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Four reporters who challenged WMD justification for Iraq War to be honored

Shock Wave Movie Shock Wave Movie: A 'fake news' tale to justify a war

Editor's note: Although “fake news” has, for some, become a way to disparage the accuracy of news reports, support for two of the nation’s most disastrous conflicts was built on “fake news” fashioned by no less than the men who were presidents.

I was reminded of that with word of an event this week to honor four reporters whose continuous challenge to the President George Bush administration’s claim of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to justify the preparations for the March 2003, invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein brought them to ridicule from journalistic peers and public criticism.\\

Perhaps second only to Lyndon Johnson’s creation of what became known as the Gulf of Tonkin incident to get the backing of Congress to wage the Vietnam war as he saw fit was George W. Bush’s masterful creation of the need to deal with Hussein’s alleged stockpile of WMD.

But this column is not to focus on the public manipulation by presidents but on the importance of journalistic courage to counter such efforts as a pillar of Democracy.

Rather the occasion is that the four reporters, including my friend Joe Galloway, who were covering the preparation for war from the Washington bureau of Knight-Ridder Newspapers, will receive the Defenders of Liberty Awards from an organization called the Committee for the Republic. Also honored will be the 2017 movie about the four called Shock and Awe, a drama conceived and directed by Rob Reiner, who also co-starred as John Walcott, the newspaper chain’s Washington bureau chief.

I am using the occasion of the honor to reprise a column I did when the movie came out three years ago, again because journalistic integrity and courage need to be shared to be appreciated. Encouraged. And sustained.

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As I wrote in that March 2017, column, it's perhaps appropriate that a degree of attention has focused on a movie about four professional journalists who were certain, in the face of all the forces arrayed against them, that President George Bush and his administration had concocted a "fake news" tale to justify a war in Iraq.

The movie is Shock and Awe, the title drawn from the campaign of that name created by the leaders of the Bush Administration in preparation for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a plan built on the premise that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction. Of course, the term "fake news" wasn't part of our culture then, especially being applied to a president.

The movie, conceived and directed by Rob Reiner, has been described as "the politically charged story" about the four reporters from the Washington, D.C., bureau of the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain who first looked into the Bush Administration's attempts to tie Saddam to the 9-11 terror attack. Thereafter their some 80 stories followed a theme that the allegations of WMDs were intentionally inaccurate.
 
The understandable support for Bush and his build-up for the war from the general public and others was the nation’s need for some cathartic revenge against someone for 9/11, thus the focus on Hussein in the year following that disaster toward the attack on Iraq in March of 2003.

One of the four reporters was iconic Vietnam correspondent Joseph L. Galloway, then more than 35 years into his career covering wars and those who fight them and thus the voice of experience that the two younger reporters, Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel, turned to for help in finding their way through the fabrications formed to keep the nation focused on the need for war with Iraq.

It is because of my friendship with Galloway, both of us alums of the news service UPI, and because many in the Seattle area came to know him during his two visits to do Vietnam veterans interviews and several interviews he and I did, including the Seattle Rotary, that I decided to do a Harp about the movie.
 
JoeGalloway aJoe GallowayRegular readers of the Harp will recall that Joe Galloway has been the subject of a half-dozen Harps in recent years (Google Flynn's Harp: Joe Galloway).
 
Eventually, the four including Knight-Ridder bureau chief John Walcott, played by Reiner himself, came to be described as "the only ones who got it right," but before that, they had to weather immense pressure and scorn, not only from the White House but also from peer publications and some editors of their own newspapers. 
 
For example, there is the story of the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer saying bluntly that the tone of their stories doesn't "fit in." And Galloway recalled "There is a scene in the movie where Walcott confronts the Philadelphia editor for choosing to run ‘New York Times b.s. over our story.’ He taunts the editor with 'will you be running the Times correction and apology when that comes out?'"
 
It was after watching a Bill Moyers’ interview with the reporters that Reiner decided to produce a movie dramatizing Knight Ridder’s lonely work. Released in 2017, Reiner ends “Shock and Awe” with a news clip of New York Times reporter Judith Miller, a constant journalistic supporter of the Bush WMD campaign, admitting the media got WMD wrong – “except for Knight-Ridder.”

The movie includes Miller’s comments, as well as Sen. Robert Byrd’s moving speech drawing parallels between the lies that drew America into its Vietnam debacle and the falsehoods that would destroy many American and Iraqi lives in Iraq.

