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On the Military and the Media

'THINGS are so much better now,'' were the words one kept hearing at the Naval War College the other day. The occasion was the college's annual conference on the media and national security issues March 9.

The Naval War College in Newport, R. I., is a midcareer graduate school for future flag officers -- the admirals and the generals of the United States armed services. The college has been holding these conferences since the end of the US involvement in Vietnam, when tensions between the military and the press were at their peak. The press distrusted the military, and the military often blamed the press for defeat in Vietnam.

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This year things really were better. But to acknowledge that a country's news organizations and its military are, broadly speaking, on the same side, under the same flag, does not negate the fact that each performs best in a natural adversarial role to the other.

And these natural tensions between the press and the military are not unlike those between the press and other sectors of society. The press, full of committed skeptics, has to question the messages being put out for public consumption, whether from a Pentagon spokesman about the success of a military operation or from a computer company about a new product or from a president about a new policy initiative. The press has to be negative, in the sense that a negative debater is ''negative'' -- or in the sense that a defense attorney in a courtroom is negative, striving to punch holes in the prosecution's case.

And just as the debaters and the lawyers seek the truth in their respective spheres without necessarily being personal enemies, so do the press and its various interlocutors. In fact, despite all the public complaint about ''negativity'' in the media -- complaint often fully justified -- many in the press are probably better friends with newsmakers and other sources than they ought to be. The enticements of continued ''access'' can be a powerful disincentive to keep reporters from being as impersonally aggressive in their coverage as they should be.

Jim Warren of the Chicago Tribune drew appreciative laughter as he speculated aloud on a conference panel what it would be like if the American Civil War were happening today, with anchors doing ''standups'' from the battlefield in their L. L. Bean-issue gear, or with Barbara Walters probing the defeated General Lee after Appomattox to find out ''how it really feels.''

But there's a serious point here. How does the United States, or any other great power, formulate policy on use of force at a time when any military action has to pass the test of public reaction to extensive coverage of individual casualties?

Of course, an informed public -- and that means informed through the news media -- is an important tool of policymakers, as a number of speakers at the college acknowledged.

But if the Civil War had come into American living rooms every night, would the people have put up with the prolonged fighting and hideous casualties? Or would a sundering of the Union, as if in a no-fault divorce, have begun to make sense? What about the endless trench warfare of World War I?

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It's not simply a question of whether the people will support a just, or at least justifiable, national war effort if they know how truly horrible war is. It is also whether the people will demand military intervention -- preferably devastating to the enemy but painless to their own forces, of course -- in response to horrible situations they have seen on television: ''the CNN effect,'' it's called, whereby news pictures (and it generally is pictures, not words) are seen to drive, or at least affect, policy.

In short, it's not just information control, it's information overload. The ''fog of war'' merges with the larger fogs of ''coverage.'' Paths must be found through both.

*Ruth Walker is associate editor of the Monitor.

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