3.when Generals Sue


War is hell—and so is the coverage of war. Gen. William Westmoreland and former Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, claiming injury as a result of press reports, retaliated with batteries of lawyers armed with videotapes, classified documents, and loaded depositions. Have the risks of soldiering taken on new dimensions in the last half of the twentieth century? Are the reporters, the editors, the publishers, the producers of recent decades so antagonistic that they provoke unprecedented courtroom battles? How else can a military man combat his detractors? Is a libel lawsuit the best way to counterattack?

Military leaders have been coming under fire from the press for some time. General Westmoreland is not the first to find his estimates of enemy troop strength challenged by journalists, and General Sharon is not the first to be accused of allowing a slaughter.

Without defending or excusing either the CBS documentary on Westmoreland (‘The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception”) or the Time cover story on Sharon (“Verdict on the Massacre: The Verdict Is Guilty”), one can suggest to these two generals that the media could have been employed to provide recourse and remedy superior to that afforded by the law of libel.

One hundred and twenty years ago Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman found himself assailed by various Northern newspapers because they considered his appraisals of Confederate troop strength and resolve to be unduly pessimistic. A New York Tribune correspondent wrote of Sherman’s “gloomy overestimates” of Southern forces and of “broad insinuations that Sherman’s mind was upset.”

A Chicago Tribune reporter criticized Sherman for what he judged to be excessive caution, a reluctance to engage the enemy: “I know not whether it is insanity or not, but the General…indulged in remarks that made his loyalty doubtful. He even spoke despondingly; said the rebels could never be whipped; talked of a thirty years’ war.” The Cincinnati Commercial elaborated on these criticisms of his Kentucky command, finding that Sherman had “frightened” Union men “almost out of their wits by the most astounding representation of [the enemy’s] overwhelming force and the assertion that Louisville could not be defended.”

Newspaper criticism did not stop with comments on Sherman’s judgment. The Chicago Tribune , for example, said he was “possessed of neither mind nor manners.” A correspondent who had written that the general’s manners were like those of a Pawnee Indian decided that he had been unfair; a few days later he apologized to the Pawnees.

It was, of course, more understandable that the enemy would attack Sherman. Southern newspapers condemned him for the burning and plundering that marked his army’s march through Georgia. The Atlanta Constitution wrote of his “inhuman and ferocious conduct” and the Milledgeville, Georgia, paper spoke of his “vandal hordes.” The Macon Telegraph called Sherman, who in 1860 had been the superintendent of a newly established military academy in Louisiana, a Judas Iscariot with “all the attributes of man…merged in the enormities of the demon, as if Heaven intended in him to manifest depths of depravity yet untouched by a fallen race.” Meanwhile, in a supposedly neutral country across the seas, Sherman was the “desolator of our homes, the destroyer of our property, the Attila of the west.” His policy of retaliation, of “devastation more or less relentless,” prompted the Times of London to describe him as “the modern Attila.”

It seems that every campaign of the Civil War put Sherman in a no-win situation. He was criticized as inept, as incompetent, and as a “stupid blunderer” when he didn’t win and as a “demon” and a “simoom of destruction” when he won too vigorously.

The New York Herald asked, “Was he caught napping or was he too eager for the laurels of the peacemaker?” and concluded, “Sherman has fatally blundered, for, with a few unlucky strokes of his pen, he has blurred all the triumphs of his sword.” The Chicago Tribune declared that in his negotiations for the enemy’s surrender, he had been “completely over-reached and outwitted” and accounted for his acceptance of the “pestilent dogmas which plunged the country into war” with the “hypothesis of stark insanity.” The New Haven Journal insinuated that he had been an accomplice to the assassination of Lincoln and had so arranged his troops as to allow Jefferson Davis to escape.

In an open letter to a group of friends, Sherman stated: “I am in public estimation robbed and stripped…. Next time I will think more of my own interest and less of the demands of a public that is so ready to believe all that is infamous of one who has ever been in the advance and unable to hear of the work of his traducers till months after they have effected their base purposes.”