DEFENDING AMERICA
BY DAVID H. HACKWORTH
30 May 2000

"GET IT RIGHT OR DON'T WRITE"

In the summer of '98, CNN and Time magazine accused our Green Berets of using lethal nerve gas against U.S. prisoners of war held during the Vietnam War by the Commies in Laos -- a headline story backed up by eyewitnesses.

Within hours after the story broke, former Special Forces soldiers charged it was not only a crock, but that the star witnesses were imposters.

Before you could wave a white flag, CNN admitted it had been had by phonies and bad reporting. It apologized, sacked the press perps and silenced those who'd been libeled with some heavy dough.

Last September, the Associated Press reported that U.S. troops machine-gunned hundreds of South Korean civilians at No Gun Ri in 1950 during the Korean War. It, too, had its witnesses, and soon the rest of the media piled on. The Washington Post Magazine did a cover story, NBC interviewed the key witness, and many newspapers ran the story.

Now the main witness, Edward L. Daily, turns out not to be a highly decorated front-line machine gunner as claimed, but a grease monkey in a rear-echelon outfit. At least as far as he can remember -- he's on a whole bunch of pills for depression and emotional trauma.

Old-pro war correspondent Joe Galloway, who bothered to check out the facts, says, "I think in the end, when the investigation is over and done, there will be a lot more holes shot in the AP story."

No question something terrible happened in Korea, but it is sure looking as if the AP made an unfair call when it ratcheted up the incident from an overreaction of green troops to war-crime status.

The New Yorker magazine, in its May 22 issue, reports another war crime. The magazine says that in 1991, our troops shot up a retreating Iraqi Republican Guard unit after the cease-fire and, in a separate shootout, fired into and killed Iraqi POWs. As with the Laos and Korea incidents, there are American-soldier witnesses who swear the atrocities happened.

Once again, other major members of the press have been quick to join the fray. The New York Times, for one, was firing salvos at the 24th Division, its then-commander Gen. Barry McCaffrey and the U.S. Army before The New Yorker's ink was dry.

But one of the witnesses, Lt. Col. Patrick Lamar, who the Times claims was a "commander" under McCaffrey, was not a commander but a staff weenie who in fact was miles away from both fights -- not exactly an eyewitness. And my take is Col. Lamar will end up as credible as the key witnesses to the Laos and Korea flaps -- wannabes or malcontents with axes to grind. Or soldiers who just don't understand the confusion -- the fog of war -- that's standard drill in battle.

When Brig. Gen. Sam Marshall and I wrote the "Vietnam Primer," for example, we frequently interviewed soldiers in Vietnam right after a combat action. Often we'd talk to five men who were in the same platoon only yards away from each other during the same fight -- and all five would give different stories.

Or try writing something 10 years after the event, as with the Gulf War piece. The reporter might think he's getting the straight skinny, but meanwhile he's listening to an oft-told war tale, more fiction than fact.

Unfortunately, as I found out when I was at Newsweek magazine, few reporters have the military training to help them sort out the facts. No big surprise; it's been almost 30 years since the draft. Which could explain why so many editors and reporters become more adversarial than is warranted and end up with egg on their face. They're into the "gotcha" game, so eager to attack our armed forces that they'll run with a supposed scoop without doing enough homework.

The errors become compounded when others in the media simply copycat the negative story without doing what Joe Galloway did -- some digging.

Not that the gotcha game is anything new. The media's job is to get the story, and as we all know, valentines don't make headlines.

Unfortunately, the primary casualties are not the Pentagon or the press, but rather the brave soldiers who've stood tall for our country and now find themselves getting cut down by totally off-target fire.