3.when Generals Sue

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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.”

 

Sherman was convinced that he was a victim of the base purposes of traducing newspapermen. He was probably right. His brother and his father-in-law thought he should bring a suit for damages against the “scoundrels who have libeled you.” Yet he never employed a lawyer to gain his vindication or to seek revenge. He contented himself, as best he could, by writing (along with friends and comrades) long and categorical letters refuting newspaper charges, branding their “every material paragraph false.” In letters and wires to the War Department (his employer, essentially), he expressed his “dissatisfaction” with newspaper accounts of his conduct and disposition; he objected to these accounts being “construed to my prejudice” and referred to slandering newspapers as “engines of vilification.”

He offered explanations and justifications when time and war permitted, and he specifically addressed charges of derangement that were developed from his assessments of troop strength and needs: “Do not conclude as before that I exaggerate the facts. They are as stated and the future looks as dark as possible. It would be better if some more sanguine mind were here, for I am forced to order according to my convictions…. Our forces are too small to do good, and too large to be sacrificed.”

Sherman’s wife, who believed that the press had joined in a conspiracy to discredit her husband, had encouraged him to sacrifice some pride for cunning. Even though she believed there was a plot behind the “scandalous and slanderous newspaper attacks,” she asked her husband to reconsider his dealings with the press: “Why can’t you keep on good terms with them? They are very useful if you allow them to be, but if not they have a power for evil that no one can stand against.”

He saw newsmen as “pests,” if not “spies,” and she saw them as “tools,” whose work could be “cruel” or positive. In another letter to her embattled husband she again counseled appeasement: “You cannot stand up against newspaper power, alone, as you do, without being engulfed in the abuse. Instead of resisting it, why not use it? John Sherman [the general’s brother, who was a lawyer and U.S. senator] uses the newspapers and takes pains to conciliate them. … You must endure reporters.”

Sherman never really learned how to publicize his rebuttals. And while he objected to being disgraced by the press, he did not seek its praise, despite his wife’s advice.

He believed (in 1863, at least) that “personalities in a newspaper are wrong and criminal. … It is enough for the world to know that I live and am a soldier.” As for posterity and the press, his words of 1879, when he was commanding general of the army, are consistent: “I think we understand what military fame is—to be killed on the field of battle and have our names spelled wrong in the newspapers.”

 

William Westmoreland and Ariel Sharon contend that CBS and Time , respectively, are traducers that, while spelling their names correctly, got their stories wrong. If there is any truth to these allegations, then surely here were stories that other television networks and newsmagazines would want to pursue.

After the war Sherman wrote his Memoirs and presented them in 1875 humbly, not as history but as a recollection of events. When these recollections were characterized by a columnist for the Cincinnati Gazette as “intensely egotistical, unreliable, and cruelly unjust” and as the work of an “erratic General who thrusts his pen recklessly through reputations which are as dear to the country as his own,” Sherman offered his recollection of the columnist’s work during the war. He told the Cleveland Leader that this writer would “do anything for money” and would “slander his own mother for a thousand dollars.” The columnist threatened to sue for libel. Sherman stood by his assessment and wrote to the would-be plaintiff, “This is a hard thing to say of any man, but I believe it of you.”

Still, it was not his Memoirs but time that salvaged Sherman’s reputation. The reclamation actually began as early as 1861, when the Louisville Journal wrote that “in his dauntless heroism he is the equal of Richard the Lion-heart. His deportment at the battle of Bull Run … was worthy of the greatest hero of any age.” On a most sensitive and controversial matter, the Louisville paper asserted: “Sherman’s mind is probably unsurpassed in power and comprehensiveness by that of any military man of our country. … He has been deemed insane only by those who could not comprehend him.” Over the ensuing twenty-five years he was to find himself mentioned frequently as a possible presidential candidate.

One hundred and twenty years ago there were not many ways for a general to publicize his side of things. He had to rely on the sentiments or sense of fairness of a relatively few editors and publishers. Generals Westmoreland and Sharon have the authority to command and find powerful forums, on the air and in print, from which they can launch their media attacks or counterattacks. For a fraction of the personal cost of presenting a case to twelve jurors and one judge, these military men could take on their presumed adversaries in front of millions of viewers and millions of readers, without the requirements and restraints of courtroom procedure and etiquette. Even plaintiffs who are fortunate enough to win millions of dollars in libel reparations from a jury find that such awards frequently are overturned by appellate courts and occasionally by trial judges. Perhaps generals who feel defamed would be better counseled to pursue their offensives in the press, by using the media as suggested by Mrs. William Tecumseh Sherman. With the costs and uncertainties of courtroom battles, appeals in and through the media might give an aggrieved general more bang for his buck with less chance of self-inflicted wounds.

For a fraction of the cost of presenting a case to twelve jurors and a judge, these military men could take on their presumed adversaries in front of millions.