There is a perhaps ironic juxtaposition of the timing of the release of the critically acclaimed The Post, whose storyline about the Washington Post's publisher, Kathrine Graham deciding to confront the Nixon White House by publishing the Pentagon Papers, and Shock and Awe detailing a confrontation with a different president and more recent time. And a reluctance of the newspaper to be part of the confrontation.
 
In fact, Reiner suggests that the struggle he had to secure U.S. distribution for the movie might relate to his belief that "American audiences might not be ready to confront the subject."
 
I didn't think anybody in America could stomach it," Reiner said. "I don't think they can stomach it now, to be honest with you."

The start of the Iraq War and how its continuation has unfolded in the years since then may be viewed as too near to current political realities for close scrutiny of the legitimacy of the Bush Administration's campaign to go to war. In fact, the allegation that the WMD case built by key members of the Bush team was fabricated still draws outrage from some conservatives.
 
It's obviously much easier to take a critical look at Richard Nixon, or with Reiner's LBJ, released last year bringing a critical look at another former president, Lyndon Baines Johnson.
 
In fact, Reiner's LBJ screenwriter, Joey Hartstone, also wrote Shock and Awe, and actor Woody Harrelson, who played LBJ. Plays one of the reporters in Shock and Awe.
 
The fact Reiner was greeted with two separate standing ovations last September (2017) at the Zurich International Film Festival for the world premiere of Shock and Awe may have contributed to the firming up of presentation in this country.
 
The movie was the second time that Galloway will have the opportunity to watch an actor on the screen playing him. Tommy Lee Jones in this case.
 
The other was the movie We Were Soldiers, which was released ironically in the year prior to the Iraq invasion, as the film version of Galloway's book, We Were Soldiers Once...and Young, co-authored by Hal Moore, the commanding officer of U.S. troops in the battle of Ia Drang. Later events, including Galloway’s subsequent reporting, made clear that in November 1965, la Drang battle, the first between U.S. forces and North Vietnam regular army troops were the losses on both sides convinced Ho Chi Minh that the U.S. could not win, was the defining battle of a war that would drag on for another decade and claim 55,000 American lives.
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National Women's History Month: recalling women reporters in Viet Nam

kwebb_auspost_stamp

It seems appropriate for National Women’s History Month to reflect on a group of women who have never gotten their due, even though they eagerly went where all but the bravest men feared to tread?

I’m referring, of course, to the Vietnam War and the group of brave women reporters who decided this was their war too, in fact, their first war, and that they were going to a place where shared peril would be the equalizing factor.

In fact, Dickey Chapelle, a writer for the National Observer, became the first female war correspondent to be killed in Vietnam, as well as the first American female reporter to be killed in action.

That was on November 4, 1965, mere months after the first wave of U.S. forces had arrived in Vietnam when she was struck in the neck by shrapnel from an exploding land mine while on patrol with a marine platoon.Tracy WoodTracy Wood

A handful of those women journalists of that era were fortunate to work for a news organization, United Press International, whose top management recognized that talent and competitiveness were all that mattered. If women reporters could fight to be the best in UPI’s on-going battle with the AP for journalistic preeminence, why should they be denied the opportunity?

But sometimes the women needed to evidence a bit more ingenuity to get the Vietnam assignment.

So it was with my late friend Tracy Wood, who was a reporter in UPI’s Sacramento bureau in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s while I was running UPI’s Olympia bureau. So we knew each other’s names though we didn’t meet and become friends until a decade ago.

As Tracy once explained to me, "Of the more than 2,200 journalists who were accredited by the U.S. military to cover Vietnam between 1965 and 1975, only 70 of them were women and most of those went in only for a short time to cover specific stories, such as someone from their town."

"It was hard for women to cover the Vietnam War," said Wood, who was an investigative reporter for Voice of Orange County at the time of her death from cancer in late 2019, after years in the investigative reporter role with the LA Times.

"The military would give you credentials, but the leaders of the top news organizations were opposed to sending women reporters to cover combat. Magazines would use women reporters, but not the wires or big news organizations like The NY Times or WA Post."

Wood didn't get to Vietnam until 1972 when she was 24 and it took careful planning for a young woman who was a political writer for UPI in Sacramento to get to the New York bureau where her lobbying would be closer to the decision-makers.

Her immediate boss on the UPI cables desk didn't think a woman should cover wars. But Wood had the good fortune to work for UPI, whose top editors Roger Tatarian and H. L. Stevenson believed in the ability of women to report just as well as men, and dispatched several high-visibility female correspondents to the war zone. So it was soon Wood's turn.

