Along with their medals, some honored military veterans moonlighting as television war analysts last week seemed to be wearing a target on their chests as big as an old test pattern.
Wearing the biggest target was Gen. Barry McCaffrey, a retired military expert who appears on MSNBC and NBC and has written on the Iraq war for The Wall Street Journal. He argued last week that what he considers inadequate ground forces have put the early arrivals at risk. Others analysts, including active—but typically unnamed military figures—have joined the criticism.
And that rankles the White House and Pentagon, which had heretofore been enjoying what amounted to a media love-in. Particularly on all-news networks, anchors and embedded reporters have seemed extremely careful about criticizing war strategy as it unfolded.
But, as sniping has emerged, Bush administration officials both backed their current plan and suggested that some old soldiers should just fade away.
"It is not helpful to have those kinds of comments come out when we've got troops in combat," said Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff. "First of all, they're false, they're absolutely wrong. They bear no resemblance to the truth, and it's just, it's just harmful to our troops that are out there fighting very bravely, very courageously."
Not to "stifle freedom of speech," said Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, "but I think they should follow the tradition of the presidents, the commanders-in-chief. You do not see former presidents criticizing a sitting president during a war."
Gen. Joseph Ralston, recently retired Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, now working for CBS, said that, "in no way, do I infer that Gen. McCaffrey should not be able to do whatever he wants to. We're all Americans, and we all have a right to our opinions. But Gen. Myers said that it's not helpful, and I agree. Sen. Warner took the position that we ought to be like retired presidents. There's some validity to that.
"If you disagree strongly," he continued, "there are non-public avenues of expression. I would not take an opposing opinion public during a time of war."
The job, he said, "is to explain a complex military situation to the American public. There is some clarity we can bring."
CBS News Vice President Marcy McGinnis, who has been supervising war coverage, said, "The soldiers in the field will not have lower morale because General McCaffrey says we need more troops in the field.
"This doesn't mean," she added, "that [McCaffrey and those who agree with him] don't want America to win this war or are anti-American. Everybody should calm down. I can't imagine that, when they were getting the war plan together, there weren't people arguing. When we were putting people together to plan our coverage, we had arguments. It would be a pretty boring country without that. Isn't that what Iraq is like?"
Veteran producer Marty Ryan, who has been running much of Fox News' war coverage, said, "Our experts help us to make sense of it all. We hold a conference call every day with our Pentagon reporters, our executive producers, our newsgatherers and our experts. The experts help us behind the scenes to figure out where the coverage is going to go. But we're all mindful to make sure we don't say anything that could put anybody in danger."
Fox News' experts have been supportive of the military campaign so far, Ryan noted, adding, "but we wouldn't hesitate to put a critical opinion on the air. We're not worried about our audience being offended. They expect us to be fair and balanced."
Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney, retired since 1994 and now providing analysis for Fox News, doesn't object to retired military people voicing opinions on the air, even opinions contrary to current policy.
However, he adds, "you've got to be careful. I was critical myself of the Clinton administration not using enough air power during [the conflict in] Kosovo. But I was a strong supporter of what they were doing."
He believes that McCaffrey, for whom "I've got a great deal of respect," isn't sufficiently informed about the power behind the military's joint forces today and comes from an Army-centric point of view. McCaffrey couldn't be reached for comment.
Ralston recalled one conversation with an anchor who asked him what he would do if he were Saddam Hussein. "I said it was impossible to answer that. But I'm not going to give Saddam Hussein any good ideas, just in case he hasn't thought of them."
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