Monday, August 21, 2006

Why Did L.A. Times Reach Back To Vietnam War To Besmirch Our Military?

Going outside its regular staff, and reaching back to a controversial figure of the Vietnam war, the Los Angeles Times went out of its way on Sunday to rake over old coals and besmirch the American military forces at a time they are involved in a difficult, new war.

The articles, "Special to the Times," by Deborah Nelson and Nick Turse, raised the old case of Lt. Col. Anthony Herbert, who had alleged war crimes were committed in a unit in which he was an officer in the Vietnam war.

Herbert's credibility was severely questioned at the time, not only by military authorities but in the press. Many reporters who knew him, including myself as L.A. Times Southern correspondent, doubted his reliability, and his allegations were critically examined in a Feb. 4, 1973 program of CBS's Sixty Minutes program. Around the time I was dubious of the Herbert allegations, I was covering the My Lai cases of the U.S. military, and was generally critical of military rationalizations about those offenses.

The present articles, based in part on the personal investigations of the two reporters and in part on records of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group, which has compiled summaries of what it calls "300 substantiated atrocities by U.S. forces and 500 unconfirmed allegations."

Nelson is described in a short addendum titled, "About this report," as a former staff writer and Washington investigative editor for The Times and Turse as "a freelance journalist living in New Jersey."

I confess my feeling when I read these articles yesterday was that there was no good reason to dredge up all this material again. This seems to me to be another example of the press displaying insensitivity toward American interests at a time when the nation is involved in war against shadowy terrorists, and in conflict with countries like Iran and Syria which support them. Iran, according to recent reports, is providing many of the improvised explosive devices that are killing our soldiers in Iraq.

There have been, of course, allegations of atrocities by American troops in Iraq, and it is certainly proper for the press to explore those as part of the war story. It is also true that at a time of rampant sectarian strife between Muslim religious groups in Iraq, some Iraqis are quoted as feeling that they'd much rather be under the wing of the Americans than of their own countrymen. By far, the great majority of American troops in Iraq have behaved honorably.

Besides, despite what Bush Administration critics say, Iraq is not really comparable to Vietnam, in that the strategic interests of the United States are more deeply involved, and the consequences of retreat would be much greater.

Bringing up Vietnam again serves to adversely affect American military morale in the present conflict at a time when the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen. Peter Pace, has testified that morale is suffering.

"We are not out to get President Bush," the editor of the L.A. Times, Dean Baquet, has said, implausibly. The spirit of jumping on the Administration is, in my view, indirectly present in running these articles yesterday.

Are we next to expect in the L.A. Times articles about the atrocities committed by Gen. George Armstrong Custer against the Indians? I hope not.


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