One of the best-known correspondents of that war, male or female, was Kate Webb, a New Zealand-born Australian who began as a freelancer in Vietnam at 24 and so, as Wood explained to me of Webb, “her credentials were so strong UPI couldn't fail to hire her."
 
Kate WebbKate WebbThat was in 1967 when she was 25. Webb quickly proved her mettle, becoming the first wire service reporter at the U.S. Embassy on the morning the Tet offensive was launched in January 1968.

That spring she survived an American rocket attack on a Saigon military building that killed everyone around her, including the South Vietnamese police chief. She brushed herself off, ran back into the rubble to aid the wounded, then wrote a stirring account of the incident.

And Kate made news herself when in 1971 she was captured by North Vietnamese troops operating in Cambodia. Premature official reports that a body discovered was Webb's prompted a New York Times obituary, but she emerged from captivity 23 days after she was captured, having endured forced marches, interrogations, and malaria.  Of Wood’s getting to Vietnam, she explained to me: "I had to go over my boss' head to get sent to Vietnam and, once there, covered combat only after colleagues quietly showed me what I needed to do.”
 
Wood played a significant role involving coverage of the first public release of prisoners of war.  "I was able to cover the end of combat and was the only U.S. reporter to cover the first public release of the POWs from Hanoi," Wood recalled for me for one of my columns on her.

Perhaps it took a woman to figure out the quickest way to get approval to go to Hanoi at a time when every news agency and reporter was trying to figure out a way to get there. She merely sent a request to the North Vietnam government asking permission.
 
"Later, I was able to negotiate with the North Vietnamese for UPI to lease a plane and bring in about 30 reporters, photographers, and TV crews to cover the final POW release." Those POWs included John McCain.
 
Both Webb, who died of cancer in 2007, and Wood have chapters in "War Torn, Stories of War From the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam." It's a book whose contents are touted as "nine women who made journalism history talk candidly about their profession in deeply personal experiences as young reporters who lived, worked and loved surrounded by war."

A year after her death, Australia issued a postage stamp to commemorate Webb.  In reflecting on the conversations with Wood, and recalling the book in which both she and Webb had chapters of their recollections, it occurred to me they would have provided an interesting segment of Ken Burns’ Viet Nam documentary. Too bad.

When I asked my friend and one-time UPI colleague, Joe Galloway, one of the most respected Vietnam correspondents over his several tours there for UPI, about the women reporters, he summed it up thusly:

“Met and worked with Tracy Wood on my subsequent tours in Vietnam. Worked closely with Kate Webb and Betsy Halstead. Also knew Francis FitzGerald and Cathy Leroy,” Joe said.

“I had the greatest respect for the women who came to cover the war. They had different eyes and covered different stories...and that broadened everyone’s coverage of the war,” Galloway added.

“The ones I knew were fearless in combat and determined to get the story. I raise my Stetson in salute "
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Remembering Vietnam's 'defining battle' 50 years ago part of this Veterans Day

As Americans mark the day that honors veterans, those who fought in what history suggests was the defining battle of the Vietnam War are preparing to share memories of that Ia Drang Valley battle where U.S. forces and North Vietnamese regulars clashed for the first time 50 years ago Saturday.
It was the service and sacrifice of those who fought in this generation's wars in the Middle East that were mostly on the minds of those using this as a day to remember. Afterall, the Vietnam War had been over for almost a decade before the oldest millennials were even born. So for most, it's the stuff of history books.
 
 
But Ia Drang is the focus of this column, in part because my friend Joe Galloway has been, for the past nearly two years, a key player in the effort to say thank you, 40 years on, to the Vietnam veterans who got only disdain when they first returned home. And because of his visit to Seattle earlier this year as part of his role of interviewing Vietnam veterans, this area was a key participant in the national, Congressionally mandated, focus on Vietnam.
 
