- Historic Sites
The Media And The Military
July/August 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 4
Soon after the American troops started to move toward the desert, media attention began to focus on the arresting personality of “Stormin’ Norman” Schwarzkopf. An indication of how poorly the media have been covering the military beat for the last twenty years is the scant information the public had on Schwarzkopf when he took command. In a perceptive article in the Washington Monthly , Scott Shuger pointed out that the press, which was so interested in getting a line on the judicial thinking of the Supreme Court nominee David Souter that it dug up his college thesis, didn’t know anything about the military philosophy of any of the top brass and seemed not to care. This situation is changing now that the media are interested in generals again, and General Schwarzkopf, riding a tidal wave of popularity, may learn to miss the days when he led a life of relative obscurity. The dust had hardly settled in the desert when negative stories about the general began to circulate. He is an attention grabber who thinks he planned Desert Storm all by himself. He is loath to give credit to his field commanders and quick to relieve any staff officer who disagrees with him. A joke going around the planning staff in Riyadh a few weeks back ran:
“Who is the second most hated man in the Middle East?”
None of this is necessarily a mark against Schwarzkopf. It is the inevitable backlash that goes with prominence. Certainly, when compared with the kinds of stories that were circulated about Sherman and Grant, these are small potatoes. Politicians understand such things. Generals don’t.
Within days of the cease-fire, the surefooted Schwarzkopf made his first bobble in traversing the treacherous shoals of politics. In the last days of Desert Storm, coalition forces were smashing up elements of the fleeing Iraqi army. This is known as gathering up the fruits of victory. Killing the enemy’s men and destroying his equipment is one of the chief reasons why you fight a battle in the first place. The totality of the victory, however, seemed to sit uneasily on the consciousness of the television analysts. Jim Lehrer of the “MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour” suggested that the coalition forces were “shooting fish in a barrel,” and a local New York television poll declared that America was playing the bully. The next day President Bush called off the operation. In a television interview with David Frost, General Schwarzkopf made it clear that he had wanted to carry on the pursuit of Iraqi forces. Schwarzkopf was swiftly and publicly rebuked bv the White House and recanted.
It was an old scenario. First he said it. Then he said he didn’t say what he said. Then he said it was all the media’s fault for asking him to say what he said in the first place.
The beat goes on.