battle against COVID-19. Our focus today shouldn’t be the stuff of Mr. Bowen’s column but the sacrifices and promise of the front line people — health-care workers, first responders, those who provide our essential services and the medical and scientific experts on whose success we pin our hopes — while we stay safe at home in Maine. We owe them our gratitude!

Since Mr. Bowen drew one parallel, permit me another. Picture a time shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. President Roosevelt is meeting with a hypothetical press corps similar to today’s or the one Mr. Bowen writes of in Saigon. What would Mr. Bowen tell us about such zingers as “Mr. President, aren’t you devastated about the sailors who died because you failed to prepare us?” “Why do you call it a Japanese attack?” “Why did you stop oil sales to the Japanese when you knew that would provoke them?” “How could you have allowed so many battleships to be anchored in a line for easy bombing and strafing?” “How can you sleep at night knowing you are about to send even more fellow citizens to die fighting a better prepared enemy?” Back then would such a piece as Mr. Bowen’s have helped us mobilize for victory? The opposite, I think; it would only have cast doubt and added despair especially among those we depend on the most to lead us to brighter days!

Even if Mr. Bowen is only interested in highlighting the shortcomings of briefings, he might have examined the herd-like uniformity of media reports about complicated and many-faceted issues. In the Saigon of 1969-70, one might speculate that homogenized views came easily to the members of the press who spent their days in Saigon protected by U.S. troops and then sat through press briefings in the Rex Hotel before trooping off to the bar in the Caravel Hotel to decide how to report the day’s events. With deadlines approaching and since briefings could not counter their cynical outlook or lack of firsthand knowledge what was left to them but to take potshots at briefings themselves — similar to Mr. Bowen’s.


Dick Marshuetz has a BA in English from Syracuse University where he also earned a commission in the U.S. Army after which he earned an MBA from Wharton. His career included a range of turnaround and start-up companies, plus insider views of three Fortune 100s.  He was awarded a Bronze Star for service in Vietnam 1969-70. He and his wife live in Blue Hill.

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