 
An additional and important Seattle-area tie to Ia Drang is that Bruce Crandall, a Kitsap County resident, was a hero of the battle as one of two helicopter pilots who flew nearly two dozen times into the heat of the battle to ferry in supplies and take out the wounded. Both Crandall and his now-deceased fellow copter pilot Ed "Too Tall" Freeman were awarded the Medal of Honor for their heroism and were heroes of both Galloway's book and the movie made from it.
I've written previously about Galloway, a one-time colleague at United Press International, and his war correspondent role for UPI that led to his book, We Were Soldiers Once...and Young, and the movie made from it, We Were Soldiers, that brought the Battle of Ia Drang to an historical high point. And having turned in his camera for a weapon as the battle swirled around him, he was awarded the Silver Star for his battlefield rescue under fire of a wounded soldier.
Both Galloway and I have special memories of UPI, the uniquely beloved wire service where most of us would have worked for free (and during union contract negotiations, it was frequently suggested to the company that we almost did). Add to that the mutual friends who shared those memories, including Tracy Wood now a writer in Orange County, one of a cadre of talented female correspondents UPI was forward thinking enough to send to the Vietnam war zone, and Bob Page, the boss of all of us as UPI's second in command, who now owns publications in San Diego.
With the help of Q13 Fox television and its general manager, Pam Pearson, Galloway was able to conduct more than a dozen interviews with Vietnam Veterans, including Crandall, during his week here. And I got to interview him twice, at Seattle Rotary and the Columbia Tower Club, during that week and this column is an occasion for an exclamation mark on Galloway's role here with the Pentagon's effort to preserve the recollections of those Vietnam Veterans.

As Galloway has written: "What happened there, in the Ia Drang Valley, 17 miles from the nearest red-dirt road at Plei Me and 37 miles from the provincial capital of Pleiku, sounded alarm bells in the Johnson White House and the Pentagon as they tallied the American losses. It was a stunning butcher's bill of 234 men killed and more than 250 wounded in just four days and nights, November 14-17, in two adjacent clearings dubbed Landing Zones X-ray and Albany. Another 71 Americans had been killed in earlier, smaller skirmishes that led up to the Ia Drang battles."

"The North Vietnamese regulars, young men who had been drafted into the military much as the young American men had been, had paid a much higher price to test the newcomers to an old fight: an estimated 3,561 of them had been killed, and thousands more wounded, in the Ia Drang campaign," Galloway recalled.

Galloway, and historians after him, described the battle of the Ia Drang Valley as defining, even though the war dragged on for another eight years before the end of U.S. involvement, and 10 years until the actual fall of Saigon.

It was defining, Galloway wrote, because it "convinced Ho(Chi Minh), (General) Giap and (Defense Secretary Robert S.) McNamara the U.S. could never win." The realization of both sides was that the American citizenry would not accept for a long period the pace of casualties that the companion battles in the Ia Drang Valley produced.

Although President Johnson, having listened to McNamara's sense that we couldn't win in Viet Nam, no matter how many men we sent there, huddled with his key Advisors and they determined: "send the soldiers anyway."

In fact the current issue of Stars and Stripes devotes a special section dedicated to "Vietnam at 50," and headlined "Ia Drang Valley: Where the U.S. truly went to war."

So I exchanged Veterans Day emails with Galloway on the forthcoming 50th gathering.
"On Friday I mark my 74th birthday; at the time back then I never figured I would live to see my 25th birthday," he said. "On Saturday I gather with my Ia Drang brothers at an anniversary dinner hosted by the 1st Cavalry Division Association."
"The memories always begin flooding in around early November each year, but this year, the 50th anniversary of the battles is even more intense," he wrote.
"I have received stories and emails sent to me by Trudie Olson, widow of PFC Jimmy Nakayama, whom I carried out of the napalm fire at Landing Zone X-Ray, and from Camille Geoghegan Olson, daughter of Lt. Jack Geoghegan who was killed in action when he got out of his foxhole and ran to rescue one of his troopers, PFC Willie Godbolt. Geoghegan and Godbolt's names are side by side on Panel 3-East at the VN Veterans Memorial in DC. Together in death as they were in life."
"So many memories from a long-ago war," Galloway mused. A phrase likely echoed in some way by veterans of all the wars on this day to honor their contributions.
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Joe Galloway interviews in Seattle with Vietnam Veterans will help focus on Commemoration

Programs of support for veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq are conscience-manifestations of thanks from a nation. Now there's a growing movement to touch that same national conscience 50 years late to extend a thank you to veterans of the Vietnam War who received a markedly different reception when they returned home. 

The Vietnam War Commemoration, aimed at spurring events and activities in states, cities and towns around the country to recognize Vietnam Veterans and their families for service and sacrifice, has already had one high-visibility event in this state.  

old galloway
Joe Galloway 

But additional local visibility will likely lie ahead as a week-long series of interviews with veterans of the Vietnam War, conducted by Joe Galloway, the Vietnam correspondent whose book and the movie it spawned made him likely the best-known war correspondent of recent times, will take place in April in Seattle. Ideally, other Vietnam Veterans events will emerge to attract additional focus to Galloway's visit and the 50thCommemoration.

