BOOK REVIEW / Excommunicated surfers on the pony express: 'Hotel Warriors' - John J Fialka: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 7 pounds

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The Independent Online
AMERICAN journalists covering the Gulf war faced two enemies: not only Iraq, but also the US Army. This book describes the press's crushing defeat at the hands of the US forces.

While Washington was desperate to lay to rest the ghost of Vietnam, the army remained haunted by it. Senior officers blamed the press for turning the US public against the Vietnam War, and were determined this would not happen again. The result was a form of indirect censorship - half conspiracy, half cock-up - which stopped many stories ever reaching the public.

General Norman Schwarzkopf, who insisted on controlling media coverage himself, spoke to reporters whose stories he liked, and avoided others. Some officers censored reporters' copy, and the army refused to release a video of Iraqi soldiers being mown down by an Apache helicopter. When a Scud missile fell on a barracks in Dhahran, killing 27 GIs, the first photographer on the scene was beaten up by the military police. But most news simply fell victim to poor communications - contrived or otherwise - which prevented it getting out at all.

John Fialka, who reported the US Army's taking of Kuwait for the Wall Street Journal, has produced a jumbled and repetitive account that will interest mainly other journalists and those involved in media studies. But there is enough farce, official incompetence and sheer bloody-mindedness here to interest anyone who saw the sanitised television images, Pentagon videos of 'smart' bombs hitting targets and the endless dispatches from reporters confined to hotels by the US Army's restrictions.

It is hard, for example, to take seriously the idea of a hi-tech war after reading how the army gave the CBS correspondent Martha Teichner a driver who could not read maps. After repeatedly getting lost in the desert, Ms Teichner gave up trying to report the war first hand, and returned to Scud-watching in Dhahran. 'There was every incentive in this war to be a hotel warrior,' she said.

The minority of journalists allowed out in 'pools' into the battlefield could only get copy, pictures or videotape back by the infamous 'pony express' military couriers. News could take three or four days to reach New York, by which time it was useless. According to Fialka, large battles went almost unrecorded for this reason.

The images that did get out were often misleadingly incomplete. One news agency picture editor complained that there were no pictures of dead Iraqi soldiers, nor even of US tanks firing their guns, despite huge tank battles.

These may be dangerous precedents. Given the mutual suspicion between the army and the press, Fialka wonders what will happen next time, and dreads the 'dark day' when an elite military force might have total control over information - as it had in the Grenada invasion of 1983, where the press was excluded.

And yet, despite the frustration and the months spent waiting in hotels, there were times when 'censorship by lack of access' could be defeated. In the brief 100 hours of the ground war, culminating in the taking of Kuwait City, individual acts of bravery - by soldiers as well as journalists - shone through and made history.

Memorably, Fialka describes the CBS television reporter David Green and his crew, 'balanced on the very front edge of combat like a surfer balancing on the tip of an enormously powerful wave', who arrived in Kuwait City long before the Allies. Other 'unilaterals' - journalists who defied pool regulations - brought off similar coups, often in the heat of battle. He remembers, too, the Marine corporal who, after his colleagues had stormed into Kuwait, walked back 15 miles across the desert without food or water to deliver a television crew's videotape for transmission.

Sadly, such nuggets are buried among pages of tedious operational detail - which officer was in charge of what; who said what to which journalist - which must have been vital at the time but now seems petty and insignificant.

It is almost as if, by choking the flow of his narrative, the US Army got Fialka, too, in the end.