The Atlantic

The Press at War, From Vietnam to Iraq

The conflicts change, but the factors influencing the quality of the coverage—including ignorance, confusion, and competition—stay consistent.
Source: Murphy / Marko Drobnjakovic / AP / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

The Iraq War, launched 15 years ago today, always brings another war immediately to mind for me, and did so even when it first began. It’s not that Iraq itself did not loom large. I was an editor at The Atlantic when the war started, and the magazine’s coverage of issues relating to it was intensive and prolonged. Michael Kelly, who for four years was The Atlantic’s editor in chief, had covered the previous war against Iraq, in 1991, with courage and distinction. He had witnessed the horrors perpetrated in Kuwait during the Iraqi occupation, and was a strong proponent of military action against Saddam Hussein. Mike embedded with the Third Infantry Division, and was killed during the first weeks of the fighting.

The war that Iraq brought to mind was Vietnam—not because the two wars were intrinsically similar (they were very different) but because questions about the role of the press, and the responsibilities of the press, arose ferociously from both conflicts. As a young editor in one of my first jobs—at a journal called , lodged in the red-sandstone Smithsonian Castle on the Mall, in Washington—I worked for a Marine and former and reporter named Peter Braestrup. He knew a lot about Vietnam firsthand, and he had drawn clear journalistic lessons from his experience. While fussing with his pipe or tapping it for emphasis, he was not shy about sharing them. might be a better word.

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