The high-visibility event already held was a Commemoration tribute on October 9 that attracted more than 2,500 Vietnam veterans from around the Northwest onto the parade field at JBLM for a salute ceremony, massing of the colors and Keynote speech by retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey.The event, conceived by Lt. Gen. Stephen R. Lanza, I-Corps commanding general, was only the second Vietnam War Commemoration event at one of the nation's military bases.

Lanza, saying that as he noticed that Vietnam Era veterans were among those enthusiastically welcoming soldiers home from deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan, said he realized of the Vietnam veterans: "they had never had that" welcome-home reception so he helped create a thank you opportunity.

I'm sure I wasn't alone in having no knowledge of this Vietnam War Commemoration, mandated by Congress in 2008 and launched by presidential order in 2012, until the JBLM event, and even then only as curiosity as I went to the Internet to try to find when the 50th anniversary of Vietnam would be.

Then came an email exchange in November with Galloway, a one-time colleague at United Press International, the wire service for which he covered the Vietnam War. I've written a couple of Flynn's Harp columns on him and he's now among those who receive this column and we exchange emails occasionally.

 

Galloway Advised me that he has a role in the Vietnam War 50thAnniversary Commemorative project, serving as a special consultant to the project run out of the office of the Secretary of Defense, doing oral-history interviews with Vietnam veterans.

In connection with the 50th Anniversary Commemorative, Galloway has been doing three-a-day, two-hour interviews with Vietnam veterans from across the services spectrum, noting he has "65 two-hour interviews in the can now, beginning with Colin Powell and working outward."

"So you should come to Seattle and do interviews," I told Galloway, a Texas boy who as a correspondent was decorated for heroism on the battlefield and praised by the late Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf as "the soldiers' reporter" because of his caring and regard for those whose battles he covered.  

So I wrote two columns in November, the first related to the interviews he's doing around the country and the second about the Battle of Ia Drang, made famous by his book "We Were Soldiers Once...and Young," and the movie produced from it, "We Were Soldiers."  

I got the word a week or so ago that Galloway will be here for a week of interviews April 12-18 and he may have with him retired Army Lt. Gen. Claude M. "Mick" Kicklighter, who is charged with overseeing all aspects of the Vietnam War 50th Anniversary Commemoration, and sometimes travels to a location with Galloway.

While Galloway covered both Iraq and Afghanistan, it was his coverage of Vietnam which draws his continued and weighs most heavily on his shoulders and in his thoughts.

Galloway's interviews in Seattle may include Bruce Crandall, the helicopter pilot whose heroism in repeated flights into the death zone of the Ia Drang battlefield to bring supplies and evacuate the wounded that brought him the Medal of Honor, as well as prominent visibility in the movie made from Galloway's book. Crandall has retired to Kitsap County.

"We don't have a big budget and so we'd need a university or something like that to provide space and assistance to do the interviews," Galloway told me.

I quickly touched base with Pam Pearson, the vice president and general manager of KCPQ-13 for help and she readily agreed to provide whatever studio space and technical assistance he needed through the week.

"First time we've ever had a television station as our facility," Galloway enthused.  

In addition, Gloria Fletcher, president of Sound Publishing, which owns and publishes daily and weekly newspapers across the state - many in areas of heavy military concentration - has agreed to help promote Galloway's visit as well as events that may be related to it, and thus provide visibility for companies that may wish to participate in some manner.

This coming Memorial Day is the opener of what Kicklighter has described as the "most active phase" of the 50th Commemoration, which will run to Veterans Day 2017. and finally conclude on Veterans Day 2025.

The goal now, and one that may be contributed to with the Seattle visit, is development of Commemorative Partners, a program designed for federal, state and local communities, veterans' organizations and other nongovernmental organizations to assist in thanking and honoring Vietnam Veterans and their families.  

Commemorative Partners are encouraged to participate in the Commemoration of the Vietnam War by planning and conducting at least two events or activities during that will recognize the Vietnam Veterans and their families' service, valor, and sacrifice.  

Commemorative Partners must commit to conduct at least two events each year during the commemorative period of 2015 - 2017 that will recognize, thank and honor our Vietnam Veterans and their families.

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