More than a few commentators have called the exit from Afghanistan a story we’ve seen before. Depending upon the source, the references have included both Vietnam and Iraq and many have used side by side images of helicopters lifting off of rooftops in Saigon and Kabul to make their point. It is a story in flux based on the changing events on the ground and growing recognition that leaving Kabul was never going to be easy.
What strikes me about these wars is not what they share in common but what has changed from the perspective of how the media has covered them. Depending upon the era the press has been hailed as both villain and hero.
Vietnam was the first war to play out on network television. With only three networks, local newspapers drawing their news primarily from syndicates and wireservices, and no social media, the media perspective was more homogenous than today. Much of it reflected the briefings in Saigon but there was also considerable independent reporting thanks to unrestricted access in the field. The government disputed the coverage and local editorial boards weighed in based on their politics; however, the national news was pretty consistent. In addition, because of the draft, almost everyone knew someone who served so were receiving first hand information about their experience. Vietnam was probably also the first time that many lost trust in what those in authority were telling them, especially after the release of the Pentagon Papers. While celebrated in some quarters, the media was blamed by others for turning the nation against the war.
Films about Vietnam went from unquestioningly patriotic in the early years to the Academy Award winning films The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now and Platoon towards the end. For the generations that followed it was the later films that made the strongest impression.
Although Vietnam was the first televised war, it was not live. That came 15 years later with Operation Desert Storm, and its memorable live images of the bombing in Baghdad by CNN. The military had also become PR savvy, creating opportunities for press to embed with troops in tightly controlled pods overseen by public affairs officers. A short war with limited objectives, it was declared a success.
Unlike Vietnam, a very unpopular war, there was tremendous support for the initial invasion of Afghanistan. The country was reeling from 9/11 and with one exception, Congress was unified in its support for voting for the authorization. The expectation was that it would be another short war and not long after, President Bush declared “mission accomplished” at a made for media aircraft carrier event. Then there was the second invasion of Iraq triggered in response to intelligence regarding non-existent weapons of mass destruction followed by a new “surge” in Afghanistan to address the return of the Taliban. Coverage could be instantaneous thanks to 24/7 cable news and online news outlets. The advent of digital photography and social media meant a greater sharing of information and images by troops and local citizenry.
Afghanistan was always in the shadow of Iraq. Once the troop levels were reduced, and fatalities along with them, the level of coverage fell even more. However, there have been a number of excellent documentaries. Variety’s list of essential documentaries about Afghanistan, which includes Michael Moore’s Cannes Palme D’Or winning Fahrenheit 9/11 and Alex Gibney’s Academy Award-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, as well as Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington’s Restrepo among others are great examples.
Because of the chaos surrounding the exit, Afghanistan is once again leading the news. Ironically, it’s happening as major news organizations are having to pull out to ensure the safety of their staff reporters and news crews yet can’t ensure the safety of those who made their news gathering possible. Scenes on the ground counter some of what the President and his national security team are telling us, once again creating credibility issues for the administration and the military. In an era of “fake news,” there are also those who don’t believe what they see with their own eyes. Not terribly surprising, there is a lot of finger pointing and revisionist history. As with Vietnam, it will probably take years to put it all into perspective.