Sunday, August 13, 2006

NYT And LAT Both Need Professional Military Correspondents -- Like Hanson Baldwin

At a time when the big newspapers can't seem to decide whether Israel has won or lost the war, been well or ill led, and many other critical details, or what to do to prevail in Iraq, I'm reminded when the NYT had Hanson W. Baldwin or Drew Middleton as its military correspondent. In short, when they had a real professional to balance off all the starry-minded correspondents who didn't know whether the bottle was half full or half empty.

Both the New York Times and L.A. Times badly need another such professional again at a time when war holds sway and understanding it is more important, for the time being, than understanding peace.

When my father was in the Navy during World War II, long before he made admiral, Baldwin was the NYT military correspondent, and a more hard-boiled realist you never saw. He had come out of the Naval Academy like my dad, and he couldn't easily be fooled.

Later, nearing the end of his career, Baldwin wasn't fooled by the Vietnam war either. Baldwin felt the U.S. could win the war, but only if it carried it to North Vietnam, landed troops well behind the enemy lines and took over the North Vietnamese homeland. Otherwise, he felt the U.S. was fighting too defensive a war and could well lose.

President Lyndon Johnson feared, however, that if he went north with other than bombers, the Chinese might intervene like they did in Korea. So Johnson continued to have U.S. forces fight with one arm tied behind their back. If we might assume his concerns about the Chinese were justified, Johnson never should have fought in Vietnam at all.

Later, Middleton became the New York Times military correspondent for quite awhile. He too had vast experience, as the longtime NYT correspondent in London, and he too was hard to fool.

When Britain got into the Falklands war, and its ship, the Sheffield, was struck by Argentine planes and lost, the New York Times' R.W. Apple, who's a good food correspondent but has always been a lousy dove when it came to war said he felt England would decide it had enough of the battle and quit. Middleton wrote that such a setback would only make the British more determined to win. Guess who was right!.

By these standards, we can see what the papers lack today. They have no one who could have told us, at the time, what was going wrong in Iraq from a military point of view. Now, it's easy. We have all these books like "Fiasco" about what a mish mosh our generals and the Bush Administration have made out of things, but these brilliant armchair analysts were mighty quiet at the time the mistakes were being made. Only a few seasoned generals, like Eric Shinseki, were right all along that we needed more troops in the country to crush the insurgency st the outset.

With people covering the Pentagon like Ted Sell in the 1960s, the L.A. Times never really had much military judgment on its staff, and Pentagon coverage has since gone downhill from there. The paper had an inexperienced woman, I'll be kind and not name her, at the Pentagon when the war with Iraq began. She couldn't even tell when the troops were going to move, much less where they should move and how many there should be.

Now, however, we are in a more serious war, with a much more diabolical enemy than in Vietnam, or even Saddam Hussein, and it's high time when these shortcomings be rectified. The LAT needs a good military correspondent, and the New York Times probably could stand having Thomas Friedman as a full time military correspondent rather than a columnist. Then the newspapers wouldn't be quite so clueless as they are now. They might still have lousy editorial pages, but at least they'd have someone on the staff, when it came to the war, who knew what he was talking about.

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